Spoek’s incredible journey

2014-02-03 08:00

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Musician explores and pays tribute to the Khoisan of the Northern Cape and the experimental maskandi artists of KwaZulu-Natal. In between, he helped actor Idris Elba make an album. Charl Blignaut reports

There are the gentle strains of maskandi guitars and then a shrill whistle.

A dance beat crashes in, followed by a tribal chorus of kids’ voices, the muttery chants of Zulu men and the plaintive singing of a Khoisan woman.

Only then does Spoek (the artist formerly known as Spoek Mathambo) start to rap in his laid-back post-kwaito style.

“And the rain fell down and washed me head to toe,” he chants.

With lyrics in English, isiZulu, Sesotho, !Xun and Khwe, Pula (Rain) is a ground-breaking new song that fuses ancient and contemporary South African sounds.

It’s the product of Spoek’s lifelong fascination with South Africa’s traditional artists and a Vodafone initiative called Firsts.

Firsts challenges emerging young global stars to try something pioneering in their fields by incorporating mobile technology – be they artists making the world’s first multisensory fireworks display, a female boxer’s anti-women abuse campaign in rural Asia – or a musician recording the sounds of isolated cultures.

“As an urban musician, it’s been a longtime dream for me to go around the country recording different kinds of music,” said Spoek this week as the second of four webisodes on the making of Pula was released online.

“The plan was to make one song through recording a bunch of different people throughout South Africa,” says Spoek in the first webisode.

“I worked with brilliant young producers, Mash.O from Thembisa and DJ Spoko from Atteridgeville.”


Spoek’s road trip began in the Northern Cape with a visit to the Khoisan of Platfontein outside Bloemfontein.

“Their voice is ignored, repressed, it’s not heard enough. That was one of the main reasons to document their culture. Also, I wanted to learn,” Spoek told City Press.

He related the stories of recording a cultural ceremony where rituals were performed and songs sung.

The children’s voices on Pula were those of a group of young girls who sang for Spoek’s mobile recording devices while clapping and dancing in their buckskin skirts with bright beading at the village’s annual cultural day.

The plaintive voice belongs to a woman in her 60s.

Spoek recorded her in her home, where she greeted him wearing a purple wig and red dress with beaded jewellery, a black lacy top and a pink tiara.

“She was one of the members of the community who knows the old songs,” says Spoek.

“She cries when she sings because she is thinking about her people who passed away,” says an interpreter in the video.

“From there we went off to KwaZulu-Natal, where I met up with Phuzekhemisi’s son Thulasizwe Mnyandu Lindokuhle ... I had worked with his dad and seen him play. He’s the next wave of Zulu maskandi guitar. He mixes up so many influences, updates traditional sounds.”

Spoek and his crew “uploaded the recordings on the road onto a cloud. So Mosh.O and Spoko picked it up in Joburg and started producing tracks.”

Spoek would send notes and the producers would record the next layer of Pula.

After a stop to listen to stories from Zulu guitar legend Madala Kunene, Spoek then recorded Bhekisenzo Joseph Cele, “who plays accordion, bass, guitar, violin and sings. I heard about him through a lecturer at UKZN. He layers his stuff intricately. He’s a musical genius. I started working with him and now we’re a band.”

The Pula trip was similar to a journey Spoek undertook in 2012, where he introduced himself to the country’s different music scenes, from provincial kwaito dialects to updated Shangaan electro.

That trip is now being turned into a feature film called The Future Sounds of Mzansi.

“We’re finishing the edit now,” said Spoek from Cape Town. “It’ll premiere in March in Joburg and then we’ll tour with the artists in it.”

Raps Spoek towards the end of Pula: “Jozi lights got us blinded.”

He recommends getting out there and visiting the Kalahari and rather counting the stars.

Idris Elba's Mandela album

Heart-throb Idris Elba isn’t just a deejay in his spare time; he’s also a budding singer.

When he was in South Africa to film Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom, Elba wasn’t sitting idle on his off days.

“He has created an alternative Mandela soundtrack,” says Spoek Mathambo. “I worked A&R [artist and repertoire] on it. I helped him get the talent together.”

The talent in question includes some of South Africa’s finest musicians – Mahlathini and the Mahotella Queens, Thandiswa Mazwai, Phuzekhemisi and Nothembi Mkhwebane.

The young producers on the album include DJ Spoko, Mash.O and Aero Manyelo.

The big news, though, is that Elba himself sings on several of the tracks.

Asked if he has a decent voice, Spoek replied: “Sure. He goes for it. He really goes in.”

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