The taxi drops me off at the traffic circle in Kliptown, Soweto.
A couple of steps away and I’ll be in the thick of it: the Red Bull Beat Battle, a dance competition held for the fourth year running on Walter Sisulu Square.
I’m already being summoned by the music – four-to-the-floor dance beats force a bounce in my step which threatens to compromise my street cred, beating me into submission by forcing me to walk-dance despite zero moves in my majivane account. As I draw near, the muffled boom unravels into the distinct bang of House music – South Africa’s panache.
Atop a black truck emblazoned with the red and yellow markers of the Red Bull logo, a DJ selects a blend of deep and commercial House staples. “Make the circle beega” trends as those on the periphery of the dance cypher cast an eye on the dancers. Naturally, the pantsula cypher is the biggest.
A cypher, in today’s terms, is a circle where people take turns performing.
Abo-majivane display enchanting tricks to entice the audience. Each one is judged by how hard the onlookers clap and how high-pitched their whistles are.
I spot a pair of pantsula dancers readying to go next. They’re dressed in matching checkered shirts in multiple earthy colours and Dickies pants. Clearly, the two-piece and takkies combo is still alive.
Teboho cuts a wiry frame
Three weeks earlier, I had been in Protea Glen talking everything pantsula with street dance troupe Perfect Storm, one of the eight crews competing tonight. Teboho Chauke, a founding member, walked me through his story – an All-Star and Dickies variety which can be heard, in different versions, throughout every hood, and whose aesthetic appeal has grown and shrunk – just like the dance cypher – throughout the ages. We talk the mid-90s; the pantsula revival via kwaito videos; and Trompies, Alaska and TKZee. We speak of how the modern-day pantsula is learning to coexist with isbujwa, hip-hop and B-boying (dance styles and their associated cultures).
Teboho cuts a wiry frame, sports a bucket hat, maintains a firm grip on his slang, and can recall days when mapantsula were more reviled than revered. He is, in many ways, the archetypal pantsula cat.
But his demeanour – calm and collected – and his soft-spoken nature show him to be more a street philosopher well-versed in the ways of the world than just a fast-talking, hard-living tough guy from the hood. It comes with age, and with acknowledging that focus, dedication and discipline should be central to Perfect Storm’s operation if they indeed aim to sustain their living doing what they love.
“I won’t be a dancer forever,” he says.
Other crew members – there are eight in total – walk in and out of the community hall where they hold their daily practise sessions. They sport a two-piece outfit, navy blue with green embroidery on the breast pockets’ flaps and at the cuffs. The buttoned jacket also has a detailed finish – patterns designed by a seamstress in their neighbourhood. The shirt’s tucked into overflowing pants that stop just above the ankle. Crispy-white Chuck Taylor All-Stars complete the look.
Teboho can still recall our first meeting at the foyer of the Alexander Theatre in Braamfontein during the auditions for Red Bull’s Beat Battle last year. I’d called him aside to ask how he thinks they might fare. He was, like every other crew, upbeat and assured of their place in the finals.
They didn’t make the cut. Snubbed by judges since the competition’s inception two years prior, they’d hoped for a different outcome. Alas, for the third time in a row, they didn’t get the nod of approval. So they regrouped and decided to give it another try this year.
Dr Philip Tabane is a pantsula cat
Thousands of miles away in another country and continent altogether, artist and academic Rangoato Hlasane is delivering a lecture to the riffs of House duo Revolution.
He provides an alt-pop breakdown of the kwaito story, tracing the music’s roots to the spirit of Malopo and the music of Dr Philip Tabane, the archangel of Malopo whose malo-pop had people at the Cape Town International Jazz Festival dreading to leave Rosies after his performance.
Indirectly, and this is my assertion, Dr Tabane is a pantsula cat – one of the first staunchly kasi, non-America-leaning amapantsula. His leather jacket and choice of shoes give him away. At any moment, one expects a Stetson hat to emerge out of nowhere and rest at an angle on his head.
Hlasane the lecturer, brazen and forthright in his quest to provide an alternative narrative to the commonplace “kwaito-is-a-slowed-down-version-of-Chicago-House” school of thought, takes it back to the 1950s and 1960s.
Language and fashion are as central to pantsula as the stomp of its dance style. Kwaito, he argues, is evolutionary, not an occurrence that rose in the 1990s. The spirit of kwaito is alive in the South African hip-hop and House, according to him.
Its next door neighbour, pantsula, sips tea with Okmalumkoolkat’s fantastical beats and futuristic lyrics, which use a metamorphosed slang to pay respect to that which came before: the dungarees worn by Alaska; the throwback Kofifi look of Mafikizolo. Hell, Chicco and M’du (as MM Deluxe) were the archetypal mapantsula of the 1980s!
Mystery, myth and kasi bravado
Sophiatown. Fashion. Music. Pantsula dance! The story is one shrouded in mystery, myth, kasi bravado and criminality.
The legendary original pantsula Nongoloza was a migrant worker named Mzuzephi Mathebula who moved up north from KwaZulu-Natal during the late 1800s, presumably to eke out a living.
He managed to do more than just that – he formed a troop of bandits that terrorised the highveld for decades and made grown men tremble at the very mention of his name. In prisons, Nongoloza is immortalised through the symbolism of prison gangs.
Indeed, language is important to pantsula. It’s the third dimension in a trio that includes fashion and criminality. No other place is the interplay of these three elements more obvious in pantsula’s early history than with Nongoloza and his “band of criminals”. From them emerged the Ninevites gang
and their slang, the precursor to Flytaal, which preceded Tsotsitaal – the lingua franca of Kofifi tsotsis and, by association, mapantsula; and, later, kwaito stars.
Nongoloza is important not only to the prison narrative, but in fashioning gangs that would go on
to define the Kofifi look: Stetson hats and zoot suits, relatives of the latter-day Dickies and bucket hat. The gentlemanly gangster image borrowed from Mafia styles was to evolve.
Mapantsula were tougher
Pantsula’s marriage to kwaito is made official in TKZee’s Dlala Mapantsula video. But in Soweto, the love affair can be traced back decades. It exists between eras, joins ideas and draws on references scattered like pebbles during a dance-off on dusty kasi street corners.
It lives on the internet, in academia and during s’camto (conversations) with bafwethu at upmarket chisanyamas where kwaito serves as the soundtrack, and in dingy bars where jukeboxes contain anything from Penny Penny and Chiskop to Brown Dash.
I grew up associating pantsula – the dance aspect – with lo-fi Euro-dance tapes playing out of battered boom boxes in community halls. We referred to the music as “S’taliana” (Italian). A great example would be Whigfield’s Sexy Eyes (Stevie’s Amen UK Edit).
Actual mapantsula on the street were tougher. They wielded knives – Rambo, 3-star, Okapi – and were usually stick-up kids. Anything from bicycles to “Jewish” (clothes) was fair game. Mapantsula were the outcasts and were absolutely fine with it.
The criminal element is no longer central. People adhere more to the aesthetic these days. There are mapantsula who neither drink nor smoke, a rarity at one point.
The future of pantsula is currently at an intersection smack-dab in the middle of inner-city Joburg. It could go anywhere and still be relevant. On the East Rand, it is new-age pantsula kids Fire. They understand the aesthetics of it and the core of the dance: the stomp.
As the last train crossed the tracks in Kliptown and Joburg’s lights glowed in the distance, the Walter Sisulu hall – filled to the brim with dance-hungry mobs – allowed each of the eight crews the opportunity to style and flex their best moves.
Perfect Storm came on and, egged on by a home crowd that featured a section devoted to flying their flag high, gave it their all.
But alas, they lost to Freeze Frame, a hip-hop group based mainly in Kempton Park.
With the night drawing to a close, the only
thing that echoed was a refrain that had soundtracked the night. Freeze Frame. Freeze Frame.
An endless loop. The outfit had dethroned last year’s winners Prophelaz (formerly IDA) to emerge victorious.
In the midst of that confusion, and fighting off the early morning chill, I bumped into Teboho.
We exchanged a few daps as I mumbled something about their performance – how great it was to experience, and how unfortunate it was that they didn’t win.
“Not even, mokgotsi,” he says. “Qualifying alone meant we’d already won,” he adds as he heads in a direction opposite mine, eventually disappearing into the crowd.