Pirates vs Chiefs

Tsotsi: this is a good film. It also might introduce you to some music you wouldn't have otherwise heard. People (i.e., the world at large) have been getting acquainted with South African music since Graceland, almost exactly twenty years ago. If you were to read the liner notes to that record you'd become familiar with the concept of 'township jive', the street music of the time in Soweto. Soweto's obviously the most famous township you could name, and rightly so, as it's about a million (a very rough estimate) in population and as such constantly shifting. Like any vibrant, culturally-aware city, Soweto's music has developed and today kwaito is the most popular form.

Although I've been familiar with the concept of the music since visiting the country a couple of years ago, it's only since seeing Tsotsi that I've actually heard it. The film features Zola, probably the biggest kwaito artist in South Africa, as Fela, and there's others like Vusi Mahlasela (a little more easygoing), Pitch Black Afro (one of the leading rappers) and Unathi (one of Ghetto Ruff's biggest female acts) on the soundtrack. The sound has a hard-edged hip hop quality - especially Zola's, which sounds like an angry Apache Indian - featuring the occasional traditional instrumentation, and heavy percussive sounds that might be produced on a dustbin lid, for all I know.

It's not usually in English, but that's probably not the biggest reason why it hasn't translated well out of South Africa. It's township music, it's rough, it's lyrically very meaningful. Zola's music provided (as mentioned in the credits) a lot of inspiration for Tsotsi, with it's moral-free crooks and kill or be killed tone. It's not gangster rap by a long straw though: the artists are born out of the townships and aren't glorifying it, just describing it.

The film brought back a lot of memories for me, although the cultural tourism part of my trip there freaked me out to the extent where I never went for a township tour. But seeing the beautiful gated houses with electric gates stood next to a mass of shacks, and kids living in pipes, was one of the things to affect me most about the country. I'm glad that I didn't just stay in the city, because the countryside, while desperately poor, is a completely different thing, but the atmosphere of mistrust and fear affects everyone. The first conversation we had on arrival was directions from Cape Town airport to my brother's friends house, and this involved instructions to wind up your window and lock your door at this particular junction, it's well known for car-jackings.

It was fascinating to listen and watch Tsotsi then: to see that contradiction in lifestyles (there's no middle ground), and to hear the language. The way Johannesburg, and therefore Soweto, has evolved, with migrant workers to mine gold in the Gauteng province, the language is a real melting pot. The predominant influences are Zulu with it's softer edge, and Xhosa with it's click consonants, which make up the two biggest African language groups. But if you've any familiarity with Dutch you can pick out the Afrikaans influence, and of course the English. It's a really expressive and fascinating language.

Zola - Ehlala
Zola - Bhambatha
Buy Zola here

Ishmael feat. Bongz - C.R.A.Z.Y.

Vusi Mahlasela and the A-Team - E Sale Noka

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