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V/A - Shangaan Electro: New Wave Dance Music From South Africa

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Artist: V/A

Album: Shangaan Electro: New Wave Dance Music From South Africa

Label: Honest Jon's

Review date: Aug. 30, 2010

Another day, another comp. This time out it’s from the good people at Honest Jon’s, and it’s a collection of South African electro — Shangaan, to be precise — from 2006-2009, showcasing artists working and recording at the Nozinja studio. Have any idea what that means? Me neither, really, but that’s the way they run things at HJ’s. In between bankrolling some of the more exciting techno (that term used loosely here) artists of our time, they’ve also made a name for themselves issuing a whole rack of collections you didn’t know you needed. If you’re the type who, holding $25 in your hand, deliberates anxiously over whether to buy groceries or that latest boutique double LP of lost, found or obscure sounds, I regretfully inform you that you’ll be going hungry again tonight.

"The traditional Shangaan music is fast. You play it slow, they won’t dance." says studio head Richard (no last name given). I’ll say. There are 12 cuts on Shangaan Electro and all bear some resemblance to a Hi-NRG 33 played at 45. It’s a sound that takes some getting used to, especially considering the timbral quality of the music. While the recording is decidedly hi-fi, the sounds employed throughout the record lean towards the bootleg, perhaps all Casios and grey market knockoffs. Either that, or Richard and Co. are just deep into bright, plastic tones.

At first, it can make for a jarring listen, as if one stripped Zomby of his artful distortion and doubled the speed of his most video game-referencing tracks. Fortunately, Shangaan Electro traffics not only in weird textures, but also in the universal equalizer known as repetition. What at first sounds cheap and flimsy quickly opens up into a surprisingly rich soundworld, and what initially feels rushed reveals layers of rhythmic interplay.

So, once acclimated, listeners are privy to a striking range of sounds and emotions, from the goofy vocalizations of the Tshetsha Boys to Mancingelani’s poppy effervescence to Zinja Hlungwani’s mournful lilt. It’s that last one that especially caught my ear, as Hlungwani has a knack for digging out extra space in the beat without losing any drive, and for deploying simple melodic accents to powerfully emotional ends. Everybody on Shangaan uses pretty much the same sounds — synthetic marimbas, tuned toms and the like — but only on his tracks did I catch synths that sounded floaty or spacious, slowing time without affecting the tempo.

Still, the whole thing is to be recommended. Just as outstanding is the reggaeton-esque "Na Xaniseka" by Tiyiselani Vomaseve, with its slightly rougher vocal recording and beautiful harmonies. Nkata Mawewe’s "Khulumani" jams as well, with some pitched and clipped samples that remind me of Kanye’s breakthrough singles from the early aughts. What doesn’t really remind me of reggaeton, Zomby, Kanye or anything else from across the sea are the melodies. Simply put, and I know this might seem kinda sketchy, they all sound very African. Each track on Shangaan has a certain ephemeral quality that I can’t pin down that I hear often in African music — an aqueous, flowing, cyclical approach to melody, a hypnotic modal structure that drones and percolates at the same time.

The BPM is exciting, although I imagine that a screwed mix would sound pretty awesome, too. The electronic aspect certainly holds appeal for dance music lovers, but I don’t doubt the songs would stand up on acoustic instruments. Fundamentally, it’s the melodies and the songwriting, simple and yet inescapably complex, driving and also lulling, hyped up and cool all at once. Many people will likely hear this as some craaaazy African techno or perhaps reductively enjoy it for its “primitive” lack of sophistication or some such bullshit. Open your ears a little wider, though, and find deeper depths to explore than the surface would have ever suggested. That’s why labels like Honest Jon’s exist, and why you’re skipping out on a meal to hear some record. It’s worth it.

By Daniel Martin-McCormick

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