Farther, Creepier: Spoek Mathambo and South African House

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South African musician Spoek Mathambo’s sophomore album comes out March 13 on Sub Pop Records.

Before the idea of moving to Africa was even a thing, my love affair with Johannesburg musician/rapper Spoek Mathambo was moving beyond crush-level. There was something about Spoek’s 2010 debut, Mshini Wam, that seethed with an unplaceable “Otherness” that we Westerners can only associate with Africa. Mshini Wam appropriated elements of music that were beginning to reach mainstream accessibility in America. Mshini Wam took the “womp” of dubstep and the recent resurgence of house and turned them on their ear. Like a funhouse mirror, the distortions of Western musical output came back to us only to highlight our deep-seated insecurities. Suddenly, dubstep could be violently isolating with its machine-gun repetition (from real machine guns on “Mshini Wam pt. 2”) and cochlear-destroying, low-end wobble. House music was ripped away from Ibiza and the stupid grin was smacked off David Guetta’s face. It was stripped to a tribal, paranoid back beat. It is also no surprise that 2010 saw “Witch-House” musicians such as Salem, oOoOO and Modern Witch become some of the most blogged-about upstarts.

When I moved to Africa, Mshini Wam made sense—not in the sense that I could ever wrap my mind around post-apartheid South Africa, nor the deep-rooted racial tensions that exist, but by being surrounded by African music, Spoek’s sound palate and conceit became clearer and less alien.

If you don’t own a car and you want to get anywhere in most African countries, you are at the whim of public transportation. When I say whim, I mean you are at the capricious mercy of privately owned “ikhumbis” that speed up and down tar and dirt roads with a middle finger to any sort of safety precautions such as seatbelts, passing lanes, fully inflated tires or rear suspension. South Africa averages about 14,000 road accident deaths a year.  What these 15-passenger vans (usually overloaded to 18-21) lack in first-world luxuries like door handles, they make up for with boss sound systems. JL Audio speakers are mounted in just about every one and are played at ear-bleeding, downright heroic levels.

Blaring out of these speakers is a case study in globalization. One khumbi may play nothing but (terrible) African gospel music for your entire four-hour trip, while others may play nothing but slow jams, time-slotted liberally for everything from Luther Vandross to Michael Bolton to Bryan Adams. If you are really lucky, however, you can find a khumbi playing top-40 hip hop or South African house music. My introduction to South African house came in one of these khumbis along with the elucidation of Spoek’s raison d’etre.

South African house music is a loose combination of traditional four-on-the-floor house with a molasses-slow BPM mixed with the everything-in-the-blender looseness of Kwaito—a hip hop hybrid formed in South Africa’s townships. The beat is locked in a low-end thud for about seven minutes while the mid-section resembles the wood-block knock of the Xhosa language in which much of it is sung. The vocals are murmured with an air of eye-contact-avoiding detachment, well beneath the beat. Plenty of space is left slack for shout-outs and distinctly African vocal articulations (“hai-bo!” “eish,” sho!”). It is pretty dumb. It is also really awesome.

Mshini Wam was an entirely fresh, weird approach to South African house. Everything from his performance—playing with a live drummer, guitarist and MIDI-controller—to his high-art video for the Joy Division cover “She’s Lost Control,” eschews the Tsotsi imagery of Kwaito or South African house. Removed from the street-level violence of Joberg, Spoek revealed something much more subversive. Mshini Wam was named after the recently-banned ANC protest song about armed resistance and makes reference to the African National Congress, African Union, censorship and Somali pirates.

Mshini Wam is a dark, brooding and deeply polarizing album. It did well in some South African circles and was gobbled up internationally by music journalists like me, who had a little-to-no context of the whos or whats in Spoek’s world.

Father Creeper, Spoek Mathambo’s sophomore album, is coming out on Sub Pop on March 13. While Father Creeper is a lunar step away from the twisted South African house and dubstep on Mshini Wam, his Nombolo One mixtape released earler this year is comprised of 12 covers of formative Kwaito, house, gospel and pop artists from the past four decades, giving a peek into Spoek’s African influences. The addition of Nikolaas Van Reenan as a guitarist is the best thing to happen to Spoek Mathambo. Road-tested on two tours of the states in 2010, Van Reenan’s deft moves between Kenyan Highlife to angular riffage marry Spoek’s soulful crooning with frenetic punk energy—think Donny Hathaway fronting Nation of Ulysses. Father Creeper is like nothing coming out of Africa these days, nor will it be in years to come. Huge, dark, dirty, personal as it is political, Father Creeper is next-level musicianship and an inward turning on post-apartheid angst.

Spoek has always been a contradiction—township-bred with a classic education. Father Creeper is ambitious and diverse, whip-smart and filthy. Since living in Africa, it has started to make sense—this is Africa avant-garde. Spoek is bringing his live band back to the states this year as a showcase artist at SXSW. Prepare for this to be one of the most blogged about shows of the year.

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