Despite embodying the dark, trippy, cutting edge of South Africa's music scene for years, Spoek Mathambo feels a bit out of touch back home.
"I don't spend much time here," says the MC-producer from the Johannesburg studio where he's working on some Fela and Seun Kuti remixes. "I've been touring pretty hard-core for the past four or five years." He also splits his time between Jo'burg and M ä lmo, Sweden, where he lives with his Croatian wife, Ana Rab, who raps buoyantly as Gnucci Banana. "I used to promote parties and go out here a lot," adds Mathambo, who was born Nthato Mokgata in the Soweto district 26 years ago. "But I haven't been out in ages."
That doesn't stop Mathambo from touting local acts like rappers BFG (Big Fukn Gun), electro-rap duo Dirty Paraffin, performance-rockers the Brother Moves On, and electro-pop group the Frown. Not coincidentally, members of all these groups appear on Nombolo One (Number One), the galvanizing "township tech" update of South African hits that Mathambo released in December as a pay-what-thou-wilt download. Mahlathini's township stomp, Brenda Fassie's homegrown pop, and other revamped hits of his parents' youth never sounded so fiercely futuristic.
As far as contemporary pop music goes, it's still mostly kwaito on the South African front, with dance music reigning supreme. As heard on the excellent roundup Ayobaness! The Sound of South African House and Spoek's own H.I.V.I.P. mixtape series, kwaito's thumping house beats come in Zulu, Afrikaan, Xhosa, and other linguistic flavors. The polyglot alternative rock of veteran bohos BLK JKS has inspired other possibilities.
But for younger artists, this is just the beginning. "South Africa has 11 languages and cultures, so you can imagine how much you can soak up," says Okmalumkoolkat (n é Smiso Zwane), who raps alongside DJ SpiZee (n é Zamani Xolo) in Dirty Paraffin, whose Greatest Hits Vol. 1 mixtape resembles a Zulu versionof Das Racist. Like Mathambo, Zwane and Xolo studied graphic design in school. However, says Smiso, "the Jo'burg art scene is pretty small and pretentious, so we look into the street for what's what."
Post-apartheid Johannesburg can be a vibrant and frightening place, and that goes for Mathambo's music as well. Following his brilliantly ominous 2010 debut, Mshini Wam (which translates to Bring Me My Machine Gun), Mathambo's new Father Creeper (which is getting a U.S. release via Sub Pop) adds Nicolaas Van Reenen's Afro-squonk guitar to a grimey group effort with Mathambo functioning more as a bandleader. The results suggest an imaginary internationalist Jo'burg of the soul. "It's a mixture of dreams of the future, dreams of the past, hopes, and nightmares," Mathambo says. "It's less about real spaces than about articulating a feeling through music — although I'm not sure it's everyone's feeling."
Required Listening: Township Tech (and beyond)
Dirty Paraffin, Greatest Hits Vol. 1 Mixtape
Big Fukn Gun, "Wunga"
Spoek Mathambo, feat. Okmalumkoolkat, Bra Solomon & Ayobah, "Weekend Special"
Spoek Mathambo, "Put Some Red on It"
Culoe De Song, feat. Shota, "Yini Ngawe"
Gnucci Banana, "Famalam Jam"