Future Sound of Mzansi is a documentary about South Africa's emergent strains of electronic music. The film is directed by Lebogang Rasethaba and Spoek Mathambo—a producer and singer who is also one of South African music's most important advocates.
Over the course of an hour, it introduces many of the key players in the country's many-tentacled musical movement, including house heroes Black Coffee and Culoe de Song, sci-fi obsessed rap weirdo Okmalumkoolkat, melancholic minimalist Felix Laband, and the upbeat electro-pop outfit John Wizards. Shot two decades after the first democratic general elections and the repeal of Apartheid laws, Future Sound shows a country in transition.
Rather than trying to catalogue or historicize South Africa's vast constellation of artists, however, its directors focus on communicating the sense of thrilling momentum that's gripping the country as its distinctly national sounds begin to coalesce.
One of the film's most electrifying characters is DJ Spoko, whose earliest claim to fame was an uncredited hand in DJ Mujava's 2008 viral hit, "Township Funk." That track helped to disseminate the music of South Africa's townships—peripheral settlements where black and brown South Africans were relocated by force during the Apartheid era.
Spoko, whose rowdy, percussive production style came to be known as Bacardi house (named after the white rum with which it pairs so well), has since followed up with the widely acclaimed Ghost Town EP for Matador sub-label True Panther, as well as last year's debut album War God via cult club music label Lit City Trax.
"Since the documentary went out, things have changed," Spoko tells me, looking fresh during a recent trip to Brooklyn in his patterned track jacket, blue Pumas, and a bright red snapback with matching Ray-Bans perched atop the brim. "Many people never knew each other before, and it brought everyone together."
Spoko explains that the documentary helped unify South Africa's scattered music scenes, offering the more disenfranchised township movements a place in the national dialogue. The cosmopolitan cliques in Capetown, Durban, and Johannesburg have since forged new connections with local township crews experimenting with Bacardi house, shangaan electro, and kwaito.
"I've been in the game for a while and those artists never knew me before this, because they never had a chance to see our faces. They heard our music but they didn't know our music videos. They hadn't seen us on TV, because we're from Pretoria," he says, referring to his hometown. "And we just do things in Pretoria."
Future Sound also helped strengthen pre-existing ties, reviving careers that until recently looked like they were on life support. He points to artists like Felix Laband, whose output slowed to a trickle after the critically acclaimed 2005 LP Dark Days Exit. Or DJ Mujava, who recently re-emerged into the public eye after seven years going in and out of a mental institution.
"The documentary awakened people like Felix, who was big back then and later went underground," Spoko says. "When we did Boiler Room together, we were both looking at each other, saying, 'I've been listening to your music for ages, and you're really still alive!'"
Laband's comeback album, Deaf Safari, is slated for this year, and in February Mujava DJed alongside Spoko at the Cape Town Electronic Music Festival—a show so packed that audience members were literally scaling the walls, trying to sneak in through the windows.
The bridge that made all these connections possible is Spoek Mathambo, the film's co-director. Born in Soweto, and now based in Malmo, Sweden, his list of projects seems endless: there's the 2012 solo album for Sub Pop, collaborations with artists like LV (who featured Spoek on their breakout Hyperdub album Sebenza), and now a forthcoming LP from Fantasma, the new four-piece band he put together with Spoko, guitarist Andre Geldenhuys, and multi-instrumentalist Bhekisenzo Cele. "He's the only boy that lives his life in the urban style, but really loves the township music," Spoko says. "Even now he's in Sweden, but he still takes care of the African township."
Spoko says he met Mathambo through an unsolicited phone call. "He called me, like, 'Yo, I've been listening to your music. Can I come to the hood and meet with you? I want to do a documentary.' I said, 'If you want to do a documentary, I'll call everyone.'"
Spoko rounded up a cadre of Pretoria producers—Machepies, Panyaza, Mujava—who appear alongside him in the film. With Spoek's help, township music has gotten recognition in local and international press, fomenting a sense of pride for producers in places like Atteridgeville, Spoko's hometown on the disenfranchised west side of Pretoria.
When asked if township music is finally getting the shine it deserves, Spoek replies, "We're still opening the gates," adding that no, you won't see him or Mujava on the lineup at Ultra South Africa next year. "Young producers are gonna come after us. It needs to start somewhere, and it needs to start with somebody."
Still, he reminds me that fifteen years ago, the idea of being asked to play even in nearby Johannesburg was unthinkable. "They'd say, 'Pretoria?! No. Your sound is too loud. It's noisy.' They wanted soft music like deep house." Now he's on the phone with promoters, photographers, and journalists looking to township music as the next big thing, as well as fans from the cushier parts of town ("those who aren't scared") heading into the hood to check out his parties.
"In each and every other house there is a studio, and a young boy is in there working on something," Spoko says. "Normally the township is based on gangsters and crime. We're trying to change that, so instead of thinking 'I must get myself a gun and go rob people,' now he's thinking, 'I must make Bacardi house, go to the States, get on TV, and be like Spoko. I'll go get those sponsors.'"
Starting on May 20, Future Sound of Mzansi is premiering over three episodes on THUMP.
Spoek Mathambo Presents Future Sound of Mzansi:
Directed by: Nthato Mokgata (Spoek Mathambo) and Lebogang Rasethaba
Produced by: Black Major
Featuring: Black Coffee, DJ Spoko, Mujava, Culoe De Song, Christian Tiger School, Felix Laband, Aero Manyelo, Okmalumkoolkat, Zaki Ibrahim and many other artists.
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Future Sound of Mzansi is on Facebook
Spoek Mathambo/Fantasma's latest album is available here