oscar mdlongwa (photo by hens van rooy)
aryan kaganof: Please tell your boerewors to riches story.
oscar mdlongwa: I used to be a street vendor selling my sausages out there for the clubgoers and at the end of the night when I was finished with my stock I used to go into the club Razzmatazz (in Hillbrow) and dance because I didn’t really have a place to sleep, so I would dance until the morning and then I would get a place to sleep. And I used to have that passion of music, so one day the resident deejay didn’t pitch up at the club. So the club owner used to give me time to play when the club was empty cos they used to know that I would stay until the club closes, so then he gave me an opportunity he said no since the guy is not here you can come and deejay, here are some records. It was a big night, saturday night, the end of the month, the club was packed and I just grabbed this opportunity with both hands and that night I rocked and the guy said no listen you have to start playing here permanently. So that’s how I got the job of being a deejay. The rest is history. I started back in about 1987 deejing in clubs. At that time I used to play a lot of house music, that’s when rap music was also coming in and from there I went on to do compilations and finally on to producing my own music so finally now we’ve got a record label called Kalawa Jazzme Records.
aryan kaganof: How would you describe kwaito to someone who has no idea what this music form sounds like?
oscar mdlongwa: For me it’s a word which came from the township you know, it’s a street word, it’s like street lingo, and different people will tell you different definitions; some will tell you there used to be gangsters called kwaitos but to be honest I wouldn’t be happy to say definitively this is its true meaning. The music which we’ve done, the genre is now called kwaito, and we’re talking about things which are affecting us and at the end of the day it’s dance music. When all theses things were starting we used to call our music Gong, you know it’s a big sound, GONG!, so it’s a word we used to call our music, but kwaito became the umbrella of the whole movement. Then under this umbrella you have little branches, like with Gong, or some used to call there music Gaz, but kwaito is more of the bigger picture.
aryan kaganof: People talk of the kwaito generation and the Y generation. Are these accurate reflections of what youth culture is about now in South Africa?
oscar mdlongwa: Well this thing really happened round about when we felt that it was getting to the death of apartheid, that’s when kwaito really became dominant in the music scene. The release of Nelson Mandela from prison and then we the youth, I thought for us to keep on expressing ourselves about political things, why not forget about what happened in the past and make music and make people dance. So we started writing some things which were hardcore, talking about the police, things which were affecting us in our social lives. So the Y movement yeah, on the radio, the magazine, and the internet. Y FM came in about four or five years later when the genre was already big but nthey came in and they supported the underground and the kwaito genre big time. When the genre started it was underground, but now with its existence for over ten years now you cannot keep it underground anymore so it has come up big, it is now creating a lot of job opportunities in terms of sales that have gone up, but I think when it started it was more underground because now at least you can hear it different stations but before it was hard for you to hear it on stations because people who were running radiio stations at that time were not ready for the change and kwaito was just right there in your face. It was something different, it was more shocking people to be confronted by the subjects of kwaito.
aryan kaganof: Tell us about Kalawa Jazzme Records.
oscar mdlongwa: Yeah, it started as Kalawa. It was the brainchild of me, Don Laka, he plays piano, he is a jazz musician and also a friend of mine, his name is Christos, so Kalawa comes from our surnames; Ka is Christos’ surname, La is from Laka and Wa is the end of my surname (Mdlongwa), so we combined those three and then Kalawa was born. At that time I was a deejay and Don was a musician so he knew that I was putting out compilations that were good so he told me but why can’t we sit down and c reate our own thing big, create our own sounds whatever, since you’ve got the deejay knowledge and I’m a musician and then we put things together and from there I said ok and then we tried it and our first project was actually BOP (Brothers of Peace). We did a vocal project, it was supposed to be called Ragga Gong, Ragga House, it had the influence of ragga and hip hop and all that and that’s when we formed a group called Boom Shaka. We got some people to come and sing in there and that was the birth of the group. But it was hard for us to go and sign with a record label because they felt the thing wasn’t going to work. So we said ok it’s cool, we couldn’t get any record deals so we started selling it from the boot of our cars, going to taxi ranks, visiting shops, we’d go and leave five tapes there, five cassettes there, I would come after a week if it’s sold it’s sold then I’d get my money. They couldn’t allow us to sell in the bigger stores but we would take the group Boom Shaka to taxi ranks to perform there while we deej’d, they would come in and perform two songs. So the thing just caught up here in Johannesburg and eventually in the whole country. And that project became so big that the record companies now started knocking on our doors saying hey we want this thing, but already we had moved a lot of copies by ourselves and later because we couldn’t reach the outskirts of South Africa in terms of distribution so we signed up with a record label to distribute that record nationally. That’s when people started saying wow so this thing works, so that was the birth of kwaito. It started blowing up around Pretoria and Joburg, in the surrounding townships and then later it started going to the rest of South Africa. Now nationwide would be an understatement, even Africa is under kwaito’s spell.
aryan kaganof: You worked with Moses Molelekwa before his untimely death.
oscar mdlongwa: Kalawa became successful in its own right then we joined up with friends of ours called Jazzme, that’s when Kalawa Jazzme started, they came in with other elements so that we could form a bigger picture. Then from there we started creating different groups, cos once you have different groups within your stable you need to identify them with different sounds, to say this group Group A must sound like this, Group B must sound like this. You know Trompies must sound like this, Boom Shaka must sound different, Bongo Maffin must have its own sound. Sop we started creating different sounds for different groups so therefore Brothers of Peace moved into the more jazzy elements, we wanted to put in the live aspects of it, working with the legendary Hugh Masekela, we said to him even if it’s youth music you come in and put your elements of jazz on it and then from there we worked with Moses Molelekwa. We called him and you know he was a great jazz pianist and he put good solos on those tracks, he gave them that jazz feel so that our kwaito music became richer.
aryan kaganof: Most of the older musicians did not take to kwaito at first.
oscar mdlongwa: Yeah. They felt it was not music for them. Because we were using computers to program and all that. So they hard core musos felt, and even now some of them feel, that it’s not music. But it’s always like that with a youth movement. Older people always come in and say you know this is not right. But there are some who saw that this is going to go a long way and now I think it has become the pride of South Africa. We’ve created our own dance music and for all those who thought it wasn’t going to happen, it has. Americans have got their own hip hop, we’ve got our own thing, kwaito. Even in America when hip hop started people in the jazz scene felt that it’s a genre which is not going to last but now hip hop has become America’s pride when you talk music hip hop is there. It’s just like South Africa, when you come in and talk you talk kwaito. It’s our own. It’s done here.
aryan kaganof: Is kwaito spreading up north?
oscar mdlongwa: Yeah. It’s huge in Zimbabwe, it’s huge in Botswana, we play there, it’s huge in Mozambique and I think it will catch on in the Congo and further North, because it’s computer music, it’s computer dance music, it’s hip music, it’s the music of now. When kwaito started it was almost solely digital, but now we are more experimental, especially with Brothers of Peace, we’re combining digital elements with live elements and it’s a good mix. There are lots of great musicians on this continent so by us using live musicians and indigenous instruments we connect this futuristic music to our African traditions.
aryan kaganof: The Congo film-maker Balufu has a film called Digital@frica where he claims that the binary digital system of numbering in fact started in Africa thousands of years ago and that the rapid spread of computer technologies in Africa is because these are not western imports but in fact the original African invention coming home so to speak.
oscar mdlongwa: Yeah. Well you know they say what goes around always comes around.
aryan kaganof: How did you connect with Masters At Work, the legendary New York based dance record company.
oscar mdlongwa: Yeah well Masters At Work now we’ve really got a strong connection they are now introducing our music around the world which is great. We met Louie Vega when he came to the Y FM birthday bash, I think it was four or five years ago and then he was really interested in listening to what type of sounds we’ve got here in Africa since he’s a dance deejay. We gave him cd’s and he was really impressed and he picked up on one of our groups, Mafikizolo, a track called Loot, which he started playing all over the world cos he deejays on different continents and he was amazed because people were singing along to it and he decided to release it the way it is without re-mixing it and the song became big and when we did the Brothers Of Peace album he was amazed and he said we’re releasing the whole album. Normally they do mainly re-mix work. They listen to an album and if it’s got ten tracks they will say oh listen we are interested in one track but on this one he said listen he just heard something different, the sound was amazing, so he said listen we’re signing the whole album. So now they’ve released one single called Zabalaza, the album’s coming out now, it’s called Victory. So things are getting tighter and tighter together, he’s introduced our sound all over the world and people really appreciate what we are doing and we get a lot of calls now from all over the world, which is good.
aryan kaganof: What about the youth of today, are they aware of people like Tabane and Malombo, are they aware of the rich musical history and the older musicians who are still alive, still making great music?
oscar mdlongwa: Well that’s why with Brothers of Peace we’ve gone back to some of our old songs and then re-mxing and re-making them. I mean the youth didn’t even know who Mahlatini is until we didi the re-mix and they said wooh, we didn’t know we had a musician like this. We’ve also gone down in the rural areas, working with maskandi musicians in KwaZulu Natal. We’ve worked with an artist called Hahlimhlope and we brought him in and we made it more urban but not losing those elements. And that type of music, the youth used to look at it and say no it’s for the rural people not for us urban people, they didn’t want to be associated with it. But once we did it and we made it more urban they are like really wow, we didn’t know we’ve got such musicians. Instead of embracing the overseas stuff, like being crazy about hip hop, now they are beginning to embrace our culture, which I think in the long run that is where the future is at.
aryan kaganof: What is the relationship between kwaito and hip hop?
oscar mdlongwa: I think in terms of the lyrical content it’s like almost on the same thing because hip hop those guys are talking about what’s affecting them there in the States side, their social life, and also with kwaito, at the same time, we’re doing the same thing. And while they are doing that it remains a music you can play in the parties, it’s not a music you gonna sit down and listen to and you’ll be sad, it’s a music which is going to make you happy and you listen to the message and the message just becomes strong. There is that power in hip hop, there is that power in kwaito of saying wow we’re talking about this, if I feel that listen let me talk about the divorce rate, I mean why are the older people divorcing, I’ll put it in music form, so even if people are direspecting their parents I cannot say “respect your parents, respect your parents, why are you disrespecting your parents” but I’ll put it in a way so that when you are dancing you sing along but when you’re singing along the message is hitting your brains then you say, wow, this is what this guy is tallking about.
aryan kaganof: What’s the future of kwaito?
oscar mdlongwa: Well I think the future is bright and I think now our goal is to hit the international market. In South Africa it was a struggle to get it where it is today but now it is being appreciated, people have accepted that this is one of the strongest genres ever, and now what we need to do is that we need to take it world wide, we need to market it overseas, it’s got to be known in Japan, it’s got to be known wherever. You know music is music. Music is what you feel, keep it that way, more spiritual and enjoy it. I think the longest goal is for kwaito to be known all over the international dance scene, on the international stage.