The Southern African music scene in London: A transvaal of tunes

For decades, Southern African music has been circulating in various cityscapes across the globe, and has recently been doing so in the United Kingdom.

With more than 1.3 million African-born residents in England and Wales, there’s been an exciting influx of several new sub-cultures and lifestyles to the UK, which have been widely embraced – music being the biggest of all.

“Our fans are music lovers who are looking for something more from the music they listen to than just the stock-standard dance music. So we guess the London fans feel the same way. Dance music with soul,” says Dominic Peters.

As one half of the popular electronic music duo Goldfish, he’s proud of their numerous accomplishments since hitting the music scene, which has clearly shown in their zeal for creating fresh music.

The clarinet and other western instruments are being intertwined with increasingly popular African instruments like the vuvuzela.

One particular band who have successfully orchestrated the melding of Western and African instruments is Freshly Ground:

Big tune-makers in South Africa like Goldfish, The Parlotones, Freshly Ground and Lucky Dube have long been engraving their names in the London music scene. Soulful and nostalgic lyrics intertwine with memorable beats and rhythms to create distinct pieces for their international fans.

As well as support from home-based fans, there are countless other sources of appreciation for Southern African artists.

“We went to Ibiza, no real shows planned or booked and blagged our way into opening for Pete Tong at the iconic Café Mambo for 20 minutes,” Peters says.

“That 20 minutes ended up being some of the most important in our lives as the MD of Pacha Ibiza watched our set, asked us to come play the club later that night and from that a record deal and a residency…the rest is history!”

The duo performed at Qube Project in Victoria in mid-November; it’s clear the sell-out crowd fell in love with the sax and clarinet-infused electronic tunes:

Speaking of history, the most remarkable ties with Africa’s past tend to resonate in these musicians’ work. For example, some of Brixton-based singer Mpho Skeef’s lyrics reflect her upbringing in the apartheid era.

Perhaps the most interesting backstory is that of Sudanese Emmanuel Jal: a former child soldier and now political activist – that is when he’s not creating beautiful music for his fans.

This cultural verge has a tremendous impact on the music created as well as on the fans’ everlasting support.

Hildegard Titus, a former London-based photojournalist currently residing in Namibia, reflects: “I listen to African music because it keeps me connected with home.

“The first thing I do when I get home is ask everyone for the latest local music, from my friends to the local cab drivers who always seem to have the best tunes. There’s Freshly Ground and Elemotho, a Namibian musician and sometimes I listen to PSquare or a local Namibian group called Black Vulcanite.”

Tamsa Madzimbamuto-Ray, a Zimbabwean sports science student at Brunel explains: “The motivation is… probably the focus on percussion and rhythm instead of vocals. It’s not like I even understand what most of the lyrics say.

“On the other hand, it’s probably also a resistance to changing to music from here and America as that would change my mentality and identity…if you get what I mean. It’s able to flow more easily from high tempo energetic music to soulful beats…without sounding like pop at any point.”

However, there are still battles to be fought within and for this sub-culture; Band Aid 30’s Ebola charity track left out potential Southern African input, which has irked Jal, Fuse ODG, AfriKan Boy and many other African artists.

From the considerable debate within this genre, it’s clear Southern African music isn’t just here to stay, it’s enjoying a boom.

Goldfish agrees: “You’ll be seeing a lot more SA artists making waves in the international scene. There’s so much talent bubbling under the surface right now.”

Featured photo by Elago Akwaake

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