South African Artists Are Now Using Music to Address Social Ills
On any given Saturday night in Johannesburg, the trendy place to be is Braamfontein, a gentrifying, hipster-friendly neighborhood downtown, where pulsing dance beats of house music take over the clubs. It’s something of a stunner to hear a DJ segue to “Ghetto” by The Muffinz, a Johannesburg-based five-man band whose 2012 debut, “Have You Heard,” was played on conventional instruments, not built in the studio from electronic beats and samples.
The band of young musicians combines jazz, soul and R&B with the country’s older choral traditions to create a sound altogether different from electronic dance music. They’ve played at New York’s Apollo Theater and they’ve just released their second album, “Do What You Love.”
Songs like “Ghetto” take on such weighty topics about life in South Africa’s notorious townships. Singer and guitarist Sifiso “Atomza” Buthelezi calls them pools for cheap labor.
“I got to realize that these ghettos are not going anywhere, not anytime soon, anyway. These ghettos are needed because the people are needed,” Buthelezi says.
The members of The Muffinz met five years ago when they were students at the University of Johannesburg, singing in its choir. Muffinz lead guitarist and singer Simphiwe “Simz” Kulla explains that the university’s 60-member choir tours internationally and is known for its range of styles of European — Finnish to German — music.
Choir music has a long history in South Africa, from Zulu a cappella traditions to the Billboard-charting Soweto Gospel Choir and Ladysmith Black Mambazo, who took the style international.
Buthelezi sees choirs as an African art form, steeped in storytelling.
“African people sing a lot,” Buthelezi says, “for celebrations, for funerals — we sing when we’re sad. There’s a quote that Mandela said, that even though African music is sad, it will still move you — you’ll want to dance to it.”
The Muffinz sing in five of South Africa’s 11 official languages, and the musicians have been labeled by some as the face of the so-called “new Johannesburg” characterized by hipster hoods like Braamfontein and Maboneng. But Buthelezi, who grew up in a township, doubts the city’s gentrification boom is actually benefiting its citizens. So he sees his band’s place in this scene as a serious one.
“Do What You Love” tackles even heavier subjects — AIDS, politics and education — than those on their debut, says acoustic guitarist and singer Mthabisi “Mthae” Sibanda. It also takes on the legacy of colonialism, Buthelezi adds.
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