Kwaito emerged in Johannesburg in the mid-‘90s as the popular dance music of a South Africa nearing the end of Apartheid, and Professor Rhythm was one of its stars. As the kwaito veteran prepares to reissue his 1995 LP Bafana Bafana on ATFA this month, we asked him to select his 11 favorite ‘90s anthems for a snapshot of the youth pop phenomenon. Scroll down for a YouTube playlist.
“It was a unique South African sound,” says kwaito veteran Professor Rhythm, aka producer Thami Mduli, of the country’s radio-dominating township music that soundtracked South Africa in its final years of Apartheid. “They were fun songs to make people happy, because people were not happy. It was club music but with a township style.”
Taking its cue from the ‘80s phenomenon of bubblegum – the synth-heavy music championed by the likes of Brenda Fassie, whose 1990 hit ‘Black President’ became a Pro-Mandela, anti-Apartheid anthem – kwaito fused township styles like ‘60s-originating mbaqanga, with hip-hop, Imibongo (African praise poetry) and the chintzy euphoria of US and European pop-house. The result was hook-laden, four-to-the-floor dancefloor excess that gripped a nation on the cusp of celebration.
Sonically, kwaito ran the gamut from slower, 80-90 BPM house with chanted, or call-and-response vocals sung in a mixture of English, Zulu, Sesotho and Isicamtho (South African street slang), to dizzying rave-ready bangers. Mduli, who began his career in the early ‘80s as a member of platinum-selling bubblegum pop stars Taboo and CJB, before moving onto make solo instrumental albums in 1985 as Professor Rhythm, notes the influence of hip-hop originators like Kool & The Gang on the evolution of kwaito, while also nodding to his bubblegum forebears.
Professor Rhythm released his career-defining Bafana Bafana LP in 1995, at a time when kwaito had grown into a fully-fledged pop phenomenon and democracy had finally come to South Africa. “Once Mandela was released from prison and people felt more free to express themselves and move around town, kwaito was becoming the thing,” exlains Mduli. These days, house is still the country’s biggest musical import and has blown up into global phenomenon in recent years, with stars like Black Coffee and underground strains like gqom enjoying international recognition.
To celebrate the reissue of Bafana Bafana via Awesome Tapes From Africa this week, we’ve asked Professor Rhythm to select his favorite kwaito anthems. “If you play these tracks today in any club in Johannesburg, everyone will dance,” he promises.
Mduli’s selections take in some of kwaito’s biggest and most beloved hits, from Mandoza’s anthemic ‘Nkalakatha’ – a song about “a tough guy who has everything,” taken from one of the genre’s only crossover albums, to Arthur Mafokate’s 1993 hit ‘Kaffir,’ which is one of kwaito’s blockbuster triumphs that also skewed towards the politically-charged in its condemnation of the titular racist slur. All in all, it’s an empowering, party-starting musical snapshot of an epochal time in South Africa’s history. Dive in below.
Read next: Gqom: A deeper look at South Africa’s new generation of house
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