African Sounds: A Guide to the Johannesburg Music Scene

By: Keith Bain

November 22, 2013

It often comes as a shock to hear that South Africa is the global capital of house music. It’s consumed with such voracity you’d swear it was invented here. In a way it is a defining sound in the Johannesburg music scene, tweaked for the local ear to become Kwaito, once referred to as township house and associated with predominantly black dance clubs (one definition is “slowed-up house beats with South African vocals”). Considered “˜a celebration of the streets’, it’s still the soundtrack of choice for many, and played with equal enthusiasm in shebeens (taverns) and shared taxis. Simply put: It’s everywhere.

Yet, while statistically house music is bigger here than anywhere else on the planet, it’s only one part of a very diverse and stridently eclectic music landscape. “Don’t come to South Africa looking for just one idea of what music is,” says Spoek Mathambo, one of the key influencers in contemporary urban music. A stand-out artist–producer in the current electronic music age, rapper-singer Spoek says there are too many music scenes to bother pinpointing any one musical pulse. Spoek himself draws on a diversity of influences and genres – from 60s South African jazz and 90s hip-hop, to soul and traditional music, to British pop and R “˜n’ B. His hip-hop music references as widely as Queen and the Pixies, but you’ll hear township beats and African rhythms in there, too. It’s the way contemporary electronic technology reinvents traditional African sounds, such as Zulu maskandi, that makes him vital listening when trying to understand where South African music is right now. In a way, his mash-up sonic sensibility reflects a fractured, fragmented South African past, yet his sound is absolutely the pulse of the future.

African Sounds: A Guide to the Johannesburg Music Scene

Spoek Mathambo, Womad Festival © Spoek Mathambo

“South African music is well post-industrial, post-technology,” says Spoek, who is known for his genre cut-up style that falls outside definitive boxes and categories, and is cutting a path known as Afro-futurism, and what he calls “township-tech.” Whatever it is, it’s fresh, vital, and suggests the array of inspirations that contemporary artists have to draw on. “Our music is the result of a huge fusion of influences. The pulse of South African music is about understanding that our country is made up of many stories. And there are so many great and exciting musical stories.”

African Sounds: A Guide to the Johannesburg Music Scene

Spoek Mathambo, Womad Festival © Spoek Mathambo

Still, if you ask virtually any hotel concierge where you can go to hear kwaito or Shangaan electro, they’ll probably look at you with confusion. It’s not their fault – Johannesburg doesn’t have a culture of great music venues; the most cutting edge African sounds and musicians tend to get heard at festivals and events, which happen anywhere, and all the time. They can pop up in people’s backyards, or at mass gatherings in public places.

African Sounds: A Guide to the Johannesburg Music Scene

Town Hall © Stefan Jordan-Rozwadowski

If you want to safely track down either an established band or rising star, try venues such as Bassline in Newtown, where there are regular jam nights, ragga nights, and other varied genre line-ups, although nothing in the league of innovation fostered by the likes of Spoek Mathambo.

African Sounds: A Guide to the Johannesburg Music Scene

Tanz Live © Tanz Live

The Johannesburg music scene is all about diversity. There’s no point looking for any specifically “South African” sound, Spoek tells me, because the influences come from everywhere; Johannesburg is just as much a part of the global village as anywhere else. “The state of the nation now is that people are a lot more open-minded. The idea of a black South African rock group, for example, is now a lot more acceptable. And a black South African rock group doesn’t have to sound like rock music from everywhere else – it can incorporate a lot of very black South African experience, and that’s equally valid. People’s mentality in this country has opened up as far as identity is concerned. The old roles aren’t there anymore.”

Interested in what Spoek Mathambo has to say about some of his own music? Take a look here.

And watch the super-slick video of his sparkling 2013 tune, Awufuni, here.

Header photo: Spoek Mathambo, partying in Paris © Spoek – escapefrom85

Written by Keith Bain

Virgin Atlantic operates a daily direct flight to Johannesburg from London Heathrow. Book your flight today.

Have you experienced the Johannesburg music scene in any local clubs? Who are some of your favourite South African musicians?


Keith Bain

Cape Town-based writer Keith Bain has co-authored guidebooks to India, South Africa, Eastern Europe, Kenya & Tanzania, Ireland, and Italy. He also co-wrote A Hedonist's guide to Cape Town, and is the co-founder of Best Kept (, a bespoke trip-planning company that tailors holidays in India and Africa.

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