Every week or thereabouts, Mutant Dance Moves takes you to the shadowy corners of the dancefloor and the fringes of contemporary electronic music, where new strains and dance moves are evolving.
Around the same time the 2010 FIFA World Cup was happening in Johannesburg, the estimable Honest Jon’s record label (a by-product of the adventurous record store situated on Portobello Road in London) dropped the most audacious set of South African music imaginable. Sure, in the past the label had explored everything from explosive modern day Trinidadian Soca to crackling 78s of fiddle music from Baghdad recorded in the 1920s, but nothing could prepare ears for the set they released called Shangaan Electro.
Shangaan is a strain of South African rural folk sounds centered around rural life in the townships between Johannesburg, Limpopo, and Mozambique in South Africa. It had existed for generations, yet it had now mutated upon entering the whiplash urbanity of Johannesburg. Rural shangaan already moved at a clipped pace, but with the help of drum machines, plastic keyboards, and an overdose of American R&B on the radio, it had electronically mutated into a frantic sound. Honest Jon’s set documented the particular strain of shangaan being made at producer Zinja Hlungwani’s Nozinja studio, and it challenged even the most adventurous of ears.
The scene’s prime mover, Hlungwani (also known as Dog), served not just as producer but also as songwriter, marketing manager, distributor of the music and Svengali of Shangaan. (Dog’s idea of a “boy band” involved cloaking the lads of Tshetsha Boys in Slipknot-scaring rubber masks and orange sanitation worker jumpsuits.) Dog’s track on that comp, “N’wagezani My Love,” crammed in every earmark of the shangaan sound. He cooed R&B come-ons like “I love you” and “I wanna make you mine” atop a manic array of digital noises: manga ninja yips, IM chimes (as if he just received 600 new messages), marimba runs seemingly triggered by rainbow-hued Nerf balls, Zulu-style female chants and a melancholic synth line, all of it delivered at a furious 180 BPMs. And while the beats were dizzying, the vocals pleaded at a decidedly slower tempo, a deep sentiment somehow delivered amid the digital caterwaul.
Electronic music fans and producers the world over took notice of this new African sound, yet even the hardiest (or most experimental) of DJs would have a hard time working their dancefloor (not to mention their dancers) up to 180 BPMS. Over the past year though, Honest Jon’s has been slowly releasing 12” remixes of these tracks, now handily compiled on the Shangaan Shake double disc. Judging by the upper echelon of dance music producers collected here, there was a long queue of folks eager to pit their remix skills against shangaan, be they from the worlds of Berlin minimal techno, Chicago juke or London dubstep.
Most of the remixers realize that addition is simply not an option with the originals, overstuffed as they are with neon color, candied synth chords, and synapse-scorching energy. Instead, almost everyone of these sixteen tracks subtract, strip back, slow down, stretch out and inject some much needed space into this manic (and at times ear-exhausting) music. Actress files in two distinct remixes, one matching the noises with what sounds like R2D2’s last, static-garbled transmissions from deep space while the other boings and bounces along with the cheap toy sound of the source material. Ricardo Villalobos and Max Loderbauer dissolve and sprinkle African chants across their squelching, ever-changing production while fellow German Burnt Friedman delivers a sterling and succinct dub of Zinja Hlungwani that might be the set’s most pleasurable listen. Chicago’s DJ Rashad and DJ Spinn match the velocity of the Tshetsha Boys’s rusted can claps and hi-hats step for step while twisting it into something that would slot into their scene’s footwork sound. And Theo Parrish’s epic 13-minute edit of the artist Mancingelani stays in the cartoonish 180 BPM-realm while also injecting in some wheezing bass and a deliberate piano line, making for a sonic speedball.
While it highlights the startling homegrown originality of shangaan, the set also doubles as an overview of electronic dance music’s vanguard. Rather than the cream of modern electronic music teasing out something hidden in the originals, Shangaan Shake more often than not reflects the tics and limitations of each producer’s own production styles. There’s no European imperialism to be found here; at it’s best, there’s simply and acceptance and embrace of South Africa’s inscrutable sonic riches.