We’re back! Sorry we’ve been away for so long. It’s coming up on six years since we’ve been doing this blog and I’m not gonna lie to you: There was awhile there when we were both seriously considering calling it quits. I mean, how many more weird bands can there really be out there? A shit-ton, I’m sure, but we’ve officially reached the point where 99.9% of the emails and comments we get are for shit that’s fucking awful and/or not that weird. So separating the cream from the curdle has actually gotten more difficult as our audience has grown. I know, I know…boo-fucking-hoo, right? At least our audience has grown, so we must be doing something right. Right?
Anyway, starting this week, I solemnly swear that I will post a new weird band every week again, just like the good old days. Andy will pitch in too, sometimes, but he’s got a fancy new job that pays him to go hang out at Coachella and shit, so he won’t be around as much. But your old Uncle Jake here is gonna start driving this blog like a stolen Ferrari again…at least on the weekends.
So to get us back in the swing of things, I figured some good party music was in order. So allow me to present to you Nozinja, inventor of a whole new genre of music called Shangaan electro that is like dance music for hummingbirds. Seriously, I’m winded just listening to this stuff.
Nozinja, whose real name is Richard Mthetwa, is from a part of South Africa called Limpopo, which is a long-ass way from Cape Town, home base of our other favorite South African oddballs, Die Antwoord. Limpopo is in the far northeast of South Africa, next to Botswana and Zimbabwe, and it’s mostly rural and dirt-poor. Among the many native peoples living there is a group called the Shangaans, who are known for the xibelani dance, an insanely fast dance that kind of looks like a cross between a hula dance and twerking. Shangaan electro, pioneered by Nozinja and other local musicians, basically took the rhythms of the xibelani dance, sped them up even more, and replaced traditional drums and other instruments with lo-fi synths and drum machines. And presto! A crazy new dance music genre was born.
Shangaan electro is so great, it probably would’ve gone worldwide eventually. But Nozinja sure helped jump-start that process. Using the money he’d earned from running a chain of cell phone repair shops, the budding Dr. Dre of Limpopo went all-in on a home recording studio and began cranking this stuff out. He even made a few goofy, low-budget videos that are all the more awesome because, against all the screen-saver graphics and random shots of backup singers dancing in what we assume is his front yard, Nozinja’s still sporting his cell phone repair shop owner wardrobe. He looks like he wandered in from a Ross Dress for Less ad, but he’s still got more swag that a thousand shitty gangsta rappers.
Such brilliance couldn’t remain undiscovered for long…and sure enough, Nozinja signed to Warped fuckin’ Records in 2014. Yes, that Warp Records, home to Flying Lotus and Aphex Twin. Not surprisingly, in his first video for Warp, “Tsekeleke,” he’s sporting a much more stylin’ wardrobe.
Nozinja’s debut full-length album, Nozinja Lodge, comes out on Warp on June 2nd. We cannot fucking wait. We’re gonna strap on our xibelani skirts and dance to that shit like hummingbirds.
One of our latest obsessions is something called “shangaan electro,” a new style of electronic dance music from South Africa whose leading emissary is large gentleman with a penchant for strapping pink feathers to his arms by the name of Nozinja. Shangaan electro is the latest offshoot of a whole host of pop music styles from South Africa and neighboring countries that combine traditional African folk music with synthesizers and elements of house, disco and hip-hop. The music itself is probably only weird to western ears, but I’m guessing that even to South Africans, Nozinja is a pretty unique character. We’ve been binge-watching shangaan electro videos on YouTube all day and no one else comes close to his dance moves or fashion sense.
Fun, right? Nozinja just signed to the U.K. electronic label Warp, home to the likes of Autechre and Grizzly Bear, so every hipster blog on the planet will probably be freaking out about him shortly. You can brag to all your hipster friends that you heard him here first.
Ever since Paul Simon and Peter Gabriel started raiding Africa for new musical ideas, it’s been well-known that the so-called “Dark Continent” is fertile ground when it comes to cool new/old sounds. In any number of African nations, traditional folk music has been cross-bred with Western instruments and playing styles (many of which, like blues, funk and even rock, descended from African music in the first place) to produce all kinds of nifty results: Congolese soukous, Senegalese mbalax, South African mbaqanga and township jive. Now Fela Kuti is the subject of a Broadway musical and even Jake owns a djembe that he occasionally hauls down to the Venice beach drum circle in hopes of meeting hippie chicks. African music has pretty much been demystified and commercialized. Right?
Well, not so fast. Even though they’ve played everywhere from the Hollywood Bowl to the World Cup opening ceremonies, Tinariwen remains something of an enigma: a group of nationless Tuareg nomads with electric guitars, still plying their trance-like, otherworldly music on portable generators out in the Sahara Desert somewhere in Mali, or Algeria, or possibly Niger. They’ve been at since the late ’70s and have been reaching Western audiences for nearly a decade, but even now, the typical response from anyone hearing their music for the first time is: “Holy shit! What is this stuff?”
The band’s story is a long and fascinating one, and the full version can be read on their MySpace page, so we won’t repeat it here. Suffice it to say that Tinariwen is a collective of like-minded musicians, poets and freedom fighters (in the ’80s, most of the band took a break from music to receive military training in Libya, then used their newfound fighting skills to take part in a Tuareg uprising against the Mali government in the early ’90s). For years, their music was the soundtrack of the Tuareg rebellion, and the musicians had to keep their identities secret, shrouding their faces behind cheches at performances and circulating their music on bootlegged cassette tapes. After the rebellion finally ended, Tinariwen came out of hiding and eventually caught the ear of some French world musicians called Lo’Jo, who invited them to perform in Europe—and pretty soon, word about the electric nomads and their dusty “desert blues” was out.
These days, Tinariwen is still led by the group’s founder, Ibrahim Ag Alhabib, along with a core group of singers and musicians who sport fanciful nicknames like “Le Lion du Desert” and “Japanois” (French being the official language of Mali and Niger, it’s the unofficial second language of the Tuareg). But in the words of one chronicler of the band’s history, “They are more of a social movement than a desert rock ‘n’ roll band.” It is said that so many of the Tuareg have jammed with Tinariwen at one time or another that on any given night in the southern Sahara, half a dozen Tinariwen concerts are probably taking place—even while Ag Alhabib and some incarnation of the band is off touring the European festival circuit.
If you extend the notion that anyone who has played with Tinariwen is essentially a member of Tinariwen, their circle gets even larger: at this point, the band has performed with everyone from Carlos Santana to Robert Plant to one of our favorites here at TWBITW, the very Tinariwen-inspired Fool’s Gold. It shouldn’t come as a surprise that Tinariwen has gotten around a lot over the last five years or so—these guys are nomads, after all.
One last detail, and then we’ll leave you with this clip from a documentary about the band. Tinariwen literally translates to “The Deserts,” which is what the Tuareg call the land they live on (they see the Sahara as several discreet deserts, not just one large one). And the style of music they play is often called “assouf,” a word that connotes loneliness, homesickness, and heartache—what American musicians might call “the blues.” It’s a great word to describe an amazing, haunting, truly unique form of music—the kind of music only Africa could have invented, but which speaks to all of us. (We don’t often wax grandiose here at TWBITW, but these guys do that to us.)
Sometimes the weirdest ideas can actually lead to some pretty beautiful music. That’s certainly the case with Fool’s Gold, a massive L.A. collective (they seem to have anywhere from eight to twelve members, based on the photos I’ve seen) who play Afro-pop-inspired tunes with lots of loping percussion and call-and-response vocals. I know…hipsters playing Afro-pop…yawn, right? Wake me up when Vampire Weekend breaks up. But wait, here’s the kicker: lead singer Luke Top sings in Hebrew. No, that’s not even the kicker. The kicker is that it totally works. Close your eyes and you’d swear you’re hearing some lost Jewish tribe from Ethiopia, jamming it out in the wilderness with some homemade amps and a smoky generator while their camels stop at a desert oasis to refuel. Or something like that.
Anyway, here’s a stream of the band’s first single, “Surprise Hotel”, courtesy of the folks at Stereogum. Stay with it till the 1:30 mark when the Hebrew vocals kick in; that’s when things really start to get interesting.
(Update: Since we first wrote about Fool’s Good, they’ve shot a couple videos, including this really nifty and fairly bizarre one for “Surprise Hotel.” Enjoy.)