WMC 2012, Part II: Wake Up and Smell the Black Coffee

Part I on the Winter Music Conference 2012 in Miami discussed the legacy of house music from its earliest roots until today. Part II is about the future of house: DJs playing the deep sound coming out of South African cities such as Johannesburg, Durbin, Cape Town and Praetoria.

South Africans have listened to deep house for the better part of 2 decades. The smooth pulse of electronic dance music’s most soulful sound has soothed tempers in the townships and forged friendships between the jagged lines carved into the living skin of its people as populations were crammed into separate White, Colored and Black boxes.

Everywhere else in the world, deep house had faded from the spotlight. In the American cities where house music had its serial births, it has been on a back burner. Not so South Africa. You can hear deep house in the airports, juke joints, taxis, public places – it is the soundtrack of daily life. It’s a national love affair.

I find myself homesick for a land I’ve only seen in pictures.

Deep house superstars fill venues holding thousands of people. DJ Black Coffee is a household name, as are Fresh and Euphonik, who not only have their own radio gigs but also a TV show. House has been in SA long enough for there to be 2 generations of DJs. Among the young 'uns are Shejay Zandy, Fresca and Euphonik. Some are mere babies in terms of deep house DJs. Culoe de Song and Shimza are only 21.

Roots: from Busi to Bucie

South African musicians have been making international music for decades. The use of an underlining bass-hum in choral arrangements is one element. Affirmative voices of women such as Miriam Makeba and Busi Mhlongo were the soundtracks of liberation. As in the USA, the power that fueled the SA sound was deeply spiritual, from the clapping of Christian Spirit-filled churches to drums, dances and trances of Sangoma prophetess-healers. Young White people heeded the call and played Black songs of freedom at the end of their school dances in defiance of their superiors. “we were caned so often, we got used to it,” one White DJ told me.

SA music also had its gangster side, which came forth in the kwaito sound (a sing-song chant, more similar to Jamaican dancehall than American rap) emerging from Johannesburg townships after the fall of apartheid. DJs from the Deep South tell me that SA house music is the immediate descendent of kwaito.

There are several forms of music in the Deep South that form the warp and woof of what LiquiDeep vocalist Ziyon called “Afrotrance,” Julius the Mad Thinker labeled “global soul,” and Shimza christened “afro-deep” house. Within that mesh, DJs throw in everything and anything they find in the vast playground of worldwide house music. Euphonik said the sound comes from a history of dealing with oppression and the need for sanctuary: “When you are looking for shelter, it doesn’t matter where you get it.” He added, “We are patriotic to the music, not where it comes from.”

That patriotism makes artists such as Black Coffee and Euphonik reluctant to attach a name to their music. But as Culoe de Song suggested at a WMC forum (“Do You Have Soul in Your House?” moderated by Barbara Tucker), the sound of deep house from South Africa should burst forth from the Deep South as marketable, even as (dare I say it?) pop music. In order to do so, people must know what to call it.

(For an example of SA fusion of old and new, click here to listen to Black Coffee's remix of “Izizwe” by Busi Mhlongo.)


When I interviewed Black Coffee, he said that the principle underlying SA house music is ubuntu. Bishop Desmond Tutu explains what ubuntu means:

A person with Ubuntu is open and available to others, affirming of others, does not feel threatened that others are able and good, based from a proper self-assurance that comes from knowing that he or she belongs in a greater whole and is diminished when others are humiliated or diminished, when others are tortured or oppressed.

Shejay Zandy, the sole female DJ from South Africa at the WMC (that I know of), said ubuntu is why deep house is so popular rather than hip hop. “Our elders would not let us listen to hip hop because too many of the messages were negative,” she said. South African sensibilities are rooted in deep respect for elders (who are closest to the vast community of those who came before) carry much more prestige than what she observed in the USA. I told Zandy some people in America might be offended by her words, especially those in the hip hop community. Her response: she tells it like it is.

Ubuntu and telling it like it is: sounds like soul to me.

Refugees in the Deep South

Movement of people and music between South Africa and the rest of the world goes both ways. SA musical artists book international gigs, and international artists flock to SA.

Vocalists who sing the deep sound flock to South Africa. I’ve heard time and again of deep house artists from the USA and Europe who catch that Deep South groove. They discover that they have rock star status that they never receive in the countries of their birth so they become economic refugees, fleeing to the open arms of the world’s only true democracy.

People in the USA are paying attention. Jojo Flores and Louie Vega were at Black Coffee’s Soulistic pool party on the National Hotel’s pool deck in SOBE.

Within the commons of the WMC, international alliances are being made in which SA artists play a central unifying role. Ed Dunn and Jennifer Gray of Diversecity Music out of NYC (http://www.diversecitymusic.com/) link America, Europe and Africa as well as link in-house enclaves in Chicago, New York and Newark.

Jennifer and Ed are an amazing couple – both are DJs who love to go deep, and both are committed to electronic music (EDM) in all of its manifestations. The success of house music comes from such collaborations. Take for example “Falling” by South Africans DJ Kent and Malehlokwa, or “Let the Sunshine” by Culoe de Song featuring 340ml and the 2010 breakthrough hit, “Superman” by Black Coffee featuring Bucie. They were born classics. I might never have heard them if companies like Diversecity and Afrodesia (Brendon Boden, Static Plastic) were not making things happen.

Those companies are complemented by other deep house collaborators in the USA that I met roaming South Beach during WMC. Phuture Sole Entertainment (Soulsista MsOne, Wendy Elle and Carl Dupree), Are You Afro?, Sal Negro, US Meets Africa, Priti Soul out of Chicago and Afrique Electrique brought it to the beach.

Black Coffee et al at the National

Sunday March 18: The National Hotel’s pool deck was a fitting backdrop for a sophisticated crowd that gathered on the third day of WMC for the Soulistic event featuring Black Coffee and a slew of SA talent. Having been at the Shelborne pool party the day before, I knew that the upcoming week would be phenomenal. The crowd was already in town, well before the madness that would descend upon SOBE in just a few days.

Unlike the SA Invasion party the year before, the DJ booth was raised and set apart from the people. The setup was very professional, but it created a distance that was not there the year before between the people and the DJs they came to see, which was a bit of a disappointment.

The mix of people was nice – many of them were industry people eager to see what the buzz was about. Others just heard that this was a must-see-hear-dance, still others peeped in from the beach as the rhythms flirted with them, then seduced them into entering.

A group of about 10 South Africans stood together, laughing, talking and dancing. Most of them were young men who cut up in front of the DJ, one waving an SA flag. They were the life of the party, chanting and at one point doing a dance where they mimed fishing for the DJ, casting imaginary lures and reeling him in. I spoke to them afterwards and asked them what they thought of the party: “It makes us miss home,” said Mondi Mkhaliphi. Some of the men identified themselves as “dirty Josies” (from Johannesburg) and “Durbinites” (self-explanatory), They said that the Deep South's presence at the WMC was their Christmas and New Year’s rolled into one.

Once again, I had the pleasure of speaking with DJ Nermin and Patrick Bo of Black River Soul out of Germany, two lovers of the deep sound. It has been years since I'd seen them. They threw an event a few years ago that featured Carolyn Harding (with whom I had a heart-to-heart, more on that later) and Dawn Tallman. Only in WMC could our far-flung tribe manage to reconnect on a South Florida beach-turned-South Africa.

Deep house vocalist Chappell summed up the evening: “Coffee’s party was as usual off the chain. The vibe is always right when SA is in the house.”

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