Nozinja: Swift Movement
Limpopo is a rural province located in the northernmost region of South Africa.
It is also the heartland of the Shangaan nation, a Tsonga-speaking tribe whose presence spreads into Mozambique and Zimbabwe. They are one of the smallest tribes in South Africa, and their history is a complex one.
At the start of the 20th century, much of the Shangaan population were forcibly moved from their ancestral land to make way for what is now Kruger National Park – one of the largest game reserves in Africa, offering everything from nine-day wilderness trails to honeymoon safari packages. After the Shangaans were uprooted from the land they had occupied for generations, many moved to Johannesburg in order to find work. But the cultural history of their nation remains rooted in Limpopo.
It started in 2005. From his cabin-style home studio, Dog took the traditional Shangaan blueprints and catapulted them in to the realm of hyperactive afro-futurism. He removed the bass from underneath the marimba-based melodies, and ramped up the speed to the dizzying heights of 180bpm, using an array of Tsonga-only vocal samples to create a hybridised sound that was at once ancestral and wildly revolutionary.
The man once known as Dog is now known as Nozinja – the 45-year-old ambassador for Shangaan electro. He’s taken the genre and transformed it from an off-centre craze on the periphery of South Africa’s post-apartheid cultural explosion into a far-reaching phenomenon, captivating audiences on all corners of the globe.
"We want the music to be fast. For us, it's a tradition"
When I speak to Nozinja, he’s just returned to Johannesburg after visiting New York. Along with his team of dancers, the trip saw Nozinja lead a party at Washington Square Park where the frenzied Shangaan electro experience was played out, centralising its most crucial element – the dancing.
“The sound cannot be perfect without the dancers and the dance cannot be perfect without the sound,” he tells me over the phone. The dance sees the women wear dome-shaped Xibelani skirts, historically used for an indigenous Shangaan dance that all girls are required to learn. The male dancers wear fluorescent jumpsuits with masks and make-up, recalling the ritualistic origins of the tribe. Often supplemented with fake pregnant stomachs, the costuming is based on age-old fertility ceremonies, and for the females, it is all in the waist: the heavily pleated skirts are shaken by rapid hip movement.
The dance became the focus of weekly street contests in Limpopo, which Nozinja would judge. As the turnout began to grow week-on-week, he decided to leave his successful chain of mobile-repair shops behind in order to forge a real future for the movement. “My family said to me, ‘Something is not right with you. How can you leave your business?’ But I took the business and applied it to the music,” he explains. Nozinja Music Productions was set up to organise the dance contests, distribute the CDs, tapes and DVDs that documented the movement and scout for the freshest voices in Shangaan. After Nwa Gezani – a Nozinja production that came with a video featuring giant superimposed tulips and footage of the dance contests – became a viral hit, the Brooklyn-based radio producer and manager Wills Glasspiegel found a DVD in a shop in Limpopo with Nozinja’s number on the back. This led to Shangaan Electro: New Wave Dance – a compilation on Honest Jon’s records which exposed artists like the Tshetsha Boys and BBC to the Western world.
Unsurprisingly, it was the speed that perplexed and delighted audiences when they first heard it. “The funny part is, the only people who say it is fast is you guys!” says Nozinja. “To us it’s not fast. It’s a tradition. We can’t dance to slow music!” While some listeners were overwhelmed by the unfamiliar music’s intensity, heavyweights of contemporary electronic music were finding themselves hypnotised by Nozinja’s output. Two years after the New Wave Dance compilation, a remix album featuring Actress, Theo Parrish, RP Boo and Mark Ernestus took the idiosyncrasies of Shangaan electro and showed how they could be remodelled and embedded into house and techno sets. Around this time, Nozinja flew over to Europe for the first time and struck up a friendship with Dan Snaith, who went on to release two Nozinja-produced EPs on his Jiaolong imprint.
"If I let my culture or my tribe down, I don't think I would be happy for the rest of my life"
Since 2014, Nozinja has been signed to Warp, who’ve just released his debut album Nozinja Lodge. He’s successfully made the move from telecommunications repairman to international Shangaan trailblazer, but it’s a transition that didn’t come without growing pains. “Every artist will say ‘Thank God I’ve gone international,’ but it comes with challenges,” he says. “You need to be a good performer and you have to meet the expectations of being an international artist. I had to say to myself, ‘If I’m going into music, I must know what I’m going to do’.”
Despite his international popularity, Nozinja refuses to pander to the tastes of fickle yet intrigued Western audiences. “You mustn’t be known for changing your style. Once I change my style of music, I’m changing the thing they found me for. If I change then I’m changing my identity.” To record Nozinja Lodge, he returned to his home studio in Soweto: a soundproof room with a computer, mixer, MIDI organ and his chair. For the best part of a decade, that room has been the hub of the global Shangaan electro operation. “That is the space where I’ve spent most of my life! That’s the most important thing to me.” Nozinja is making sure he remains closely loyal to the stories and the mentality of the Shangaan nation. “It represents my culture and it represents the Shangaan people. That is all it is about. If I let my Shangaan culture or my tribe down, I don’t think I would be happy for the rest of my life”.
For many artists emerging from global subcultures, widespread success in their homeland becomes the catalyst for acclaim in Europe and America. For Shangaan electro, the process is almost happening in reverse. Aside from some support on Munghana Lonene FM – a Tsonga-speaking FM station broadcasting through Limpopo and a handful of north west provinces – the mainstream South African media were more focused on covering house-influenced, commercially viable strands of dance music. The Shangaan nation is one of the smallest tribes in South Africa, and this bold new frontier in their musical lineage once found itself sidelined by the outlets they needed support from.
This sense of marginalisation is something Nozinja feels a particular affinity with. “For you to be seen on TV you must be from this nation or this tribe? That is not supposed to be done. We are supposed to respect each other,” he says. At the time of our conversation, South Africa is in the news once again for a series of xenophobic attacks which started in Durban and spread to Johannesburg. Shops are being looted and people from Bangladesh, Ethiopia, Mozambique and Zimbabwe have been murdered. On 23 April, Nozinja joined in a march through Johannesburg to protest against the attacks, show solidarity with the foreigners and represent a united front under banners that read: ‘We Are All Africans’.
“The atmosphere at that march was angry,” he recalls. “If someone had come out with some xenophobia that day I don’t know what would have happened to them. People are very, very angry. There are 53 million people in South Africa but you couldn’t even find 3000 xenophobic people.” The way these stories tend to dominate the discourse surrounding one nation is a painful truth for Nozinja. “It disturbs me when these things happen. It didn’t happen in my province. Where I stay in Limpopo, my neighbours are Zimbabwean and they just walk across to my village. For Mozambicans, it is the same.”
As we talk about the situation further, his tone switches from one of cultural peacemaking to fervent empathy. “The difference between you and me is that I get angry when I talk about xenophobia because I know how it is to be marginalised by other people and by other nations. I’m a Shangaan. Some of our Shangaan people were beaten. People don’t know where we come from. I am marginalised in my own country. You will never see us on TV, that is how painful it is. I know what the foreigners are going through because we also feel it. I feel it.”
The frustration and pain of marginalisation is at the forefront of Nozinja’s mission to fly the Shangaan flag. What success in the Western world has offered Nozinja and the Shangaan nation is a scenic route to recognition and acceptance back home which he is now starting to see. Having recorded over 30 songs for Nozinja Lodge, the 10 that made the cut are bold and ecstatic examples of his sound and his vision. From the cardiac frenzy of Vatswelani to the hushed peacefulness of Jaha, the album is another pivotal chapter in Nozinja’s quest to make the voices and the stories of the Shangaan nation heard.
While it might lead to even bigger shows in London and New York, even bigger collaborations with ‘producers of the now’ and an even higher profile on the global stage, Nozinja will only be satisfied if these triumphs contribute to better recognition in South Africa. “Now there is respect! They understand now they know we are international. It makes me feel good! Now they are phoning for interviews and I decide which interviews we do. It’s not me going after them. They are going after us.” He pauses for a moment to reflect. “That is the greatest feeling you can ever imagine.”