When outsiders think of South African music, they might think of older traditional styles, of the jazz crossovers of Hugh Masekela and Miriam Makeba, of township jive, or of newer electronic innovations like kwaito and Shangaan electro. They might even think of house music – something we’ll be looking at in depth next week. But not many would have S.A. down as a reggae nation.
While we were putting in the research for the S.A. instalment of our Stay True series of documentaries and shows with Ballantine’s Scotch Whisky, however, we discovered a passionate following for roots and dub dating back generations. And in particular we were introduced to Doc Inity of the Kebra Ethiopia soundsystem in the township of Kwa-Thema, East Rand Gauteng Province, who have taken the messages of positivity and self-reliance in the music they play very seriously indeed.
Kebra Ethiopia is not just a sound, it transpires: it is something between a dance school and a social service, thanks to its offshoot, the University of Steppas. This is a drive by Doc Inity and his compadres to harness the “steppas” dancing style – which is amplified by the inbuilt South African love of formation dancing – as a way to build discipline and sense of community among alienated youth who have previously been sucked in to drugs and violence. As our astounding gallery of photos by Delwyn Versamy show, the passion the sound and its University engenders is quite something to behold.
JOE MUGGS: What year did Kebra begin? And how did it first start?
DOC INITY: As Doc Inity I have been playing reggae music on events that were taking place in the communities for a long time. But playing in all these places, I was given very short times to play and was not taken seriously or given a fair leeway because of how I looked: I had no dreadlocks and the environment was thickly laden with Rastafarianism.
So I decided to build my own sound so as to carry on and see my vision through. I was helped greatly by my friend DJ Kobie, who bought equipment we needed, and was a great support. From that time on, the Rasta community witnessed the way we could put people together in one space without segregation, thereby glorifying all of Africa. And that’s how the name Kebra Ethiopia came about: Kebra Ethiopia means “Glory to Africa”.
Who were your musical heroes and influences?
Growing up in the ghetto we were always exposed to legends like Burning Spear, Bob Marley and Peter Tosh. Those were our musical heroes and influences. I don’t have a specific date for when it first came to South Africa, but I know the fact that by the 1970s our parents were listening to reggae music and it is said that reggae music has also helped fight the Apartheid system…
Have you always been based in Kwa-Thema? What is special about the place that is conducive to your style?
I have always been based at Kwa-Thema. Kwa-Thema has always had a deep rooted reggae Rasta dance culture and the local area has long been exposed to the scene. They are receptive because this has actually become tradition, in that they have been hearing and been in the dances for over 20 years. And because it’s been happening so long, it made way for both young and old to see it as a place of gathering to enjoy the music.
“Due to the fact that it’s underground music here, it’s not played on radio much and it has not reached a lot a people”
Are there different receptions to your music and philosophy in different parts of South Africa?
The receptions are the same because of the presence of the University of Steppas, because people see how the music can be enjoyed in unity. Due to the fact that it’s underground music here, it’s not played on radio much and it has not reached a lot a people, so they find it difficult to enjoy it. So the University of Steppas presence is an integral part in this movement. They show people how to freely enjoy the music.
Have you ever wanted to work with musicians from other scenes/styles – house, Kwaito, traditional sounds – or do you prefer to stay strictly roots and dub?
Though we appreciate those things – my brother is one of the guys who is in the deep house scene – at present, we have not yet decided to collaborate with any other genres. The music still needs maximum, authentic exposure.
What were your first contacts with other reggae musicians outside South Africa? Which countries are your strongest links in?
First contacts were [Irish reggae singer] Cian Finn coming to South Africa, and further introducing us to Alpha and Omega and Alpha Steppa [UK dub collective who used pictures of University of Steppas as artwork on their recent album]. Peter Sharpe has also been a great good personal contact of mine. Our strongest links are with Brazil: we have played there twice and the reception was strongly positive.
Can you tell us more about the social function of the University?
We have a serious drug problem here at home. The University of Steppas have taken it upon themselves to involve these drug addicted youth in the movement by recruiting them and have them come to the sessions and learn a meditation through dancing with them. This social responsibility is important in the movement.
What are the most common problems in the local area?
There is a cheap street drug called Nyaope which is highly dangerous and highly addictive, we have lost many youths because of this drug – yes, it’s sad, it has spread in almost all townships across South Africa.
And how is the social responsibility you talk about manifested?
The story of the University of Steppas is still fresh, but I can tell you about the members of it, that in the past years they were not recognised by the community that they live in, so they have worked so hard to be recognised and respected by the community. We just had two performances in Brazil, they did very well, they have touched many souls in Brazil, and we have secured another set of bookings in Brazil and Europe: people are loving the spirit of dancing together and feeling the unity in the dance.
“We depend on online stores and that is expensive for some people, but we remain determined”
Is anyone else following the lead of your soundsystem and creating similar movements elsewhere in S.A.?
Yes, there are some sound systems in East Rand Gauteng that follow our style, and we have been invited by them several times to come play alongside them. Sourcing music is very hard, we don’t have any record shops here and this is really delaying the movement from growing, we depend on online stores and that is expensive for some people, but we remain determined.
Our Ballantines Scotch Whisky Stay True broadcast from South Africa takes place on the 5th March with Black Coffee and a crew of equally talented musicians: find out more via the session page here.
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