While Boiler Room was in South Africa for our most recent Stay True Journey with Ballantines Scotch Whisky, we recorded a special film with Richard Mthethwa – aka Zinja Hlungwani, but best known as Nozinja – and then caught up with him afterwards to get a little background on how he feels to be an ambassador for a sound with a very particular history.
Nozinja occupies a unique place in the South African electronic music world. Where others have taken house or hip hop as their template and hybridised these with local styles to create something new, he is the producer who has most unabashedly used traditional rhythms – the hyper-speed percussion of the Shangaan dances he attended in Soweto – as his base.
The style he invented as a result, Shangaan electro, has been a runaway success, with international festival audiences falling at his feet and those of the deranged dancers who accompany his performances – leading to a highly productive partnership with WARP records, and the great Shangaan Shake remix album on Honest Jon’s.
JOE MUGGS: Hello Nozinja. What are you up to?
NOZINJA: Just applying for a new visa to go to Europe: I’ve got a show in England coming up.
Did you enjoy participating in Boiler Room’s journey to South Africa?
Yes, I did! Thankyou for coming! It gave us a chance to showcase what we’ve got. We’ve got something that’s really unique, that’s never been abroad, that the world has never seen before, so it’s really really good to let people see that. It’s important to show people different sort of cultures and dance, and it’s an honour for me to have the opportunity to show that to people, and it’s very good of Boiler Room to come and help show it to those people.
What do you personally get out of interacting with new audiences then?
Ohhh so many things. When you travel, when you play and the fans say “WOW!”, that’s the real thing. That’s good, excellent, mind-blowing – it becomes a strong force for the people who are doing the music, to be appreciated in that manner, and to be told that someone has never heard anything like what you do before.
How about the contacts you’re building up with musical communities from other countries – what does that mean to you?
Well, to be recognised by a label like WARP on the electronic front, that’s an honour to me, to my culture, to my people that I’m representing – which is Shangaan-speaking people mostly – it’s an honour. To identify talent is not easy: you have to have a vision of that music. You don’t just wake up in the morning and walk into a label as big as WARP and get signed like that, so that means that they felt what we were feeling when we did this music, they allowed themselves to use their background in playing electronic music and go into me and into what I do when I make my music. They went into our shoes and felt exactly what it is that makes Shangaan music, they put on the jacket of Shangaan and said “let’s explore with it”, they decided “let’s take this music to the world”. So yes I’m honoured. I’m honoured to them for doing that for me, so for me it’s an encouragement to do the best music and best sounds to appreciate what they’ve done for me.
And how do you build the connections with other individual musicians, like Tessela who you collaborated with?
Oh that was easy for me, because I saw an artist. Tessela is a very very intelligent man, in terms of his music and how he puts his music together, so it was easy for me and it gave me a lot of space to explore and be part of his vision of what he is and what he was doing. When you become a musician or producer, you must always leave room. You must leave room to say “What if? What if someone comes in and does something different here? What if we move that or change this? What if we do vocals this way?” With him, he’s got that naturally: it was easy for him to accept and wear my jacket and feel what I was feeling as a Shangaan electro producer, as much I had to wear his jacket to feel what was going into his computer. I really enjoyed working with him and I wish I could do an album with him. If I could do an album with that gentleman, that would be a dream come true for me.
Your music comes with a very intense, unique kind of dancing; do you not feel people need to be brought up with that to fully understand the sound?
I think that with Tessela he got that because he had been with me on stage before. He had played before me, so he was on the stage and saw me play and dance, and saw our dancers, so he knew. He knew!
What about the people in your own community? You use traditional rhythms but electronic sounds – how do older people feel about that?
Oh not everyone is going to like it and accept and appreciate. Older people are always going to criticise, as much as when they were at the top of their height and they were playing their own music – they were changing the music of their grandfathers and play it in their own way – and their grandfathers didn’t think it was as good. They might listen and appreciate but they’ll always say “ohhhh you can’t play it as good as us.” So we need to say “yes, we can’t play better than you, but we are playing for the people that are in our generation.” Once they start accepting that then we’ll be good. We can’t be better than them, but they can’t be better than us at playing what’s right for a generation. It’s about saying to them, “yes, thankyou, but this is our time, we need to change something.”
What are your hopes for the future in South African music?
My hopes are just to be nominated for a Grammy award. Not to win, I don’t care about that: just a nomination will be enough. Then the world will automatically know what is Shangaan music. Then my dream will come true, that is what I want.
And do you have future plans for where you want to take your music?
Yes. I want to collaborate with someone who plays rock music. I play my Shangaan, and he can play with that guitar, with that rock voice. Maybe someone who plays funk too. I like bands like BLK JKS, Freshly Ground, The Parlotones, these are people I could work with. That will be my day, that will be right for me. That will be my day, that will be right for me.
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