, - on 1/3/12
In contrary to the guilty pleasure of driving in your car and singing along to Katie Perry’s “I Kissed A Girl’, is the over-used, yet innocently (and painfully) thrown-around term ‘underground’ - when referring to music that is less popular and considered ‘cool’. And in South Africa – a country with a relatively small dance culture anything ‘less popular’ is handicapped from the get-go. However South Africa and in particular Cape Town and Johannesburg, continues to attract the interest of a very comprehensive host of producers and DJs from across the globe. These artists often sacrifice a fatter pay check back home for the chance of an African experience. In a country where sheer numbers of dance enthusiasts are lacking, one can only assume its growing reputation as a place of interest for ‘underground’ dance culture is the result of a handful of ever-persistent promoters with a vision of growth in fertile territory, coupled with the promise of a highly memorable ‘business trip’ and a more intimate musical experience for the artists who visit here.
Music, like most other art-forms draws its influence from abroad, but to adequately describe the electronic music scene in South Africa wouldn’t be far off from describing the colour blue to a blind man. To imagine that which constitutes the colour blue, one needs to understand the colours on either side of blue, and so the law of relativity comes into play, and to fully comprehend the subject one must at least grasp the social dynamics within SA’s dance culture that bears gravity on what it is today.
The dance scene exists largely within SA’s three major cities (Cape Town, Johannesburg & Durban), and the ‘underground’ almost completely within Cape Town and Johannesburg alone. Johannesburg is the financial hub of the country, situated inland from the east coast of Africa, and along with the urban concrete sprawl of its inner city, one might feel a sense of resonance with that of London’s dance culture – though certainly on a much smaller scale and hosting fewer hi-profile acts as that of London. The fast pace of the lifestyle and inability to release pressure over the weekend with a swim in the ocean or hike past a series of waterfalls (as can be experienced in Cape Town) instils in dance enthusiasts a sense of seriousness, or perhaps one can call it a sheer ‘desire’ to party non-stop every weekend, only to find these sweat-drenched souls clutching their pillow on a Sunday night pleading for the insanity to end ... until the following Friday night, where the same faces can be seen time and time again, happily shakin’ a leg in clubs like ‘Truth’ that have been instrumental in pushing the edgier dance genres.
In the early 90’s clubs like Truth and ESP were in their infancy, but have been revered as an institution for dance music – in particular the emerging sounds of the ‘underground’. Currently the bi-annual ‘Fu-Cha Gathering’ is an outdoor festival not to be missed, along with productions by ‘Teknotribe’, ‘We Are The Noise’ and ‘Joint Nation Records’. A visit to Jhb may leave you somewhat scarred – that is if you manage to crawl home from the after-party on a Monday morning !
The coastal city of Durban has a very tropical climate and great surfing conditions – as well as a very conservative attitude – all of which restrict the flow of creative energy and the ideas of those boundary-pushing individuals that simply left in search of greener pastures. This is a classic case of the ‘small city syndrome', a relatively sheltered mindset that exists and is the natural manifestation of the social dynamic within the city. The antithesis of the UK dance culture in a sense – where the punters are spoilt for choice musically, in a city so big the chances of bumping into the same person twice are slim to none. Such seemingly insignificant factors impact massively on the culture, and separates the social-seeking, inebriated types from those with a particular taste in music, that will travel a mile and more to find that DJ that guarantees another basket of rave-soaked laundry on a Monday morning. But with a city as small as Durban (population: 3 million) a club’s popularity is seldom attributed to the musical policy adopted. A social scene at best, the sounds of the ‘underground’ are experienced with productions by the likes of ‘Coco Loco & Friends’ and ‘Uber Cool Events’, though pioneered by the legendary club ‘330’. Grab your surfboard, sandals and a towel to wipe the sweat from your brow!
Travel south to Cape Town and expect the unexpected with a multi-sensory explosion of undulating landscapes and cultural diversity, with music to boot! At the tip of Africa prepare to be mesmerised by the epic beauty of the Cape region – almost enough to be forgiving of the most commercial music, but fortunately there’s a little bit of something for everyone, from bustling bars, well-run promoter nights at selected venues, rooftop and boat parties, and a thriving outdoor trance scene – possibly it’s most ‘popular’ of dance events. What began in the early 90’s as a radically ‘underground’ subculture by nature, has become somewhat diluted and in writing this article to review Cape Town’s ‘underground’ electronic dance culture, one would naturally consider such events, which have become legendary on the local circuit. However its popularity has been at the expense of its exclusivity, and with that, as the focus of the masses shifts in one direction, the space opens up to make room for a new underground. A reminder that the term ‘underground’ does not refer to any music genre, or selections within that genre , but to an ever-changing headspace - a desire to swim upstream, to find something better.
Currently finding it’s place in the true ‘underground’ of Cape Town’s dance scene are select house and techno events, in particular those in memorable, unique locations such as building rooftops & boat parties. Such productions by ‘Make-Believe’ have generated a genuine interest from a dying breed of dance enthusiasts where a typical club night pales in comparison to the experience of an urban sunset or sprawling view (or both) whilst dancing. A concept where the music, location and people are pivotal to the experience. In the words of Steve Jobs – “people don’t know what they want, until you give it to them”. From a production perspective, and in line with the mindset of what ‘underground’ should be, maintaining the essence of such a subculture is to be consciously selective of every facet of the production & marketing. Low-key advertising and ‘word-of-mouth’ have helped the success of a number of small groove bars, which seem to have replaced the dying club culture in Cape Town. And where most venues are abiding by the Western Cape’s stringent 2am liquor license law, you can count on a crowd screeming for another beat at 4am each weekend, at places like ‘Chukkachurri’ (a small groove bar reputed for it’s music and lack of pretense) ‘Fiction Bar’ (on Long Street) and ‘Sapphire’ (Camps Bay).
(Excuse the mess at Chukkachurri by Ian Skene)
The brand ‘Excuse The Mess’, which has made waves on the European circuit, has been a fixture on the local circuit in SA - a European brand with fresh ideology has taken SA by storm in recent years and has been responsible for showcasing a spectrum of sounds in SA every year since 2009 (Mobilee, Candenza, Christian Burkhardt and most recently Hot Creations “Wildkats”) – Their philosophy is simple “excuse the mess but never the music “. Other outfits making waves in Cape Town and adding to the colourful palette of artists visiting our country are ‘We Are The Noise’, Killer Robot’, ‘Cold Turkey’ and ‘Balkanology’ - with a broad diversity in sound, from percussive, deep & tech house to electro-swing, balkan beats and dubstep. The ‘underground’ (or less popular) dance culture in South Africa is thriving and constantly evolving, you just need to know where to find it. And so to quote another famous artist - “ the mainstream comes to you, but you have to go to the underground ”.
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