This Is Africa

Spoek Mathambo, South Africa's trailblazing music icon, is releasing a new album next month. Kimon de Greef caught up with him to discuss innovation, influences and "evolving African cultural lineages in the face of imperialism".


Free Love, your first full-length LP with the Fantasma collective, drops on 9 March. Is there a singular intention behind the album, a core message or feeling or sound you’re putting across? Albums have survived the digital revolution and the age of the single because listeners appreciate cohesive bodies of work.

The core message of our work is to break boundaries and be loving. We have the most talented musicians with a wealth of experience and we have managed to create something very beautiful and revolutionary with this album. It is a singular vision born of disparate, intense energies.

2015 is shaping to be a big year for South African music. Which artists and releases are you most excited by? Anything in particular you’re looking forward to hearing?

I’m always excited to hear more from Samthing Soweto and Nakhane Touré, two of my favourite musicians. Bheki Cele aka Vukazithathe, who plays guitar and bass in Fantasma, is starting work on a new album and I’m looking forward to that. Eve Rakow from The Frown is working on her album that I’m very keen to hear it. I’m a big fan of Thandiswa Mazwai and word is that she’s dropping her long-awaited album this year too.

For a period it seemed like you had a stronger following in Europe than at home. Is this an accurate assessment? Is it changing? How receptive is the local market to your output?

I think the “stronger following in Europe” thing is a fallacy. The music industry in South Africa has not been welcoming or supportive, but in terms of people listening to and buying my music and coming to see me perform I have a beautiful following who understand my music like only South Africans can. I had the good fortune to perform in Ethiopia, Angola and Zambia recently and am glad to know that my work is appreciated and followed widely on the continent.

Future Sound of Mzansi, your 2014 documentary profiling South Africa’s explosive electronic music scene, showcased artists who have fused foreign influences with traditional sounds. Your new work with Fantasma is similarly hybrid in nature, as likely to draw on maskandi riffs as it is hard techno. How important is it for musicians to remain true to the material they reference? Is it difficult to maintain a sense of authenticity?

In 2015 there is no such thing as “foreign influence”. We live submerged in influences from across the universe. They travel online at the speed of light. I think we tend to be too myopic in our understanding of music and influences: Maskandi has been greatly influenced by other “foreign” forms — does that make it any less South African? Music, like life, is about sharing, exploring, revitalising, destroying and rebuilding ideas to find your own truth.

What we do is true to itself by virtue of its unique germination and form. It will take a while for narrow-minded people to understand how dynamic South Africa is in 2015, and how dynamic we have been for hundreds of years in terms of culture, science, language and thought.

Your work is often held up as an example of afrofuturism, a term filmmaker Ytasha Womack has described as “the intersection between black culture, technology, liberation and the imagination” and “a way of bridging the future and the past and (helping) reimagine the experience of people of colour.” Do you actively set out to explore the 'black experience'? What stories need to be told?

I do not care for being an example of anyone else’s ideas. What we do is for the past, present and future, for our ancestors, brothers, sisters and children, whether black, brown, orange or pink.

As the global music market increasingly turns to Africa for inspiration, which countries and scenes, in your opinion, are best positioned to leave a mark?

I don’t think anyone is best positioned to do anything. All African regions have great musical and cultural landscapes, as well as links to different societies due to lingual commonalities. Things will continue to expand and grow as walls of ignorance are broken down. The most important thing for us all is to inform ourselves better to destroy our prejudices about different regions.

Does the music coming out of South Africa reflect what’s happening on the ground? Do you connect broader meaning to the sounds people are pushing? What influences the music we produce here? What influences yours?

The influence of society on music is tangible. Music reflects what South Africa is or wants to be. My own art is shaped by a yearning for us to define ourselves beyond what advertising sells us or what our parents tell us we should be. This is a new time and should be evaluated as such, considering the past but not living in its shadow. I am interested in the impact of the information age on the psyche of the post-apartheid society. I am interested in how we can evolve our African cultural lineage in the face of cultural imperialism.

Shangrila, the lead single off your new album, is loose and breezy and hypnotic, a far cry from the darker sounds that characterised earlier material like Control. Is this Spoek Mathambo moving in a new direction? Is this a sign that you’re lightening up?

I have always worked with a variety of moods. Light and shade is important to reflect reality and dreams.

Creatives in Africa are better poised than ever to be recognised for and live from their art. True? False? Anything you’d like to see change to strengthen the position of the arts on this continent?

True. I can only really speak for South Africa but I feel free to do what I like artistically and make a living. Not everybody is in the same position, sure, but there is a lot of hope and energy in the arts and a lot of people are taking their destinies in their own hands.

(Lead photograph © Travys Owen.)