Sounds of a rainbow nation

Franziska Seitz

When asked about different cultures across Europe, it is simple to name typical national dishes, music or customs for at least some countries. English breakfast, French chansons, German Lederhosen – it is quite easy. Even though each country is becoming more culturally diverse they don’t yet compare to the ethnic diversity of Africa‘s most southern nation. There is no single way to describe the vibrant cultural life of South Africa, currently the home to more than 50 million people of various backgrounds, cultures, customs and languages. It is currently the most diverse country in Africa, inhabiting the largest populations of Europeans, Asians or racially mixed on the entire continent.

Amongst these populations are Indians, Coloureds, Afrikaaner and English – descendants of Dutch and English colonial immigrants – as well as black Africans from numerous tribes. To accommodate such diversity, South Africa has eleven official languages, of which English, Afrikaans and Zulu are most commonly spoken across the nation. In retrospective it is easy to understand why the country was fondly called the “Rainbow Nation“ by Desmond Tutu after its first democratic election in 1994.

South Africa‘s rainbow of culture becomes particularly apparent in its music scene, which is composed of many different styles of music and due to the various ethnic origins within the country somewhat fragmented, as every culture likes to listen to music in their own language.

The most popular styles of music range from traditional African sounds over Hip Hop or Rap to Rock and Alternative or more recently, House music.

One of the most popular styles to name, particularly amongst black South Africans, is Kwaito, which is a unique sound made up of slow house beats, percussive African sounds and usually male vocals which are either chanted or shouted. When the sun sets over the African-dominated suburbs surrounding Johannesburg, it is likely to see young kids gathering on the streets dancing to the sounds of Mandoza, who is one of the country‘s most famous Kwaito musicians. Particularly in townships, most people did not have access to formal music theory or instruments, making it sound somewhat unrythmic at times . After the end of Apartheid, Kwaito became the voice of formerly discriminated groups, with its lyrics often containing political messages.

South Africa‘s contemporary music scene is about as unique as Kwaito in the world, as many artists try to push the boundaries between the different genres that became popular within the country. Crossover bands have become more common throughout the last years and while there are many of them, one of the most famous ones at the moment is probably Freshlyground. Composed of artists from South Africa, Mozambique and Zimbabwe, Freshlyground blends traditional South African folk sounds with blues, jazz and indie rock elements. The band‘s music is a mixture of guitar, flute and violin sounds with elements of percussion and influences from tribal music, such as Zulu or Xhosa. Lead singer Zolani Mahola describes the band‘s aim as reuniting cultural backgrounds from all over the country, so that they do not only exist next to each other but with each other.

This is what makes Freshlyground‘s music special and due to its cheerful sounds also distinctly South African. Like many other South African artists, the bands‘ songs are catchy and thought-provoking at the same time. Chicken to Change for example satirizes Zimbabwean politics, while their famous song Doo Be Doo draws an idealistic picture of society and possibly post-Apartheid South Africa.

Similarly to Freshlyground, the Cape Town-based music duo Goldfish also manages to unite different music styles into exciting, unique tunes and has begun to successfully complete several international tours across Europe. When asked about their musical orientation, Dominic Peters and David Poole, who play various instruments on their own, describe their sound as jazz against the machine. Their style becomes very evident during their exciting live performances, in which the DJ-duo mixes dance and electronica sounds with multiple live instruments strongly reminding of jazz music typical to the Southern Cape, such as saxophones. While some songs are purely instrumental, Goldfish also cooperates with other local African artists or more recently, with UK band Morning Parade in their song Washing over me. Peters and Poole, who started performing as Goldfish after finishing college, explain that their aim was to try and do something different from the usual and thus started to mix different genres into something new. And they quite successfully did so, having toured with acts such as Fatboy Slim or Paul Van Dyk.

When asked what role their South African heritage takes in their music, Goldfish explains that due to South Africa‘s history and it being so diverse, the country still has to deal with many problems that other countries do not experience in that way. But besides that, it is also full of happiness as well as hope and all these elements reappear in their music, which is uplifting and quickly turns their live acts into ecstatic parties.

As societies across the entire planet become increasingly diverse, the South African music scene puts forward a great example how such diversity can enrich any aspect of societal life through the mixture of various cultural influences. Although the country still struggles with many aspects of its fragmented society, it is South African bands like Freshlyground and Goldfish that reunite people of any race during their concerts, making them one.