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Digital maskandi mania: meet the artists breaking musical boundaries

Artists like Mashayabhuqe KaMamba, Sjava and A$AP Shembe are bringing spiritual tradition and modernism together through a new music genre

03 June 2018 - 00:01 By Rofhiwa Maneta
A$AP Shembe from Vosloorus on Gauteng's East Rand.
A$AP Shembe from Vosloorus on Gauteng's East Rand.
Image: Alon Skuy

"Digital maskandi isn't about pushing boundaries, it's about doing away with them completely," says Mashayabhuqe KaMamba.

"Everything I've ever released is just me taking all my influences and the world as I see it and putting it in the music," he continues on the other end of the phone.

Saturday April 28. Four years ago, almost to the day, the then-little known musician had a breakout performance at the annual Back to the City festival. Given just under 15 minutes, he was one of the festival's highlights, performing his debut EP The Black Excellence Show and introducing the world to his nascent digital maskandi sound.

Not since Jozi's Muthaland Crunk had a South African artist blended maskandi and hip-hop so effectively. But whereas the trio of Da Les, Bongani Fassie and Crazy Lu's blend of Zulu rhythms and crunk was decidedly in the realm of party music, Mashayabhuqe's sound is a bit more avant-garde in its execution. Channelling influences from Busi Mhlongo and Madala Kunene to Kanye West and Bon Iver, the result is the 808-laden, autotune-heavy musings on the collapse of traditionalism and spirituality.

Durban-born Mashayabhuqe KaMamba in Rosebank, Johannesburg.
Durban-born Mashayabhuqe KaMamba in Rosebank, Johannesburg.
Image: Alon Skuy

Heaven Blues/Emaweni - the first song on his latest EP, Nguniversal - starts with a looping folk guitar before erupting with trap drums and distorted vocals.

Similarly, his 2014 single Impendulo ka Baba begins with an interlude by the late Busi Mhlongo, before segueing into fast-swinging trap drums and loud synthesisers.

Izayoni Tribute - a tribute to his maternal grandmother - kicks off with distorted vocals reminiscent of My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy-era Kanye West, before switching to a trap-brass melody and heavy drumwork.

It's not so much music as it as a collision of two opposing generations, with Mashayabhuqe acting as the interlocutor.

"I think I've grown a lot since my first release," he adds. "I co-produced all of the records on my most recent project and I've learnt to channel my energy during performances much better. I'm not too concerned with titles - being called the creator of this or that genre. At the end of it, digital maskandi is about opening yourself to the unknown and letting it work through you. This whole thing is bigger than me."

It's a sentiment shared by Vosloorus-based artist A$AP Shembe. "I'm not too sure what to call my music," he admits. "I reckon I'm just a messenger relaying my ancestors' messages to the material world. It's a spiritual thing."

Like Mashayabhuqe, his music is influenced by traditional Zulu music (he cites Mhlongo, Phuzekemisi and Vusi Ximba as influences). But whereas the digital maskandi originator warns against losing one's way in the face of modernism, Shembe's music is animated by the violence and hardship around him.

"My name's short for Aba Sindisiwe Aba Pheli Shembe," he says. "I'm from a place that's colloquially called 'Enyokeni' in Vosloorus and we have a saying there that goes, 'Once lakugwinya, kunzima ukuphuma [Once the place swallows you in, it's hard to escape]."

Sifile, his most recent record, borrows its vocal inflections from maskandi and vernac-rap, but its production is trap through and through. The record was written after the death of his girlfriend's mother. "I met her for the first and the last time during her hospital stay. It's about surviving hard times and looking towards a higher power to get you through it."

Janyouworry, which name-drops maskandi legends Phuzekhemisi and Izingane Zoma, paints a scene of a Braam cool kid, while also referencing the burning of impepho while talking to amadlozi.

If those seem at odds, they shouldn't be. A$AP Shembe's music is the soundtrack of a generation in flux, kids whose parents blasted maskandi and gospel at home while the kids bopped their heads to hip-hop while being ferried to private schools in leafy suburbs.

Even his name is a divergence of two worlds at opposite ends: A$AP is appropriated from the new-age hip-hop collective A$AP Mob, while Shembe is a nod to the 19th-century Zulu prophet Isaiah Shembe.

LISTEN | A$AP Shembe's track Janyouworry

But if Mashayabhuqe and A$AP Shembe's reworking of maskandi veers into the avant-garde, then Sjava's version is the most accessible. In 2016, the Ambitiouz Entertainment signee released his debut, Isina Muva. Replete with tales of love and heartbreak, the album went on to sell gold. Ngempela, a single on the album, has been nominated for a South African Music Award.

Johannesburger Sjava poses for a portrait in Midrand.
Johannesburger Sjava poses for a portrait in Midrand.
Image: Alon Skuy

"I call my genre of music African trap music," says Sjava. "It draws on a lot of influences, but the most immediate are maskandi, scathamiya and mbaqanga. I guess it's just me funnelling everything I grew up listening to and trying to make it work as its own genre."

In March, Sjava was interviewed on Apple Music's Beats 1 show. During the interview, in which he discussed being featured on the Black Panther soundtrack, Sjava recounted his experience upon first hearing trap music in 2013.

"When I heard trap, the melodies to me [sounded] traditional because at the end of the day, we are all from Africa, it's just that they are overseas and all of that. Somewhere, somehow, we are all linked within the music," he said.

Viewed in this light, African trap music isn't so much a reworking of a genre with a specific locale (maskandi is most popular in KwaZulu-Natal), it is the act of looking outward and finding pieces of home dotted all across the world.

Young Thug then becomes as valid a reference point as Bhodloza Nzimande and Phumlani Mgobhozi. It's why a song like Inhliziyo, a song on Isina Muva, could easily be mistaken for maskandi if the vocals were isolated, but the track also sounds perfect over a trap beat.

Additionally, Dali's dreamy melody and neck-snapping drums could easily be substituted with the guitar licks characteristic of maskandi.

Sjava and Mashayabhuqe have often been compared by fans because of the supposed similarities in their style, something neither of the artists has commented on in public.

WATCH | The music video for Sjava's Impilo

And while some say African trap is a derivative of digital maskandi, that assessment isn't fair to either artist. Granted, both draw on the same genre for inspiration, with one having more of a pop-sensibility while the other is a bit more experimental.

Yet each has made the style their own. At any rate, both artists (as well as A$AP Shembe), are proof that in 2018, maskandi wears many faces.