African arts, culture + politics

Spoek Mathambo: Culture Vulture

(, February 2012) Words Carinya Sharples   Photography Sean Metelerkamp
ARISE can’t get enough of South African rapper and producer Spoek Mathambo. After hosting his first UK performance at our Afropolitans night at the V&A, we shot him in glorious technicolour for issue 13.
These days, Mathambo’s a very busy man. As well as fine-tuning his new album, Father Creeper, and rolling around for some suitably spooky promo shots (our pick above is one of the tamer versions), he’s been exercising his producing arm with vowel-deficient Danish producer and long-time collaborator Chllngr. Together they have whipped up remixes for Lana Del Rey, Seun Kuti and the enigmatic son of South African trumpeter Hugh Masekela, Alekesam (Masekela spelt backwards. Not so enigmatic after all).
Before he launches into a whirlwind round of tours – with stops in the US, Canada, South Africa and Europe – ARISE got Mathambo to sound off on annoying labels, cool collaborations and not being a political poster boy – before mining him for his hot cultural tips.

On coining the label “Township Tech”…

It’s so weird how labels work; stuff getting slapped on. It’s something that I initially coined for a lot of South African music that I was a fan of. I did a lot of DJing and my work was kind of curating exciting new South African music – hyper techy, hyper house, which was very based in South African township culture. And I just clumsily stuck that together to make it township tech.

On the first album I was so hugely influenced by that. But if you listen to the new album it’s very far from those influences. Now I pretty much just do me. The goal is to make big enough sounds, which are accessible, interesting and beautiful enough that people will just appreciate them as Spoek Mathambo’s music, and not necessarily need a tag.

On collaborating with Sauti Sol

Late last year we went to Kenya to work with R&B group Sauti Soul [look out for the band in issue 15 of ARISE, out in March]. They’re incredibly talented. Through some friends we got the link up to work with them and produced some songs.

On scoring an operetta…

There is a performance artist from Cape Town called Athi-Patra Ruga who’s making big moves. He was commissioned by the Museum of Contemporary African Art in New York and produced a performance piece, Ilulwane, in which he was suspended on a ridge above about 20 synchronised swimmers He’d written it as an operetta about Xhosa initiation ceremonies mixed with some stuff about the male body, and we scored a 50-minute piece for it. That was a good collaboration.

On making music on the road…

Touring is really boring. A lot of the time you’re just waiting for sound checks, and getting drunk. I’m used to having a mobile studio on tour with me and being fully able to work. That’s how Prince has done it for years.

On working with Chllngr…

Steven [Chllngr] is a saxophonist. His music theories are pretty like tight. I come up with a lot of rhythmic and conceptual stuff. And we meet in the middle. We just have fun, and have a nice rhythm of working together. The stuff we produced together for the album was made on the road. We’re totally used to this two headphones splitter and laptop style – we’re literally in the back of a car making beats with a keyboard on batteries.

On performing with live musicians…

I’ve been doing electronic music for a while, a couple of years. I don’t appreciate the staid, really strict format with a beginning and end to it and I think that’s why I got into more having more live musicians – to have it be new and to go into different directions, to have more possibilities.

On not sticking to one thing…

What’s the need? The people I look up to are Prince, Stevie Wonder – really well-rounded artists. Every day I am less and less a rapper. I’m moving more and more towards being a musician and learning that side of it.

On making the viewer the video artist…

We’re doing the second video from this new album for the track Kites. The point of it is to have a kind of mass collaboration, where we film a part of the video and then have the rest of the video made up of contributions from digital and video artists from all over Africa. As a viewer you generate original content – you basically generate your own video. So everyone who watches it will be watching a different video. I’ve never heard of a video like that so that’s exciting.

SPOEK MATHAMBO EPK from Romain Cieutat on Vimeo.

On South Africa’s ruling ANC party celebrating 100 years…

I am absolutely into politics and I believe everything is somewhat political but looking at the ANC as something absolutely to celebrate is a bit ridiculous to me. It’s a party that shouldn’t necessarily be running the country now, and is responsible for a lot of good and a lot of bad. So stuff should be looked at absolutely critically. I’m a musician…but to be a poster boy for a political ideal that I don’t necessarily believe in is tough. I mean a lot of people do it because its profitable but that profit is taxpayers’ money – it’s ugly, it’s dicey and it’s corrupt.
It’s not like people have to vote for them because of what they’ve done necessarily. A lot of people vote for them because if they don’t another white party might win, which might mean South Africa regressing back to what it used to be – and it was a very ugly place. So it’s like to defend their freedom. And that’s what the ANC plays on a lot: the “upholders of the liberation”, “the liberation movement”, “the revolutionary house” etc etc…

On bigging up South African dance…

In the video for Let Them Talk I wanted to represent South African dance culture – not dance music, actual dancing. It’s very vibrant, very vital scene. There are so many different styles – and I don’t think the video showed this as much as even I wanted it to, so it’s going to be an ongoing goal for me for a while; to meet with and work with different dancers. There’s always new styles emerging so it’s very exciting.

On future collaborations…

As far as future collaborations go, there’s a great group from Niger, Group Inerane – two guitarists, a bassist and a drummer – who just blew me away. I saw and met them in Malmö [Sweden] when they were touring Europe a couple of months ago. They put music out on the Sublime Frequencies label. It’s just really, really great. I appreciate what they’re doing and I’d love to work with them in the future. It’s not in the works now but like to put it out into the ether…

Listening to…

Dirty Paraffin: the group [made up of Okmalumkoolkat and DJ Spizee] is putting out something new soon. They’re really, really sick – great stage presence as well.
Soulfaktor: Really nice producer. I want to work with them [Soulfaktor is part of creative hub SHO!EPIC a lot more.
The Frown: The singer Eve [Rakow] is in Johannesburg. I love her voice, it’s really, really unique.
BFG: A rap group from Durban. Bra Solomon is a sick Zulu MC. As far as Zulu rapping, I really, really rate him.


 Kafka On The Shore by Haruki Murakami: I’m trying to get through this because I enjoyed Murakami’s book The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle. It took me something like 300 pages to get to parts that I liked but I stuck it through. This time I’m not really winning. I’m still on page 150 and every page is work.
Forced Landing: Africa South Contemporary Writings, edited by Mothobi Mutloatse: This is a bunch of short stories from the 1980s from South Africa.
Connected: The Surprising Power Of Our Social Networks And How They Shape Our Lives by Nicholas Christakis and James Fowler: It’s about human life in relation to social networks. In terms of dyads and triads, and how society’s influence works across the digital realm. How the sickness of someone you’re in contact with can make you sick, how their unhappiness can make you unhappy or how they can make you buy certain things. It also talks about social hysteria. For example, there was a laughing fit that started at a high school in Tanzania in the 1960s and spread across thousands of people and into another part of the country…It’s interesting.
Father Creeper by Spoek Mathambo, out March 12.

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