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Batuk's pan-African house music

By Alison Hird

Batuk are a South African collective with a post-modern approach to spreading pan-Africanism. Currently touring Europe with music from their debut album Musica de Terra, RFI caught up with them at the Mama music festival in Paris.  

Against a backdrop of images of South Africa’s grasslands or Berlin’s red light district, Manteiga prowls the stage in a glossy scarlet rubber catsuit. She leans into the audience and belts out Puta (whore), one of the songs from the band's debut album Musica de terra.

“It’s about an experience I had [in Berlin] where somebody sexually harassed me while walking in the street,” she says. “It’s speaking on behalf of almost every woman and girl saying ‘Stop’. It’s directed back at all these offenders and to tell women to rise up and stand up for themselves.”

Manteiga (Carla Fonseca) is a Mozambican/South Africa performance artist and vocalist with the Batuk collective alongside South African producers Spoek Mathambo and Aero Manyelo.

In under an hour the band recently pumped up the volume at the FGO in Paris with their brand of Afrohouse; performing a kind of aural street art heavy on dance, trance and video, which further expands the future face of music coming out of the African continent.

HIRD/RFI

Electro is popular in France, making up 17 percent of all music sales, but in South Africa it IS pop itself.

“South Africa is one of the biggest consumers and producers of electronic dance music,” says Aero. “Every day there’s about a hundred songs produced by youngsters just from their own laptops. You hear it everywhere: radios, bus stations, hospitals.”

And it’s pulled in fans of all ages.

“You might see very young children consuming it as pop music and you might see an old lady singing it as pop music,” says Spoek. “Because it’s on our radio all the time, it’s not like it’s only in clubs or shibeens or whatever.”

Batuk’s music draws on Afrohouse, soul, zouk, kuduro, deep house, techno and traditional African sounds but Spoek shies away from genres, preferring to call it “post-modern music”.

“I don’t think of it in terms of genre, it’s more about production. We might use a cello but we wouldn’t be playing a cello ourselves, we’d be manipulating it. In South Africa using electronic music as the means of production is hugely popular.”

The Pan-African connection

The widespread production and consumption of electronic music has allowed Batuk to connect with artists across Africa to develop a kind of pan-African collective including South African vocalist Nandi Ndlovu, Mozambicans Grupo Zore and Grupo Makarita, Lebon from Congo and Ugandan artists Giovanni Kiyingi, Annet Nandujja and Nilotica.

Grupo Makarita brings together “six-year old children and 70-year old women […] Culture and energy is about something bigger, it’s not particular to teenagers,” Spoek adds.

“We’re interested in sharing rhythms and sounds and different languages, fusing all of those different elements into our music,” says Mantiega. Sometimes we don’t even know what language people are singing in until afterwards.”

And as Spoek points out it goes beyond singing a good tune.

“The point of us mixing up these different cultures and languages is to show unity and to expose people, to make people not say ‘those are the other people’ but to say that ‘those are my people’."

African pride

Their songs explore a wide range of themes from African pride to war, feminism, conservation and nature.

“The whole Musica de Terra album deals with where we are as young Africans right now,” says Spoek. “The state of different countries in society, politically but also romantically, the way people view each other, sexuality. There’s fun, pleasure, drug culture, hedonism...”

But he declines to say whether there’s much to be proud about.

“African youth is where the world is at actually, there are many positive things happening and many negative things happening, it would be very simplistic to say it’s good or bad.”

The dancefloor… and beyond

Spoek admits South Africa, along with many of its neighbours, has “huge educational and health problems and dancing isn’t gonna help that".

But the continent’s long tradition of dancing can be a force for good.

“We’ve been dancing for hundreds of thousands of years, that’s fundamental in our culture. Dance is a hugely personal thing, you can be in a club, close your eyes and travel somewhere positive. Whatever frustrations you have on an individual level, you can really express yourself.”

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