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TERRY GROSS, HOST:

This is FRESH AIR. Americans can now hear the music of Penny Penny, a South African singer who became a breakthrough star there during the mid-'90s dance music craze. Known as an innovator, Penny Penny sang in his local dialect, adding modern beats and a party vibe that was all his own. Though a star for decades in his home country, Penny Penny's music had never been available here until the recent release of his 1994 debut album. Music critic Milo Miles says the story of Penny Penny's rise is a classic a-star-is-born tale.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "SHAKA BUNDU")

PENNY PENNY: (Singing in foreign language)

MILO MILES, BYLINE: The appearance of Penny Penny's "Shaka Bundu" in the American market is welcome not only in itself, but as a sign of a larger trend. Five or six years ago, it was clear the music business was going into long-term sales decline. I was certain that a prime victim of that would be African pop. The established imports of the '80s and '90s would be available as MP3 downloads, but surely new discoveries and reissues would slow to a trickle, if not cease altogether.

I'm very grateful that has simply not happened. A number of European companies are doing honorable work bringing vintage sides to light. And surely, an American leader is the label Awesome Tapes, from Africa, who brought out "Shaka Bundu" late last year. Penny Penny's 1994 debut reflected a contemporary technological revolution in music. Dance club hits from England and the U.S. were particularly big in South Africa, and they proved modern sound didn't need fancy instruments, just plucky small studios and canny producers.

The canny producer was Joe Shirimani, and part of his canny judgment was to pluck an ambitious janitor, Penny Penny, away from his broom and put him in front of a microphone. The results boom for themselves.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "SHICHANGANI")

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: Aya, Papa Penny.

PENNY: Aya.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: Aya, Papa Penny.

PENNY: Aya.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: Aya, Papa Penny.

PENNY: (Singing in foreign language)

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: Aya, Papa Penny.

PENNY: Aya.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: Aya, Papa Penny.

PENNY: (Singing in foreign language)

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: Aya, Papa Penny.

PENNY: Aya. (Singing in foreign language)

MILES: That song, "Shichangani" is a standout example of a style known as Tsonga disco, from the Tsonga people of northern South Africa. Now, Tsonga disco has a tendency to sound low budget and repetitious, more insistent earworm than intoxicating. But as is often the case with dance music, it's a matter of microtones sparked when a producer like Shirimani meets a personality like Penny Penny. To this day, the singer's visual signature is the elaborate top knots in his hair.

On "Shaka Bundu," his oral signature is his party vibe - hearty, but not frantic, more plain sexy than raunchy. And the whole album keeps coming up with fresh variations, such as the title track.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "SHAKA BUNDU")

PENNY: (Singing in foreign language)

MILES: "Shaka Bundu" was a deserved hit in South Africa, selling more than 250,000 copies. This was especially noteworthy at the time because music in the Tsonga language had a hard time breaking out, and Penny Penny was popular all over the country. After years of success as a performer, Penny Penny became more active as a local elected official and member of the African National Congress. He has recently affirmed that music is his essential business. "Shaka Bundu" certainly offers confirmation of that.

GROSS: Milo Miles reviewed Penny Penny's 1994 debut album on the label Awesome Tapes from Africa.

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