DON GONYEA, HOST:
The pulsing dance beats of house music have ruled the South African airways since the 1990s. But several years ago, a band of young musicians combined jazz, soul and R and B with the country's older choral traditions to create a different sound altogether. They're called The Muffinz, and they've just released their second album. Baz Dreisinger caught up with them in Johannesburg and brought back this story.
BAZ DREISINGER, BYLINE: On any given Saturday night, the trendy place to be is Braamfontein, a gentrifying, hipster-friendly neighborhood downtown, where packed bars and clubs sound mostly liked this.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "PRETTY DISASTER")
MONEOA: (Singing) Still waiting here, though.
DREISINGER: So something of a stunner to hear a DJ segue into this tune.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "GHETTO")
THE MUFFINZ: So this is a story about this place where we come from. In South Africa, we call it ikasi. The rest of the world calls it the ghetto. Some places call it the hood. In Brazil, they called the favela.
(Singing) Said I'm from a place where being desolate is the same as being rich 'cause government resources are far from our reach.
DREISINGER: That's "Ghetto" by The Muffinz, the Joburg-based five-man band's 2012 debut was striking for several reasons. First, it was played on unconventional instruments, not built in the studio from electronic beats and samples. Second, in songs like "Ghetto," the musicians take on such weighty topics as life in South Africa's suffering townships. Vocalist and guitarist Sifiso "Atomza" Buthelezi calls them pools for cheap labor.
SIFISO BUTHELEZI: These ghettos are needed because the people are needed, you know? Like, humans are the greatest resource on Earth - better than gold, better than platinum - because in order to get all of that, you need humans. So they need the humans to stay in those conditions so that they can wake up and go do the same rubbish job to make peanuts, just so that they can just carry on living that life of being a new form of slave.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "GHETTO")
THE MUFFINZ: (Singing) I'm from the ghetto. There's no way that my kids will grow up in the ghetto. And there's no way that my mom will die in the ghetto. There's no way, no way, no way.
DREISINGER: Members of The Muffinz met five years ago when they were students at the University of Johannesburg, singing in its 60-member choir.
(SOUNDBITE OF CHORAL MUSIC)
UNIDENTIFIED PEOPLE: (Singing in foreign language).
DREISINGER: Muffinz vocalist and guitarist Simphiwe "Simz" Kulla says they learned a range music in choir.
SIMPHIWE KULLA: We do African music. We do European styles from Finnish to German music. We do Negro spirituals.
DREISINGER: Choir music has a long history in South Africa, from Zulu a cappella traditions to the billboard-charting Soweto Gospel Choir and, of course, Ladysmith Black Mambazo, which which took the style international.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "MBUBE")
LADYSMITH BLACK MAMBAZO: (Singing in foreign language).
DREISINGER: Sifiso Buthelezi sees choirs as a deeply African artform, steeped in storytelling.
BUTHELEZI: African people sing for celebrations. African people sing for funerals. African people just sign when we're sad. There's a quote that Mandela once said - that the beautiful thing about African music is that even though it may be sad, it will still move you. Like, you will still want to dance to it.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "T.I.A.")
THE MUFFINZ: (Singing) Standing, standing, standing - no falling - standing, standing, standing - no falling.
DREISINGER: The Muffinz have the look of Brooklyn hipsters, and they've shot equally slick videos, allowing them to reach a similar audience in Johannesburg with their message.
BUTHELEZI: We have a responsibility to sort of be a voice for the voiceless. Like, when we create our art and when we use our creativity, use our creativity to better society. We can't just be glad that we're there. What's happening about the rest of the people?
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "T.I.A.")
THE MUFFINZ: (Singing) We all are equals 'cause in our land there are no strangers but those we put in power to serve us. When the masters try to help, question intentions and if they fail, don't you fight. Africa's rising.
DREISINGER: The Muffinz take their sense of responsibility even further on their sophomore album, says acoustic guitarist and vocalist Mthabisi "Mthae" Sibanda.
MTHABISI SIBANDA: There's less stories about self. Now we're speaking about what we are seeing in the word and how we think people should address it.
DREISINGER: The musicians address AIDS, politics, education and the legacy of colonialism, says Sifiso Buthelezi.
BUTHELEZI: People always talk about crime and how the black people are crime-ridden, but everything that black people are, especially all the negative traits, are as a result - like Martin Luther King said - of previous crimes by colonialists or the slave masters.
DREISINGER: But in the end, he says, The Muffinz are writing music, not political tracks.
BUTHELEZI: I always sort of equate music to medicine. As much as it's good for you, it doesn't taste really great. You know, so if, as a mother, you want to administer some medicine to your child, you know, putting a little sugar in the medicine often helps. You know, so that's what we're trying to do. As much as we're trying to make people aware and sort of give people some medicine, we say it nicely. We put some sugar in that medicine.
DREISINGER: That approach seems to be working. Earlier this month, The Muffinz performed on one of South African TV's most popular talk shows, singing songs about politics, corruption and African history. For NPR News, I'm Baz Dreisinger.
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