South Africa, with its complex history and constantly changing culture, is still far from the vision of Mandela. With racial divides, discrimination, golden ghettos and trivialised domestic violence, there is a long way to go. Yet in addition to all this, in the heart of a part of the city that is strongly discouraged by foreign embassies as supposedly too dangerous, some wonderful things are happening, with music obviously playing a major role. It is time to see the other side of Soweto.
19/02/16 Edit: Thuli, an independant DJ often invited by the His and Hers jams collective, made a little selection especially for us, enjoy!
Soweto (an English syllabic abbreviation for South Western Townships) was born out of racial divides; originally a black ghetto which was the scene of some of the worst atrocities of apartheid, police violence, tortures, murders and the poverty and injustice which regularly gave rise to such violence. In order to ease the tension of this electric atmosphere for a night, the musicians of the townships felt safe from the eyes of the police in the backyards of these makeshift homes. Whilst defying the ban on meeting, there was a celebratory atmosphere of joy and sharing, a positive resistance which shaped the character of these neighbourhoods.
50 years later, democracy is established but the ghettos remain. The government built huge homes on the outskirts of neighbourhoods that nobody can afford and consequently remain desperately empty. In Orlando West, a part of the huge neighbourhood of Soweto, a ‘block party’ spirit has emerged due to the initiative of some motivated musicians: His and Hers Jams. On one Sunday each month, this collective organises a night in the heart of Orlando West, in the heights of Soweto. Behind one of the houses, similar to all the others, we were lucky enough to attend the last of these underground evenings in 2015. The night consisted of a DJ set in the afternoon- a blend of jazz, groove and house packed full of old school references- then live group performances, clearly influenced by traditional zulu music but also afrobeat and jazz-rock, to entertain the neighbourhood well into the early hours of the morning…
To get into the swing of things, here’s a video of one of the headliners from the night, The Muffinz:
They are a handful of musicians who have shared the view from the beginning that things need to be going on in more places than just the city centre and that the image of Soweto needs to be restored by introducing a place of artistic exchange. We met up with Tshidiso, one of the founding members of the collective, to tell us a bit more:
Could you explain the concept and history of His & Hers Jams to us?
We are originally a group of friends and musicians. And then we said to each other how we were lacking a place where we could hang, have a drink and share the music that we like. So from the beginning we said to the groups: “Ok guys, we’ve got no money, we haven’t got a stage or lights, but we want to do something.” The first night, we were 40 at most, it was quite personal and we didn’t really advertise it, it was just a neighbourhood party. But gradually, we ended up having the necessary funds to develop the logistic side of things. One of the dimensions of this project is also the sharing of expertise: Lee is a sound engineer, others are more organisation-savvy, we are all art lovers but we all share our know-how. And then we took great care to bring in the residents of the neighbourhood. We really wanted a project for and by the people of Orlando West (a neighbourhood of Soweto.)
How did people react to the project from the beginning? In the middle of the neighbourhood with a huge sound system… Hard to miss, no?
Actually at the beginning some were a bit hesitant, but it’s like that with everything- people are scared of what they don’t know. Then after a couple of sessions, people suddenly understood the spirit and came around to the concept. I even had to tell off a 60 year-old guy who came to see me and said “Hey, was it you playing jazz yesterday? Why wasn’t I invited?” (Laughs) Essentially, people are happy to show the other side of Soweto, to see that we put on great things and include the citizens.
– Thuli and her jazzy sounds –
You talk about showing the other side of Soweto. Have the people that come to your nights changed? Do they come more from the city centre or from rich neighbourhoods for example?
The population has always been very eclectic, but gradually we see the people from rich neighbourhoods come from further and further away. It’s funny because the people of Soweto are happy that we put on these nights because they can enjoy themselves, listen to the music without spending too much money or using too much petrol, but now people use petrol to come to Soweto! (Laughs.) We’re even starting to see some people from Pretoria coming. (Editor’s note: that’s more than 50 miles away!) It’s really good because the people that come from elsewhere can spread the word and can say to their friends “Soweto’s not all that bad”, you know? The problem is that they only ever hear about this neighbourhood in the media and when something is presented as bad, word of mouth is the most effective way to break the image of a ‘no-go zone’.
– Opening the live festivities with The Brother Moves On and their exciting set –
Following this success, have you thought of taking the project to other townships or other cities?
Yes, that’s definitely the idea. Our main problem at the moment is logistics. The cost of relocating material, musicians, DJs and rent would use up practically all of our funds. We plan to invest in a really big, good sound system next year, and then it will be simpler and we will easily be able to put nights on where we want. There was a real demand here, it was heartfelt and I think the reception will be similar to that of Soweto.
Other than that, what do you have planned for 2016, any resolutions?
Oh man, 2016 is going to be a good year. For the next few nights we have managed to bring in some big names for DJs and for the live sets we are going to put up sets in order for 6-8 groups to play. We are also going to put on workshops for the area’s teenagers, artistic workshops with all sorts of disciplines: music, mixing, painting… That will be really cool!
To follow His & Hers: