"You don't want to go there mate, I've heard stories..." are the exact words the taxi driver taking me to the train station uttered when I told him I was spending three weeks in Johannesburg. He was not alone in his thoughts, most people who I spoke to in the weeks running up to my trip had expressed some form of concern for my wellbeing.
Johannesburg has a reputation as a very dangerous city, and I was anxious about going, but my plan was get on the plane and then I couldn't turn back. What I found was one of the most exhilarating, exciting cities I have come across, a city that has such an energy that I miss it most days since coming back.
When I'm not running four three six I freelance in music education and this trip was mostly involved with that role, but I made the decision when I was out there to find out as much as I could about the city, and the country and it's music, art and fashion.
The further north you go in Johannesburg the more manicured it gets, on the whole, and the area of Sandton is where most of the city's financial companies moved to when downtown became troubled. A lot of people who live in the area do not venture south, so there is pretty much everything anyone needs to live up there. This includes Sandton City, a huge sprawling shopping mall in the centre of the area. It was also the venue for South African Fashion Week, and the final night coincided with my arrival so I pretty much headed straight from my flight to the show.
The menswear show featured collections from N.O.T.E. clothing, Ntando XV, Sipho Mbuto and Zamaswazi. Somehow I got ushered to the front row, so slightly shellshocked from an 11 hour flight I took in the array of colours and patterns upfront and in person. Most collections were a mix of street and military inspired fashion, and a lot of it was extremely fresh and ultimately very wearable. As much as my iPhone shots capture the mood, this video from the show featuring the collection from N.O.T.E. (Not Of This Earth) clothing, one of the standouts, does the clothes more justice! You can view all the collections, and I recommend that you do, at the South Africa Fashion Week website
One thing that stood out was the diverse range of music used in the fashion shows, and in the final show one track that stood out was from a genre called Gqom. South Africa has always favoured electronic sounds over pop and rock music, with house music being the go to choice for the nation's soundtrack. In recent years this sound has merged into new styles, coming mainly from the townships and settlements that are dotted all around the nations's cities. There is Kwaito which features rap vocals over energetic house beats and basslines. And then there is Gqom, originally from the townships of Durban this sound is taking over the country's electronic music scene at the moment.
The sound features broken beats, and especially syncopated kick drum patterns, with low drones, sampled vocal snippets and at times euphoric, almost trance like, synth hooks. Initially the tracks were distributed in clandestine facebook and what's-app groups, and their means of broadcast was via the soundsystems of taxi buses, which ferry people around the city all day and night. Now as the sound gets more popular it's being pressed onto CD and distributed through shops such as Musica, which is a record store chain sort of like HMV if HMV was good. In the branch at Sandton City I enquired about Gqom compilations and CDs, and after a slightly lost in translation moment and some coaching on the pronunciation (the gq is pronounced as a click using the tongue on the top of the mouth) I was brought a stack of CDs by the biggest names in the genre - Distruction Boyz, Babes Wodumo and Dladla Mshunqisi.
The sound of Gqom has spread like wildfire in recent months, now even Damon Albarn is on board, with his Africa Express project, whose most recent EP opens with a Gqom track. The BBC Essential Mix also featured a mix from DJ Lag, a Durban based Gqom producer recently. There are two UK based labels that release vinyl based upon this sound - Gqom Oh! and Goon Club Allstars, both of which are worth checking out. Here's a short documentary produced by Gqom Oh:
My search for music took me to two more locations, firstly the Maboneng area of the city. Situated right in the heart of downtown Johannesburg, Maboneng has been taken over by musicians, artists and fashion startups to create a vibrant area full of inspiration.
Arts on Main is part of this area and the Market on Main is held every Sunday, with a whole host of local produce available over two floors, there are also arts installations and a few permanent stores. One of these is local brand I Was Shot in Joburg - the shooting referring to cameras rather than guns. The brand features photography on a range of apparel and accessories, and there store also has an interesting selection of books, dvds, vinyl and mixtapes. I picked up a copy of local producer and rapper Spoek Mathambo's 'Future Sound of Mzanzi' documentary, it's now available online for streaming and covers all aspects of the country's electronic music scene, once again well worth a watch.
Further down the road is Afrosynth Records, run by local DJ Okapi, the store has a great selection of mainly vinyl, but some CDs, cassettes and zines are in there too. The vibe is chilled and the owner is super knowledgable, and I left with a variety of sounds from One, Rudeboyz, Christian Tiger and KG, and also a somewhat random zine, Pontification, that came with a CD of brutal electronica by a local producer
The trip to get to Maboneng took me through Hillbrow, once a very notorious and troubled area, which still has an edge. It's the home of the Ponte Tower, a circular tower with a hollow core that dominates the skyline. Once it was the most exclusive tower block and part of the most exclusive area in the city, but it fell upon bad times. This city icon is undergoing somewhat of a renaissance, and you can now take a tour to the top of the building to see the iconic view and experience the building up close.
The other area I discovered while hunting for music was 44 Stanley, a shopping centre on the edge of the downtown area. Upon arrival I grabbed what can only be described as a lifechanging coffee at Bean There Coffee Roasters. Speciality coffee has been an interest of mine for a couple of years now, and although it may seem like the most bourgeoisie form of revolution, a revolution it is. For years we have been sold the notion that coffee is this bitter powdered instant drink which has the sole purpose of waking you up. But in recent years the real world of coffee and all the flavours and different styles has been made more available, and in turn growers and roasters are beginning to benefit. And also the coffee drinker, when an unexpected flavour hits the tastebuds we realise that the world isn't as ordinary a place as we're being told.
At Bean There they roast all the coffees themselves, and are South Africa's first certified roaster of Fair-trade organic African coffee. There were varieties from all over Africa on offer, I opted for a roast from Democratic Republic of Congo, something I hadn't seen before.
Immediately opposite Bean There is a local streetwear brand Love Jozi, whose graphic t-shirts and accessories communicate the relationship that Johannesburg residents have with their city, but with an air of hopefulness that makes the brand quite inspiring. A lot of the brand's products feature the iconic skyline, which includes the Ponte tower mentioned earlier, as well as the city's two other high rise icons, the Brixton tower and the Hillbrow Tower.
The final stop at 44 Stanley was Mr Vinyl, a crate diggers paradise, with a great selection of new and second hand records and a few cassettes. They also act as a label and distributor and drew my attention to a recent release of there's, a reissue of an album originally released in 2000 by Krushed & Sorted called Acid Made Me Do It, apparently inspired by a rave in Johannesburg in the late 90s at which all the attendees were given an acid tab upon arrival. I'm not 100% sure of the validity of this story but the album is worth hunting down as it features some huge breaks and drum & bass tracks.
Johannesburg is a city with a troubled history, but also a bright future. There is an energy there that cannot be described in words alone. I only scratched the surface but hope I will get the chance to go back and see more of the what the city has to offer, and to return home as inspired as I was from this journey.