A Charismatic Kwaito Chat with TKZee

We caught up with one of the masters of Kwaito, Kabelo Mabalane, for some authentic insight into the uniquely South African music genre, its origins, and its future

Innovators, forerunners – labels that so many artists aspire to, but few attain. In the constantly turbulent, changing face of South Africa’s music industry few survive, let alone prosper.

Yet the dynamic TKZee have always been, if nothing else, versatile, able to navigate the storm. They’ve survived the best and worst that the South African Music industry has to offer, firmly securing a top spot on the list of South African Music Legends.

But then, defining a whole new style of music can do that for you…

So we were lucky enough to be able to pick the brain of the eloquent co-owner of Faith Records, winner of the 2004 Kora award for best male South African artist, and co-founding member of TKZee - Kabelo Mabalane.

CTMag: Many of our [overseas] readers might not know Kwaito – can you give us one sentence explaining it for ‘those who don’t know’?

Kabelo: South African dance music with a strong beat

CTMag: ‘TKZee’ is a name that stands out, a name that people have come to associate with quality music, but how did it originate?

Kabelo: It’s an amalgamation and anagram of our three names : Tokollo, Kabelo and Zwai. Of course we played around a lot before settling on it.

CTMag: Scouring the net, there are countless papers and thesis’s written on the subject -What do YOU say to critics who claim that Kwaito is nothing more than South African Hip Hop?

Kabelo: I wouldn’t disagree… In many ways it is. I mean, it’s rapping over a solid beat, its part and parcel of the same thing. So I’d say there’s a strong hip-hop influence to kwaito. Coming up when we did, hip hop was an obvious influence – but still Kwaito remained and remains distinctly African. It was something we set out to do, make something that was so very African in nature. And as the music scene grew, so did the South African Hip-Hop scene – love and respect to those guys.

CTMag: Which songs/artists do you distinctly remember as influential from when you were a kid?

Kabelo: Well we were there at its Kwaito’s inception. It was an exciting time; to be a young, vibrant man held such endless possibilities. Coming from such a conservative past especially – South Africa is still pretty conservative, but all of a sudden we were afforded new options. Especially as all three of us are Saint Stithian boys – which is an incredibly academic school. To be able to break that mold was incredibly exciting.

CTMag: How do you feel Kwaito has been used as a force of influence?

Kabelo: When Kwaito first came out it created an amazing sense of urgency amongst the black youth – all of a sudden there was this option that never existed, to get into the music industry. That in turn influenced the other entertainment areas – because music was doing so well.

So the other guys, the fashion and movie industry, really had to play catch up – we were selling records in the hundreds of thousands in a very short time, so that ignited these other industries to play a sort of 'catch up'.

CTMag: Do you try to send a message with your music, and if so, what is that message primarily?

Kabelo: Now as it was then – it’s a message of elation. Sure, we write some spiritual things here and there, but Kwaito’s really about party, party, party. When it first started it was such a release. We feed off the amazing energy that’s created in this country – think of what’s going on now; with the African Cup of Nations, the World Cup Soccer, these are exciting times.

CTMag: When you write a song, what are your goals – what are you setting out to do?

Kabelo: I believe in formula, in structure – of the three of us I’m the structure guy. I’d say these are our positive attributes, Tokollo and Zwai are more spontaneous, ‘no structure to their madness’ and I bring that back in again. As far as inspiration goes, I can be inspired by anything. I sometimes get hit by an idea and have to pull my car over to the side of the road so I can write it down. I need to get a Dictaphone though, if you can’t get an idea down at the time then its gone forever.

CTMag: What do you think of the Kwaito guys in the Western Cape?

Kabelo: There are lots of quality musicians in Cape Town, especially the Kwaito guys from when we were starting out.

CTMag: How do you feel about the positive response to Kwaito overseas, do you think non-African countries could ever adopt Kwaito as a style with authenticity?

Kabelo : Its SO African. Aspects of it, definitely though - style and beat predominantly. Its too specifically African a style of music to be adopted completely of course – we use a certain vernacular that someone from another country wouldn’t be able to duplicate. But I’ve heard guys stuff from after they’ve come down here; Ludacris for example, after he came down I listened to his new stuff and there was distinct influence.

CTMag: You have achieved massive accolades, including multiple Sama awards – what ambitions do you have for the group in the future?

Kabelo: To exploit our popularity, we’ve taken a long break, eight years now. We’re ready to go take TKZee to the whole of Africa. We’ve been speaking to various artists about collaborations – taking our music beyond borders. That’s the goal. Truth be told we’ve hit the ceiling in South Africa, so we’re ready to…re-invent ourselves, or rather, utilize our popularity to new horizons.

CTMag: There’s a perception that there’s a ‘glass ceiling’ when it comes to the success that musicians can achieve in South Africa – would you say that’s true?

Kabelo: What people don’t realize, is that responsibility falls on musicians themselves. Their success is their own responsibility. You need to align yourself with experts who can exploit your talent to the full, who can properly negotiate ‘the business of music’. I’d say only 10 percent of success in the industry is actually about the music. The rest is affiliating yourself with someone who can market your talents.

CTMAg: If you could collaborate with any other artists, (Kwaito or otherwise, nationally and internationally ) who would they be?

Kabelo: Jay-z… I would love to do something with Jay-z. There’s been talk of something with Jamiroquai, we’ve sampled him before. So we’ve been thinking of that a bit recently… reaching new audiences. This is just off the top of my head of course.

CTMag: How do you think the onset of the digital world has altered the course of music as a business? With bands now giving their music away for free, or selling entire albums directly off their MySpace pages, some say the age of the big record companies is dead.

Kabelo: I’d say its better. For both musicians and others who stand to profit. But what needs to be found is a sustainable business model. I mean, the music industry didn’t start 10 yrs ago, its been in a state of metamorphosis for a long time. I remember when everything changed from tape decks to C.D’s, there was this outcry of people who didn’t know how they’d adjust. And look at it now.

The other difference is how much music is really competing now, with movies, mobile and telecommunications; music is having to fight for attention, While once it was really the only option.

CTMag: Some of TKZee’s favourite places in the Western Cape?

Kabelo: The Raj in Camps Bay is great… and I love going to Stellies, I often do that. Its nice because in Cape Town there’s such anonymity, and its really a breath of fresh air anyway. I love Joburg, it’s where I’ve always lived, but Cape Town is so great to just get away. Actually I’m looking at buying a place in C.T.

CTMag: How about some of your favourite venues to play in the Cape? Any left you'd still really like to play?

Kabelo : Love playing in Cape Town, even if I haven’t as much as I’d like, but we’re looking to change that… My favourite gig was probably the Jazz Fest 2004. Or actually we played the Final Draw in Long Street, that was truly amazing, 50 000 people was it? Incredible, such energy.

CTMag: Shout out to Cape Town?

Kabelo: Thank you! To the fans of course, for your support and love, I’m looking forward to the Jazz Festival, looking forward to seeing you there.

Personalities of interest and achievement are a-plenty in and around Cape Town’s relaxing yet exciting streets. We catch up with a few of them for some interesting convo’s and a chance to gain some varied insights into their different thoughts and worlds.

By John Scharges


For another interesting read, check out our "What's the deal with Kwaito?" feature.

Be sure to keep up-to-date with who’s doing what in and around Cape Town by subscribing to our monthly Editor’s Picks Newsletter!

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