Before He Joined Congress, A South African Janitor's Disco Past

NPR | Feb. 6, 2014 2:12 p.m. | Updated: Feb. 6, 2014 5:05 p.m.

Contributed By:

Milo Miles

Penny Penny.

Penny Penny.

Courtesy of the artist

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 Shirirmani, 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.

“Shichangani” is a standout example of the 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 topknots in his hair. On Shaka Bundu, his aural 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.

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.

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