Music expert Mpumelelo “Frypan” Mfula on South Africa’s buzzing subgenres
After hosting talks for Boiler Room x Ballantine's True Music Studios in Soweto, Mfula explains the sgija sound and bacardi revival. Like amapiano? Love this.
Back in February, we headed out to the Soweto township in South Africa for Boiler Room x Ballantine’s True Music Studios programme. The four day event included amapiano parties, a voguing ball hosted by LGBTIQA+ collective Le Grand Brand, and panel talks chaired by Mpumelelo “Frypan” Mfula – a 32-year-old music expert who’s long been supporting creative communities in Soweto and the neighbouring city of Johannesburg.
After graduating with a politics degree in 2013, Mfula launched the online clothing store RHTC (Return Home to Create) which aimed to uplift South African youth culture by exclusively stocking brands by local designers. The physical RHTC store was open from 2017 – 18, attracting a crowd of musicians, artists skaters and fashion lovers. From these headquarters, Mfula kicked off a workshop series called Let’s Play Outside, which later blossomed into a festival.
“All of those experiences and being in events kind of gave me an insight from in the culture,” Mful saysa. “I think that’s my biggest advantage… A lot of researchers are people from outside the culture.”
After meeting Mfula at the Boiler Room x Ballantine’s True Music Studios events, I called him up to chat about the revival of barcadi music, the new amapiano-offshoot called sgija and how the scene in Soweto feels about the international hype.
What was your highlight of the Boiler Room x Ballantine’s True Music Studios programme?
I think Le Grand Brand [Saturn Return ball] was the special one for me. It was really interesting to see queer culture be embraced like that in Soweto. I’ve experienced that in [Johannesburg], but not in Soweto. That was interesting. Quite a highlight.
What new South African artists are you excited about?
You know, it’s more of a sound, because I look at it from an umbrella point of view. So I wouldn’t drop names but I’m really excited about how the sound is going back and forth, between [sounds] that are new but familiar, like sgija, but also old and very familiar, like bacardi. It’s been since maybe 2006 or 2007 when bacardi was at its peak. We’re seeing this resurgence of bacardi now. And it comes with a certain culture.
What kind of culture is attached to bacardi music?
Bacardi is mainly [from] the townships of Pretoria, such as Mamelodi and Soshanguve. And what you find there is that the sound is really informed by the place itself. The dances [are] very fast-paced. Then there’s “high school culture”, fashion is a big part of that. Students would customise their uniform, make it look cool and casual. Also, it’s [about] the transportation, so taxis and minibus taxis are a big part of high school culture, students will pay a premium to ride a taxi like that over a bus. Good sound – I mean very loud – that’s a draw card to students, you know. And that facilitates conversation, in the sense that the taxi drivers would have to play certain types of music that appeal to the youth. And then, the producers make music specifically for that space and market. So it’s crazy how the transport system, youth culture within high schools, fashion and just the environment informs the music itself, the BPM and how it moves and so forth.
So what exactly is sgija?
The first time I heard about sgija show was last year. My younger brother was telling me about it, he’s trying out producing music and that’s his fascination. And right now what [sgija] is not even well-documented, it’s more of like a social interpretation from what I’ve gathered, there’s nothing really on paper that says “this [is what] makes sgija’ and this is what doesn’t make sgija.” But they are like recurring themes that make the sound sgija. The first one is that it’s very close to what they call private school amapiano – it’s much smoother [than some amapiano], with soulful chord progressions, you know, very similar to deep house [in its] foundations and elements. The log drum is also there, so that’s what also makes it very close to amapiano, but it’s more at the back, so it doesn’t lead as much as it does on amapiano.
Has the recent surge of international interest in South African music, and investment from brands like Ballantine’s, made a difference on the ground in SA?
The thing about South Africa is that in relation to the rest of the continents, we have a lot of international relations on so many levels, especially JoBurg to be specific. So international attention is quite a normal thing. And it’s valued and celebrated, but I don’t think it’s given anything a step up per say.
But this is what I can tell you: Having hung out with Njeglic [respected Soweto producer/DJ who appeared on a panel alongside Mfula], I think he came to a realisation [like] myself that, you know, this is actually a very big platform and a well-respected. And it showed it in the production quality, and so forth. I think [the programme] brought some refreshing perspective to amapiano as young genre that hasn’t really gotten through in a lot of space in credible spaces, and hasn’t had its artists well-respected and treated professionally. I’d say just the experience upped the value of that quite a bit.