Nozinja on His Warp Records Debut: "Shangaan Cannot Be Ignored"

Nozinja on His Warp Records Debut: "Shangaan Cannot Be Ignored"
Photo: Chris Saunders
Most musicians balk when record execs interfere with their music, perhaps especially Nozinja. The South African DJ and producer used to run his own label and was the first to infuse his forefathers' traditional Shangaan folk with dance music, creating "Shangaan electro," and introducing the world to the culture of his long-marginalized minority people.
 
However, he didn't complain when renowned electronic label Warp cherry-picked 10 songs for his debut full-length, Nozinja Lodge, from the 80 tunes he'd recently recorded. In fact, he was glad they did.
 
"I did not struggle with them, because I used to own a record label. I gave them the power to choose because I know how a label is run," Nozinja tells Exclaim! "I told them 'Don't ask me. Tell me.' They are putting their money on the table, they know their market and they know what's going to sell. So I let them decide. I'm a businessman, and I wouldn't want to do a song that is not going to sell."
 
That savvy practically shouldn't be shocking, considering Nozinja's previous experience running cellphone repair shops in the bustling Soweto district of greater Johannesburg. The DJ has applied that acumen to the music itself, crafting songs like Nozinja Lodge closing track "Jaha" that are slower than the breakneck speed that has become a signature of Shangaan electro.
 
"My music, as you know, it's fast. But I wanted to branch out, because there's a difference between listening to music for the dance floor and listening in your car or home," he says.
 
Continued artistic growth is crucial for the DJ/entrepreneur. After all, he is not just making dance music — he is championing a new iteration of the folk songs passed down from his ancestors. When asked what his hometown's eldest Shangaan artists think of Nozinja Lodge, he laughs.
 
"Convincing the old folks is like wasting your time. When anyone first comes into music, they bring a new style, so it's certain the old folks will say 'This is not the original Shangaan folk, you don't even have any bass or lead guitar!' But as soon as they see their grandchildren and our chief dancing to it, they go, 'Oh gosh, you came up with a new style. This is good.' They still say their music is the best, and we do give credit to them."
 
Nozinja says those elders are more impressed by the waves his music is making — drawing rave reviews from major magazines and being praised by other top international electronic artists like Caribou and Mount Kimbie. It's a major breakthrough for a genre, and a culture, that has had next to no exposure in mainstream South Africa.

"They have finally learned that Shangaan cannot be ignored. It makes one feel proud to say 'Here we are!,' to see Westerners coming to my shows, to have Western media talk about my music. We will never be taken for granted again. Because now [mainstream South African musicians] wish they could play Shangaan. And they can't."

Nozinja Lodge is out now on Warp.