© 2024 Milwaukee Public Media is a service of UW-Milwaukee's College of Letters & Science
Play Live Radio
Next Up:
0:00 0:00
Available On Air Stations

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

Penny Penny.
Courtesy of the artist
Penny Penny.

The appearance of Penny Penny's Shaka Bundu in the American market is welcome not only in itself, but also 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, and 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 grateful that that has simply not happened. Several 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 that 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. The whole album keeps coming up with fresh variations, as in 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; 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 recently affirmed that music is his essential business, and Shaka Bundu offers confirmation of that.

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Milo Miles is Fresh Air's world-music and American-roots music critic. He is a former music editor of The Boston Phoenix.