A groovy house track can be heard coming from inside the legendary Kalawa Jazmee Records building in Gallo Manor, Johannesburg. Could this be the next December anthem? “Ngifun’ukjaiva ngibuye k’sasa? (I want to party all night and come back tomorrow)” are the lyrics, and the beat is infectious.
Jotham “Vetkuk” Mbuyisa and Zynne “Mahoota” Sibika are in the studio, mixing, listening and engineering the perfect sound. Vetkuk, whose name conjures the popular deep-fried South African street food, turns around and asks: “What do you think of the beat?” “I’m ready to dance to it at your 20-year anniversary party,” I say, prompting laughter.
The duo, who joined forces in 2001 with the release of the house music compilation album Vetkuk vs Mahoota on 1 September, is celebrating two decades in sound. And as we move to a quieter room, the story about how Vetkuk vs Mahoota came to be unfolds. Vetkuk, however, has one request: ”Don’t ask me how I got my name.”
Mahoota, however, provides the history. “Vetkuk was my alter ego because I was just a producer and didn’t actually know how to DJ. Jotham taught me, and when we started appearing at gigs together, crowds had just assumed that Jotham was Vetkuk. The name stuck, so I’ll answer that question for you: that’s how Vetkuk got his name and our duo was born.”
From that first release, it was clear that these two were skilled at crafting sounds that could carry across the country. The popular song Malombo from their debut became 2001’s spring anthem. That same year, they launched their annual event, The Spring Explosion, changing the face of the entertainment and events space at a time when there were few youth festivals outside the popular jazz ones.
Creating a blueprint for hosting house music events, Vetkuk and Mahoota built the stage for artists to host their own events. The first Spring Explosion, hosted in Midrand, set the bar with over 1 500 people attending it. This year, in collaboration with popular Soweto club Konka, the two are staging a celebration.
“This year we’re taking it back with people who were part of Vetkuk vs Mahoota when it all started – the people who contributed to each and every album, from Mafikizolo to Professor, from the old school back then to the new school now,” says Mahoota. “Get ready to go on a two-decade-long journey of house music in Bloemfontein this October. It will be the ultimate Vetkuk vs Mahoota experience. Let the people dance!”
A fundamental genre
The rebirth of South African house music started with kwaito at the baseline. Vetkuk and Mahoota’s synergy as a duo is deeply rooted in their love for their neighbourhood, Meadowlands, known as Ndofaya in Soweto. This is where kwaito was first discovered.
As we take a tour of the studio during the course of our interview, luck strikes. Two revered kwaito artists, Mandla “Spikiri” Mofokeng and Mkhonzeni “Professor” Langa, are present and reminiscing about the good old days in Soweto that gave birth to these musical maestros. Spikiri is a member of legendary kwaito group Trompies.
As a group member himself, Mahoota explains that the genre has been fundamental to contemporary music in the country. “Some of the artists came from the bubblegum generation, and kwaito was this new genre emerging in South Africa in the 1990s. For most people, they like saying kwaito is dead, but I think people are confused and don’t quite understand how music works. It changes, it evolves,” he says.
Singing some lyrics from their latest amapiano house track, SBWL Ubumnandi, Vetkuk adds that back then kwaito spoke to the issues of the youth. Fast-forward 20 years later, with kwaito as the influence, amapiano tracks are doing the same thing now.
“The lyrics and sound of kwaito songs were created to help the youth express themselves and voice what they wanted in an ever-changing country,” says Vetkuk. “The interesting part is that however creative they are now, they always go back and reference whatever was happening 20 to even 30 years ago. You could say most SA house music does stem from kwaito.”
SBWL Ubumnandi features young amapiano stars Beekay, Nicole Elocin and Kevi Kevz. Elocin, 21, who is also the vocalist behind South African house track Bella Ciao, says she used to listen to Vetkuk vs Mahoota back in her high school days. “I never ever thought I’d actually be working with them. This really is a life-changing experience and I feel more than blessed to have worked with these two legends.”
Making it relate
From the very beginning, Vetkuk and Mahoota have focused on making their own South African beats and sounds, something different to the stuff that was being done in the early 2000s.
“South African house DJs used to make some beats in terms of house tunes, but at that time it was more of the imported stuff and didn’t really relate to South Africans,” says Vetkuk. “The music that was being played in the townships came from kwaito beats and sounds.
“In order to get noticed as a DJ, you needed to release a compilation, and because of licensing issues and other factors, it took a long time for artists to get their albums out there. We wanted to change that.”
The release of their third album in 2005 did just that, and with Mahoota already being part of Trompies, the two were getting noticed for their distinct sound.
“We thought to ourselves, why do we have to import music? Let’s hone this concept of Vetkuk vs Mahoota, where it’s one part producer and one part DJ,” says Mahoota.
“Blowing up the space, we then decided to go fully local and our third compilation album was 100% South African produced and, well, the rest is history. House music has evolved in so many forms since 2005 and now we are sitting with the yanos [amapiano]. We’re locals everywhere we go!”
Staying on the beat, Vetkuk and Mahoota also changed as the industry underwent shifts, always making sure that they remained up to date with the latest trends in music.
“We’ve been a South African duo for over 20 years of just dance music, so we’ve seen and done it all,” says Vetkuk. “I can say that because we travel a lot. Mahoota and I have made a pact that we travel almost every weekend. The more you travel, the more you get to be influenced by different beats and that’s what makes our sound distinct. We can make all the different types of dance house music, from gqom to amapiano.”
He adds: “We have always been on the ground, we have never been superstars. We like to stay humble and not box ourselves into one thing. We listen to what is new and what the current sound is. Let’s look at another banger, Hao Omorata – it has all the workings of the perfect house beat mixed with a subtle amapiano sound featuring the hottest acts on the scene now.”
The duo has also consistently worked with young talent. “Everybody wants to be a singer or DJ of some sort, and so we try by all means to accommodate the young and talented,” says Vetkuk. But, he warns, “fame can swallow you up and spit you out” in this fast-paced industry, and he advises up-and-coming stars to remain professional and humble.
Now and in the future
Growing up on music by the likes of Louie Vega, Masters at Work, Byron Stingily and Ten City, Vetkuk reminisces about where his path has led him. “As a young boy from the dusty streets of Soweto, I never thought I would actually meet those people, let alone play with them!
“Twenty years later, for me to go on stage, I still get goosebumps. Vetkuk vs Mahoota has changed the face of SA house music and will continue to do so for 20 more years.”
As Ten City’s That’s The Way Love Is starts to play in the background, Vetkuk excitedly tells me how proud he is to have music brought Stingily to Africa and that he counts it as a highlight in his career. Mahoota, on the other hand, says forming their duo is definitely at the top for him.
Known for his youthful appearance, Mahoota has fans constantly guessing his age, but there’ll be no revealing that in this interview. What he is prepared to say is that he and Vetkuk won’t be stopping any time soon.
“You know, when bra Hugh Masekela died he was on his 30th album. And we are only on our sixth now, so there is a very, very long way to go. I’d love to sit down with you for an interview in 20 years’ time again.”