Mzansi: Now!—The Best New South African Music

Home to international stars like Hugh Masekela, Ladysmith Black Mambazo, and, um, Die Antwoord, South Africa has always been known for its music. Even during the days of apartheid, this country of 55 million people was a hotbed for pop, jazz, choral, and dance music. While Paul Simon worked with South African musicians back in the 1980s to make his career-defining album Graceland, these days it’s artists and label heads like Kode9 who are looking to the country amid the rising global popularity of gqom, the moody, broken-beat take on South African house that was first divined with the help of cracked Fruity Loops setups in the coastal city of Durban.

Piotr Orlov, a writer for NPR, the New York Times, and The Guardian among others, has done an admirable job at offering an overview to a scene that is still largely unfamiliar to American audiences. A former editorial lead for now-defunct MTV streaming service Urge, Piotr intimately understands the playlist format, mixing a DJ’s ear for flow and sequencing with a musicologist’s vast knowledge and a critic’s natural discernment. Compiled after a recent trip to the country, the resulting playlist is illuminating, enjoyable, and erudite, and offers a glimpse at some of the best music coming out today.

Highlights from the 24-track, 2.5 hour playlist (titled after the Xhosa word for South Africa) include Floyd Lavine’s smooth house jam “Saint Bondon” and Big Nuz’s kwaito party banger “Tsege Tsege”—the latter of which evokes pure sex with its shaking, moving, plucking, and pumping beat. There’s also more out-of-the-box fare, like Gumz’s unbelievably funky “Yoruba Brass” as well as “B U,” a cut from Okzharp & Manthe Ribana’s well-received Tell Your Vision EP, released last year on Hyperdub.

Mzansi: Now! is bracketed by two tracks from the award-winning songwriter Thandiswa Mazwai, who began her career in the late ’90s as frontwoman of the kwaito pioneers Bongo Maffin. Just as nice is “Anonymous in New York,” a Mingus-y composition by the emerging jazz combo Skyjack. Alas, not every track on the collection is a winner—Thor Rixon and Alice Phoebe Lou’s twee electro-pop number “Death Pt II” lacks the charm of Rixon’s wonderfully weird “Fuk Bread” from 2015, for example.

Still, there’s enough good stuff here to keep you engaged, and send you digging for more. And, ultimately, that’s the goal of a playlist that surveys scenes still largely foreign to its target audience. Mzansi: Now! makes a great case for both modern South African music and the professional curator class.