The recent passing of Nelson Mandela has given us a chance to look back through musical tributes to that great leader, reflecting on the history of apartheid and the changes South African society has undergone since its end. Penny Penny’s Shaka Bundu (reissued by Awesome Tapes from Africa) provided a soundtrack for the celebration that followed the long walk. Penny- also known as Giyani Kulani- released Shaka Bundu, his debut album, just six months after the fall of apartheid. A surprising hit in a little known language, Shaka Bundu epitomizes a certain moment in the history of South Africa when a streetwise knowledge born of apartheid met the overwhelming joy of a nation revolutionized.
On the album’s cover, Penny Penny leans shirtless at an angle with a gold chain and his signature top-bun hairstyle. One look tells the listener that this man is a star, a center-of-attention performer capable of captivating large audiences across the continent. But looks can be deceiving. Before attaining success, Penny, the youngest of 68 children, was working as a janitor at the record label where he went on to record Shaka Bundu. He secretly slept there at night and taught himself to use the label’s recording equipment before (finally) being caught and almost fired. It was at this time that he met producer Joe Shirimani, who took a chance on the untested musician, helping him to record the demo that won him his first contract.
Penny Penny sings in Xitsonga, a relatively little-known South African language. Although most of the country’s citizens can’t understand it, Penny Penny’s music needed no translation on the dancefloor. Shirimani was well-known known as a producer of Tsonga disco– a catch-all term for dance music in the Xitsonga language– and he used all of his talents in the album’s pulsing mix. Penny Penny describes his sound as “breakdance and Michael Jackson, mixed with African style,” a winning combination that went on to sell more than 250,000 copies in South Africa. Penny Penny and Shirmani recorded the album in seven days with an Atari computer, Korg M1 synthesizer and reel-to-reel tape for vocals. With its echoing, propulsive synths and powerful female harmonies, the album’s sound holds much in common with Shirimani’s other work, set apart by the charm of Penny Penny’s gruff delivery.
“Shichangani” opens Shaka Bundu with Penny Penny’s female counterpart chanting “Aye Papa Penny.” Penny Penny answers with own “Aye”s before chuckling and launching into his relaxed and confident delivery, semi-spoken over beats perfectly suited for clubgoers to groove. While the house-influenced pianos and wailing female leads clearly differentiate it from the kwaito then developing in South Africa’s townships, the track shares part of that genre’s dank, slow-rolling groove. Imagine what Dr. Dre’s G-funk would sound like transplanted to South Africa, and you’re half-way there.
Penny Penny may have named the album for the Xitsonga word for “fake friend,” a decision inspired by an experience in which a friend of his tried to steal his wife, but little trace of that bitterness or anger makes its way into the music. Even the title track sounds like a playful party jam. The album suffers somewhat from a lack of sonic variety (perhaps due to the limited amount of equipment available for its recording), but Penny Penny’s charismatic appeal is undeniable. This is wonderful artifact of a moment in South African culture, and it’s great music to boot. Definitely worth a spin at your next party.