South African House Duo Black Motion Open Up About Their Influences & History at Johannesburg Home Studio

Justin Sullivan
Black Motion performs in Johannesburg.

"South Africa has 11 official languages, and each one has its own distinct sense of musicality."

Unsurprisingly, when Billboard catches up with South African dance duo Black Motion at their Johannesburg home studio, the group -- comprised of Robert Mahosana and Thabo Mabogwane -- tell us that they’re once again ready to bring the noise. In the middle of preparing for their Boiler Room set for Ballantine’s True Music platform -- the first of three series that also includes dates in Moscow (Feb. 9) and Madrid (Mar. 9), they assured us it’s going to be another raucous affair, fueled by their trademark cocktail of live percussion, kwaito and house.

Here, Black Motion opens up about their breadth of influences, the importance of defining and unifying the South African house music sound and what’s next.

"Our use of traditional drums in our music is what identifies us as Black Motion,” band member Mabogwane says with a smile. “Our connection with live drumming has in many ways defined us musically. We grew up in Soshanguve in the '90s when house was beginning to explode. The difference between us and other producers back then though was that whilst they wanted to replicate what they were hearing we wanted to make it our own.

"We’ve never wanted to make house music, we’ve only ever wanted to make South African house music. Part of the way we’ve done that is is via our use of our languages. South Africa has 11 official languages. All over the world you hear deep, tribal and acid house and you wouldn’t be able to tell where it’s from but we wanted to find a way to make our sound identifiable. So we used our languages, be that Zulu, Tsonga or any of the others in our music to make it clear where we were from.  There are also certain native instruments that accompany the cultures these languages belong to and we marry those to the vocals. Each language has its own distinct sense of musicality. It’s beautiful.

“If we look back through our musical history, many huge artists have sampled South African music, particularly in America but lots of people still do not know where those sounds came from. Artists such as Ladysmith Black Mambazo have been sampled countless times by American producers but because the US is seen as the capital of the music industry people think that’s where these sounds originate. It’s up to people like us to bring it back around and say ‘No, actually we created these sounds.’

“We’re innovators and we need be proud of that. If you listen to the rhythm it is easy to hear. You can see and hear our influence when our style of groove is introduced to other genres. Sometimes we have to tell the kids at home that we are not copying foreign artists, these are our roots and they sampled us!"

"We’re self-taught, so we never learned a specific style, the reason our sound is different to many others is that we had to develop ourselves independently,” interjects Mahosana. “Our style of playing and rhythm takes influence from everything around us, our lives, our history, everything. We wanted to bring a live element, a human element to electronic music as we feel you can’t get that same raw energy just out of a machine.

“It is important for us to our records to sound how we sound when we perform live. If a track doesn’t capture the energy of our live show then it will never make it out of the studio. It has to pass our dance test. As dancers, in the hood that we grew up in dancing is a really big thing. When we weren’t dancing we were DJing and when we weren’t doing that we were drumming. When we were young we would dance at beauty pageants, street events, parties, wherever there was music."

“When you are a dancer you get a special understanding of music that you can’t learn any other way,” Thabo continues. “You understand why a song makes you move a certain way. As soon as you get on a computer, you produce music as a dancer that you know will have that spark to make people move and you know when you hear that banging, clicking sound that would move you that will move others. You can envision the effect certain sounds have and the moves they will inspire.”

"We – both Black Motion and South African music -- have been waiting for this moment for a long time,” finishes Robert. “With labels in Europe and America now interested in us, we all have a platform to showcase our craft. It feels like its our time and we’re about to bring the sounds of Soshanguve and South Africa to the world!”

--As told to Reiss Bruin

Ballantine’s True Music series' final spin hits Madrid on Thursday with sets from Maya Jane Coles and Kim Ann Foxman, Monika Kruse and Andrea Oliva, Anja Schneider and Cassy, Shlomi Aber and Boddika, Marc Piñol and Eduardo De La Calle and Sano and Uroz.