The remarkable story of South African singer and dancer Penny Penny is fit for Hollywood. A nearly homeless janitor without formal education gets a record deal, becomes a multi-platinum selling pop star, plays stadiums across Africa, then builds a career as a popular politician for Nelson Mandela's African National Congress party. Penny Penny's debut recording Shaka Bundu, recorded in 1994, is the album that launched a 34-year-old Giyani Kulani Kobane from the streets of Johannesburg to the national political spotlight.
Penny Penny is a Tsonga who hails from the Limpopo Province in Northeast South Africa, near the border with Mozambique. Born in 1960, he was the last of his father's 68 children. A 2.1-meter (6'10") tall traditional healer (sangoma), Penny's father had 25 wives and was well-respected in the region. He lived a long life and passed away in 1966.
Two months after Penny's father's death, the government forced many families to leave the area and resettle elsewhere. He and his siblings did not attend school because of the sudden turn towards poverty. The situation forced Penny's mother to take up work on a farm where Penny also began to work for R2.50 per month (25 cents in U.S. dollars) at the age of 10.
In 1991, after years spent toiling as a laborer, gold miner, hawker and restaurant owner, Penny starting making demo recordings, which he sent to several record companies. He grew up dancing traditional dances like muchongolo, xichayichayi and xigubu, and was deeply influenced by Michael Jackson's moves and MC Hammer’s music. But few took him seriously and he did not get a record deal. Penny's style was new and strange, particularly relative to Tsonga disco (also known as Shangaan disco) at the time.
It didn't help that Xitsonga, the language spoken by the Tsonga, was not widely understood and existed in a separate category in the music industry. (Anything a Tsonga musician played was called Tsonga disco despite Tsonga music’s continual evolution over the years. If a song is in Xitsonga, it is Tsonga disco.) Additionally, SABC’s language-specific radio programming—which was not even available in Xitsonga until years after more dominant languages had theirs—further shielded Tsonga music from wider exposure.
Much changed in April 1994, when apartheid was finally dismantled and free elections were held. A new optimism was born.
Meanwhile, Penny was working as a cleaner at a record label, where at night he was secretly sleeping and teaching himself how to use the recording equipment. He eventually got caught and was nearly fired. Instead, accomplished Tsonga disco producer and artist Joe Shirimani, who was working on another record at the time, saw Penny around the studio and became curious. Shirimani thought he looked like someone special and one day Penny approached him and did an audition on the spot. Shirimani asked him to sing back-up on a song for another artist and then begged the label to record some demos with Penny.
“God made me meet Joe Shirimani,” says Penny. “The label thought I was just a comedian. ‘Test me!’ I told them. So they said, ‘Tomorrow you will do a demo.’ We did ‘Shaka Bundu’ the same night, along with a few others. The next day when they came and heard the songs, they were surprised.”
The charismatic janitor blew the label away with the first three tracks. Penny and Shirimani got the go-ahead to record an entire record.
Using an Atari computer, Korg M1 synthesizer and reel-to-reel tape for vocals, Penny and Shirimani cut the entire record in just seven days. The music was something new for Tsonga disco. Penny’s sound was dominated by slow tempo house rhythms rising and falling against his anthemic vocal exultations and steel drum synth sounds. Variations on call-and-response singing with a female chorus had been a characteristic of Tsonga music for generations and Penny adopted and twisted that approach with his rap-like delivery. Penny’s husky, playful vocal performance is relatively light on lyrics and heavy on vibes. Shirimani constructed a signature sound for Penny was a static bass line, the sound of which contains the root tones of an organ but with a peculiar richness and depth. The producer won't reveal the secret of his trademark sound.
Shirimani recalls the popularity of American club music in South Africa at the time and points towards tracks like London Beat’s "I've Been Thinking About You" as big hits that informed his productions, connecting their updated Tsonga disco sound with dance-floors overseas. But, more importantly, Penny and Shirimani's songs reflect their claim to ethnic Tsonga identity, through their stylistic deployment of the not-widely-spoken Xitsonga language and its music-like linguistic flavors.
Just six months after apartheid was lifted Penny Penny’s Shaka Bundu was released and entered the consciousness of the entire country. Shaka Bundu transformed Penny Penny into a nationwide sensation.
For years, the country's institutionalized language politics had affected everything from how records were marketed to where they were played. Now the country with 11 official languages that had once resisted Tsonga music's spread began to rally around Penny Penny in a way that felt truly united.
“There was great excitement about different colors of people coming together,” Shirimani says. “If you ever thought a Tsonga person was not a brother under apartheid, everyone came together as one now. We were lucky to have the album come out during that time.” Songs like “Shichangani” and “Zirimini” even reference issues of language unity, perhaps reflecting the spirit in the air at the time.
Shaka Bundu swept the country quickly and went on to sell more than 250,000 copies in South Africa. In the years since, Penny Penny has played to thousands on stages across the continent, from Liberia and Sierra Leone to Namibia and Mozambique.
Amidst all the success of subsequent albums and tours, Penny's passion grew into working with the people back in his home province. When a flood devastated the area in 2000, he offered support in the form of food, blankets, clothing, shelter and a financial donation. The experience sparked a new direction for him. His mission became focused on doing as much as possible to improve life in South Africa. Eventually, Penny got into politics. In 2011, he was elected ward councillor for his region under the African National Congress party banner.
Today, nearly 20 years since Shaka Bundu could be heard blasting from speakers across a new South Africa, the music still sounds larger than life and worldly. And even today, despite shifting his energies from stadium shows to municipal matters, Penny Penny still sports his inimitable top-bun hairstyle.