A Musical Detour, South African style
I arrived in Alexandra completely doubting the direction of this trip.
To backtrack a little: I left Johannesburg with no stories, no adventure, and a frustrating sense of deja vu. After a week, I thought I had a good feel for Jozi’s culture: dynamic nightlife, active arts community, uber-chaotic big city energy, cool people, and an endless number of upscale shopping and expensive restaurants.
But I never had a “This is Jo’burg” moment, that moment when you know you’re doing/seeing/experiencing something that couldn’t happen anywhere else. Like when you move to Los Angeles and you meet Stacey Dash in person for the first time at a party and you have to play it cool and pretend like you’re offended that she doesn’t remember you from that other party a few months ago. Those moments make a city what it is – we use them to describe how life in one place is different than life in another.
A mid-afternoon, rooftop party in Johannesburg. Or Seattle?
My experiences in Johannesburg – a book signing, a poetry show, a museum, countless bars – seemed like a South African version of something I’d already seen or done somewhere else.  I couldn’t figure out the reason for this. Maybe American pop cultural influence was stronger than I thought. Maybe I was just looking in the wrong places. Or maybe that’s one of the drawbacks of traveling: after a while, everything begins to look like everything else.
So going to Alexandra, a township north-east of Johannesburg, was more about escaping Johannesburg than exploring Alexandra. A friend of a friend agreed to show me around while I planned my next move. She was born and raised in Alexandra, and when I asked what Alexandra was famous for, she said, “Well, we’re known for the shacks.” 
A neighborhood in Alex
Not a promising start.
At lunch, she mentioned that her husband was a popular house DJ who’d won MTV Africa Song Of The Year last year. As soon as I got home, I Googled his group: Liquid Deep.
They had a performance the next day in Nelspruit, about 2 hours away from Alexandra. I called my friend and suggested that I travel with Liquid Deep; I’d interview them for a freelance piece about spread of house music in Africa (South Africa’s the #1 consumer of house music in the world). I pulled this idea out of my ass: I don’t even listen to house music, but the adventure potential of this trip was off of the charts.
The next morning, I was on a road trip with the most popular music duo in South Africa.
Sound check before the show in Nelspruit
Unfortunately, I have to save the goriest details of the trip for a freelance piece I’m writing/pitching in the next few months. But the weekend was mostly tame: no strippers, drugs, high speed chases, midgets or jail cells. Just good conversations and a wicked thunderstorm that ultimately cancelled their performance.
Check out their hit video here. They specialize in “house with soul” a.k.a. Afro House. They’ve performed with Macy Gray and Akon, among others. I’m a fan.
1 The one exception is the Apartheid Museum, which is one of the more emotionally exhausting museums I’ve been to. The museum’s interactivity makes it unique. When you enter the museum, you’re designated as white, colored, or black, and the first part of your experience in the museum is based on your race. You don’t have to be South African to feel the hell that was Apartheid.
2 On a side/somber note: many of the immigrants who live in the shacks have been victims of violence over the past few years as frustration regarding South Africa’s housing policy grows. It’s a pressing issue here, one that I think will boil over in the next few years if the government can’t move more people into stable housing. If I’d been in Alexandra for a longer period of time, it’s definitely a story I would have explored.