In 2019, most serious house heads are at least nominally aware of the South African scene. Native son Black Coffee exploded onto the European and American markets, securing big looks for the area's so-called "afrohouse" sound with a production sample on Drake's "Get It Together" and an ongoing DJ residency at Las Vegas Wynn resorts. Major Lazer tapped some South African talent on its 2018 Afrobeats mixtape, but the vast country has more to offer than just a couple cameos and a breakout star.
Enter Shimza, the next – and certainly not last – South African beat slinger global fans need to know. Born Ashley Raphala, the Tembisa-born DJ spent a lifetime honing his skills on the deck and in the studio, earning the nicknames "effect master" and "vinyl assassin." He currently lives in Johannesburg and is dead set on bringing his "afro-tech" sound to all corners of the earth.
For 10 years, he's hosted an annual Christmas Day event called One Man Show, a roughly 10,000-person party with a charitable mission to help local orphans. He's now taking that show to major cities around the world, and Friday, July 12, he drops a six-song EP on Cadenza Music called Eminence that puts his blend of African rhythms and classic house vibes on full display. Billbaord Dance got the exclusive on the EP, and we caught up with Shimza to talk about his youth in a South African township, the Tembisa DIY party scene and more.
Billboard Dance: What was it like growing up in Tembisa?
Raphala: I lost my dad when I was 7, so it was just my mom and my two older brothers. My mom is a teacher. Growing up in Tembisa, I think, was a blessing for me. It taught me so much about how to survive [and] think on your toes. Tembisa is a township, and people get into drugs and alcohol at a very young age. I've moved out of Tembisa, but I still don't drink alcohol, I don't smoke, and don't do drugs. When my DJing started, my mom [was afraid] I'd fall into the trap of peer pressure and be introduced to alcohol and drugs, but while everyone else was having fun with girls and alcohol, I'd be the young boy sitting next to the DJ watching.
What are Tembisa parties like?
There are small things called “stokvels.” It's a group of people that come together once or twice a month. Say it's me, you, maybe two of your friends. This month, all of us are giving Kat $400. The next month, we're giving me $400. It rotates, but when it's your turn, you host a party. You invite your friends, I invite my friends to your party, and then you sell the alcohol and food, and make money from it. It's many parties every month that rotate around the same people, and I used to follow some of those stokvels just to listen to the DJs that used to be residents.
How old were you?
Maybe 11. Because my mom was also still very young, she used to go out and be back at midnight. I knew I had from 6 p.m. when the stok party starts until around 10, then I'd quickly go back home before my mom. I got to know which routes to never take at night, because transport was a problem, so I had to walk everywhere.
When did you go from watching the DJs to being one?
I met a guy called Komza. He passed on a year ago, but he taught me how to DJ from scratch. I was [walking home] from my first week in eighth grade, and I could hear from a distance music playing in a garage. I automatically knew it was a DJ, even though I couldn't see the person. I stood outside that house and listened. He walked outside and was like “what's up?” My school backpack had my DJ name written on it, "DJ Shimza." He said, 'Oh, you're a DJ? Show me what you got.”
From what I gathered at those stokvels, I knew you take a vinyl, put it on the turntable, drop the needle, and this is where the music starts. I didn't look clueless, and he saw it would be easy to teach me. Every day after school – every single day – I would rush to Komza's house, and we would practice. We used his vinyl and his older brothers' vinyl. They were DJs, and they had a bit of income to collect music. When I started gigging, after winning numerous competitions in South Africa, I started collecting my own music. The first competition, I won two turntables and a mixer, which I couldn't ask my mom to buy for me. It was like, at least I'm working toward something.
I love that you tagged your name on your backpack before you DJd. It comes from a nickname your grandfather gave you?
Yes. My full names are Ashley Raphala, and my grandfather, I don't know from where, decided to call me Shimi. I am known more as Shimi than my names on my ID, so I just decided to spice this thing up. My grandfather passed on in 2013, when my One Man Show was in its third year. I remember him saying to me "I like what you're doing, especially because you're giving back to the community. I appreciate that about you. Just keep going." Every time I host the show, I always go to his grave. It's a ritual thing.
So the One Man Show has been going for about 10 years. How did it start?
Everyone goes home for Christmas, bug there was a year when I didn't feel like going to my grandparent's place with my mom … I was literally chilling alone, and I [figured] there are a lot of people that go through the same thing, and it's not by choice. I started the party the next Christmas, and little did I know, a lot of people spend time with their families during the day, but in the afternoon, everyone is with people in their age group and wants to do something. I started in a very small venue for about 300 or 400 people, and it sold out. I moved to a bigger venue the next year, and I could see how ticket sales were moving. People were excited about it.
I was sure some kids in my community did not have any family to spend Christmas with, so during the day, I create something for all the orphans in my community. We cook a Christmas lunch and create games so they can have a Christmas experience. We bus in kids from different places around Gauteng, a province in South Africa, to a stadium, then around 3 p.m., we bus them out and have the big festival. As the show grows, I add more kids. Last year for the 10th anniversary, I had about 2,000 kids.
And you donate proceeds to charity?
What I normally do is … take out all those expenses, pay everyone from sound to security, and from what was left, I see how much I could spend for school shoes and uniforms for those kids.
You've also started to use the One Man Show brand abroad. What's the connection?
I want this show to grow, but I need to take this to the places where I want to see myself as a brand. I want to start my own one man show in Portugal, in Paris. Even the U.S. one day. I want to have my own One Man Show tour, so throughout the year, I tour around the world and then the last stop is the main one in Tembisa in December. it's a work in progress, and I believe that such things take time and patience. I started the one man show in Paris this year. I did the Portugal one last year for the first time and this year is the second one. Every year, I try and add at least one stop. When I had my One Man Show in Paris two months ago, I took two upcoming DJs to open for me so I could expose them to the International stage. It was the first time they went on any international trip, which is the angle I want to take; taking young upcoming guys here to places around the world.
Speaking of the world stage, you call your music “Afro-tech.” What is the “afro” sound you're bringing to the music?
Our drum patterns are different to what the world is used to. Normal techno, it's almost the same type of drum pattern used throughout all the songs. We put a bit of soul in our music. As much as it can be hard, there's soul and a bit of sexiness. The pads and strings that we use make it very warm. You listen to some techno or electronic songs, and it sounds like one song for the whole set. We bring an emotion. We bring the percussion that gives the song a groove. it's music that speaks to the soul. People react so well to our music. Because of the drums and how we place our shakers and hi-hats, we get people on the dance floor.