In South Africa, spaza shops are small, unofficial convenience stores run out of makeshift garages and repurposed shipping containers in local townships. Established by disenfranchised black people during apartheid, spazas weren’t supposed to generate any real money, but in the decades since, they’ve grown to disrupt the regional economy and become hubs for creative scenes and social gatherings. In 2015, a group of local artists met at a spaza in Troyeville, Johannesburg to record an album of experimental meditation music; the resulting LP blends spiritual jazz and New Age, resting between Laraaji’s reflective ambience and Nicole Mitchell’s seething intensity.
SPAZA is spellbinding. It swirls and gathers steam with hypnotic fervor, rinsing the despair that builds up and calcifies in our bodies. The group pays homage to spaza culture by naming its songs after well-known South African brands, places and dishes; items like magwinya (deep-fried doughnuts), Sunlight soap, and mangola bologna are all referenced here. The songs on SPAZA feel remarkably visual—intriguing, yet somewhat strange to the ear. Through chants and rhythmic repetition (captured in one take), the group conveys both the ease and uncertainty of life in the townships—from the peace of walking down the road, to the violence that can erupt at a moment’s notice.
By using effects pedals, wind instruments, djembe drums, synthesizers, violin and upright bass, the group creates a unique world full of surprises at every turn—for instance, the second half of the nine-minute “Magwinya, Mangola neWhite Liver” locks into a mesmerizing loop of rising vocals and orchestration that grows more urgent as it progresses. The next track, “Sunlight, Glycerine, 2 loose draws,” continues the trek, except here, it seems the vocalists are trying to summon rain and sunshine. Contrast that with “Ice Squinchies: Waiting for you,” the most accessible track on SPAZA: it mixes alt-soul and jazz, giving Siya Makuzeni a proper canvas to sing about finding love—here on earth or out there in the cosmos. In the end, SPAZA presents black Johannesburg in masterful detail, giving proper shine to a place, its residents and ancestors.