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Is Penny Penny the Next Rodriguez?

Nearly 20 years later, a former janitor with a hit song in South Africa is heading to America

November 4, 2013 1:10 PM ET
Penny Penny
Penny Penny
Courtesy of Awesome Tapes From Africa

To anyone who saw Searching for Sugar Man, the scenario is familiar: Musician makes records that generate local buzz but don’t translate into massive stardom. Musician continues working but extremely under the radar, eventually finding a day job in another field entirely. Musician is rediscovered by a new generation and receives belated recognition. But here’s the twist: Could the next Rodriguez come from ... South Africa?

Rodriguez: 10 Things You Don't Know About the 'Searching for Sugar Man' Star

At a studio in Johannesburg in 1994, Afrobeat producer Joseph Shirimani was approached by the studio janitor, who hailed from the province of Limpopo in northern South Africa. The janitor, it turned out, said he wanted to work with him. "I said, 'Can you sing?'" Shirimani recalls. "He didn't say yes — he just sang a song for me. And that’s when I heard this unusual voice and those melodies."

Together, Shirimani and the cleaning man — who called himself Penny Penny — wound up cutting several songs, including "Shaka Bundu." That song, an example of Tsonga (or Shangaan) Afro-disco, updated traditional African music with synthesizers, electric guitars, and disco or house beats. Released in 1994, "Shaka Bundu" went on to sell 250,000 copies in South Africa and made Penny Penny a star—but only in that part of the world.

Now, nearly 20 years later, the song, along with a whole album of Penny Penny music, is finally being unleashed in the States — much to the surprise of the man who sang on it. "I never think this album can take me to America," Penny says. "Even now, I can't believe people there like it. To me it's like a dream."

The son of a local doctor who had 25 wives and 68 children, Penny was born Giyani Kulani in 1962. Since his family was poor, he never went to school, and he was nicknamed "penny" for his dancing. In the Eighties, he began making music he describes as a combination of "breakdance and Michael Jackson, mixed with African style." To support himself, he worked in mines and opened a restaurant. By the time he met Shirimani, he was still doing whatever he could to connect with the South African music business, including cleaning that studio. "I had no place to sleep," he says. "I would hide in the building and clean the place. When they opened the studio in the morning, the place was clean."

Shirimani's colleagues didn't know what to make of Penny; they saw him as a comedian, not a singer. But after some convincing, Shirimani made demos with Penny, one of which was "Shaka Bundu," a local phrase for people who are seemingly close but betray you. It was inspired, Penny says, by a friend who badmouthed Penny to Penny's own wife and even asked the woman to marry him. "I said, 'This guy—how can he do this to my wife?'" Penny says. "Shaka Bundus are bad people."

Evidently, many people in South Africa agreed; the combination of the lyrics and the hooky Afrobeat connected on a large, if local, scale. "Jesus, it was unbelievable," says Shirimani. "Some people don't know how to speak that language — it's a small nation. But it became a hit. The combination of traditional melodies with dance pop, that was something new." Penny was also distinguished by his hairstyle: His hair was pulled up and knotted on the top of his head, making it look as if a dust mop was sticking out of his skull.

Penny recorded more albums, but the music had scant outside distribution. "We're not that equipped in such a way that you make an album and it gets released somewhere," says Shirimani. "Most of it ends up in South Africa. And maybe Zimbabwe." Thanks to the intensity of record piracy in Africa, Penny made his living by relentlessly touring. "Artists like Penny Penny are concerned for the prospects of recorded music in South Africa, since piracy is rampant here," says Angus Rheder, anti-piracy enforcer at the Recording Industry of South Africa. According to Rheder, most music sold in that country is still physical, and one of every three CDs sold is a pirated version.

Penny Penny's renaissance began when Brian Shimkovitz, a former music publicist and now DJ and owner of the Afrobeat music blog Awesome Tapes from Africa, heard a cassette of his music a few years ago. "Penny stands out in Tsonga disco because of his distinctive raspy vocal style, the joyous nature of the songs he sings and Shirimani's distinctive production style, which leans heavily on American club music," says Shimkovitz, who is releasing the Shaka Bundu album in physical and digital forms Nov. 12. (He and Penny Penny will split the profits after expenses.)

By the time Shimkovitz heard that tape, Penny Penny had moved on to a new and very different career. In 2011, he became the first African musician to become an African National Congress councillor (a council member): "I said, 'I must go into politics, because something's not going well — they're not treating the people right.'" Adds Shirimani, "I wasn't surprised. The message is in his songs. You could sense that he had politics in his songs. He liked to help people."

In his current life, Penny Penny hasn't been without controversy. Last year, he was briefly suspended from his job when he vocally declared that tenders for water and sanitation projects be given to local businesses, not outsiders. "It was because I don't take bribes," he says. "I was fighting for the people, the community. People want to sabotage our government. I went to the courts and they said, 'We need somebody like you.' If I resigned, I would disappoint my people." Eventually, Penny was reinstated in his job.

In light of those frustrations, it isn't surprising that Penny — who hasn't performed in three years — is eager to return to song. "Music is my business," Penny says. "It's what I can't stop doing. The ANC and politics, fighting for the people, is fine. But music is my gift."

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