We’ve said it many times in these pages, but it bears repeating — some of the most soul-stirring house music around is coming out of South Africa. One of the best of the country’s current wave of house producers, DJ Couza, has a succinct theory as to why that is. "Most deep house artists from South Africa took the original sound of deep house, and fused it with indigenous African sounds,” he says. “That way, it always stands out and sounds unique.”
It sounds simple, but he left out an important factor: “House is a feeling,” as an old song says, “a feeling not everybody understands.” Judging from the music he’s been releasing over the past few years — including his most recent, ‘The Couza,’ a five-track EP on the on-fire Iron Rods Music label — the man born Bongani Ernest Zweni, 32, feels it down to his bones.
Brimming with supple, laid-back grooves, rich instrumentation, and luscious melodies, ‘The Couza’ is a deep and emotionally resonant record, one that’ll appeal to fans of pioneers like Larry Heard, Jovonn, and Ron Trent, and labels along the lines of Prescription, King Street Sounds, and Shelter. A track like ‘There’s No Way,’ featuring Vic SA & Fako on vocals, could pass for peak-era Blaze at their most sublime, while the rhythmically tumbling ‘Usana Lwam,’ passionately voiced by Lulu, is a hugely affecting slice of Afro-soul.
Couza currently resides in Bloemfontein, the capital of South Africa’s Free State province; he was raised about 260 miles to the north, in Viljoenskroon Rammulotsi. “I grew up in a very religious family, and every Sunday my grandmother would take us to church, and we joined Sunday schools where we sang with my sisters and brothers the whole day,” he says. “But no one really took music seriously as a career.” His path, however, started to become clear at an early age.
“I was 14 when my friends introduced me to Osunlade and Franck Roger. We used to chill during break time at school, discussing the maturity of the sounds we heard and how soothing they were. Exactly at that time, I fell in love with it.” Within a few years, he was introduced to a pair of CDJs.
“And since then, I’ve loved DJing,” he says. Couza began dabbling with studio work in 2014, first crafting hip-hop beats with FL Studio and Reason, before moving on to house productions on Cubase.
“I’ve always had self-inspiration, and the desire of exploring different fields of music,” he continues. None of which goes far to explain the maturity of his sound, with his recent releases coming off as the work of a house elder statesman from Newark or Chicago. At least in part, the fullness of Couza’a music is the result of his influences. He counts such masters as Blaze and Onsulade, London house duo The Layabouts, and South African mainstays DJ Mbuso, DJ Fresh, and Glen Lewis as among those who have led him down the four-to-the-floor path.
Couza spins often in and near South Africa, “for the love of serving good, soulful house music,” as he words it. “House music is one of the genres that dominates in South Africa — that makes me get bookings almost every weekend.” He’s also been running his own label, African Waves Entertainment, since 2016, putting out his own music and that of his SA compatriots — but the move to Iron Rods Music, which in recent months has been releasing deep house gems from Donald-Tek, KVRVBO, Sololo, Andile Andy, Adhesive Twins, and others, feels like a major step in Couza’s climb to greater recognition.
“I believe in the words ‘hard work pays’,” he says, “and I am the testimony of patience leads to success. The label discovered me through that hard work. Consistency can open bigger doors.” It’s a pretty safe bet that if he keeps coming up with releases as rewarding as ‘The Couza,’, those doors will keep opening for a while.