Pic: Nico Krijno
It’s a Sunday night in New York, and an audience outside the Lincoln Centre is moving like there’s no Monday in sight. Twisting and jiving their bodies to the energy created by a bespectacled Spoek Mathambo, who up on stage, together with two musicians, is delivering a futuristic Afro-pop soundtrack to chase the new-week-blues right out of the way. The Soweto-born artist has the crowd in the palm of his hands, and looks as if he’s had them there for all the 26 years of his life. So it comes as somewhat of a surprise when he admits, backstage, post-show, that he’s still “teething”, and getting used to “all of this”.
Born into this world as Nthato Mokgata, Spoek Mathambo is just one of the aliases under which the South African artist makes his music. His guise varies from project to project, whether its the hard grime of Moleke Mbembe or the sexy electro sounds of Sweat.X with partner in sonic-crime Markus Wormstorm. But the cloak of Spoek Mathambo seems to be the most-encompassing of them all. It’s also under this name that he landed a record deal with the well-respected Sub Pop, the label that also gave Nirvana and Postal Service a home, the same label that will release his debut album next year. Mokgata has caught the eye of Spin Magazine, which named him one of 5 Artists to Watch – even going to far as to call him the “global underground version of Kanye West” – and the likes of MTV, the Guardian and The New York Times have all sung his praises.
With all the hype around him, it’s a little surprising to find that Mokgata is indeed still finding his way through it all, and starts off seemingly uncomfortable with being interviewed. The ease with which he wins over a crowd, as he did at the ‘Hae Lifestyle Live from the Continent’ show in New York last month, can best be attributed to his frequent touring across continents, and the fact that he spends time split between Malmö, Sweden where his wife is (fellow artist Ana Rab, who goes under the moniker Gnucci Banana) and Johannesburg. “I’ve been touring since 2007 and most of my professional music life has been pretty much all over the world,” he says. “So I guess that’s how I’ve learnt to play, to speak to different people and draw them into the music. I’ve also found out that people enjoy a good show. If you do it with all your heart, people will dig it.”
Dig it, they do. His debut EP Mshini Wam, released on BBE Records last year, displayed Mathambo’s Township Tech, a style that’s been called the next level of South African house music. That, together with his popularity as a DJ in his HIVIP mix series, has earned him fans from Uruguay to Uganda. His unique music videos, with their stamp of Africana, have been another avenue for Mokgata to express the various facets of his musical personas. The video for Control, his cover of the Joy Divison song She’s Lost Control, notched up the Young Director Award at the Cannes Lions earlier this year, and a Gold Award at the recent Loeries. Mokgata is quick to attribute the success of the video to its creators, Pieter Hugo and Michael Cleary and the “very large team” that worked on it.
But using visual elements to enhance his sonic offerings is one prominent hallmark across all Mokgata’s work, evident in his everything from his attire to the artwork that accompanies his online mixes. He acknowledges the influence of being a graphic designers entering the music world. “Even before I was doing it, when I was 16/17 and I was more talk than action, I was into bringing together the visual side and the music equally,” he says. “Like I had this idea when I finished high school of an entire album where each song would have a music video, and they would come together as both a film and an album, and the film would be interchangeable. I specifically had written it like that, to be literal translations of visual interpretations.”
The visual designs enhance the Afro-pop stylistics of Spoek Mathambo, and help guide the sounds he creates, however genre-defining they may be. “I can’t make a really good kwaito album, or a really good jazz album. I’m not a musician, I’m not classically trained. I’m not a singer,” he says. “My interest in rap is very waning, so everything I am doing is just Nthato doing Nthato.”
He’s also moved more into producing, and has been working on various ideas with a team back in South Africa that includes, no less, his uncle, who was recently retrenched. “He’s 59, and he went to sound college for six months and now he’s making beats and he’s on my production team,” Mokgata enthuses. It’s part of his aim to keep developing, and make sure the debut album for Sub Pop, due out in February next year, is the best it can be. “I’m really just a baby at this,” he says. “Still teething,” he adds.
Part of the growing process, he believes, is being Spoek Mathambo, standing on his own, and realizing songs the way he sees and hears them. But Mokgata is still making use of local and international talent as he grows, citing guitarist Nicolaas Van Reenen and DJ Richard the Third among his exciting collaborators.
Who he chooses to work with seems to be almost as important as what he chooses to say. Much has been made of the political slant of his music – whether it’s the cool criticism in Mshini Wam, or the chilling indictment of blood diamond-dealing in Put Some Red On It, the single that’s just been released this week by Sub Pop. “My mother used to say it’s really sad when people became apolitical,” Mokgata says. “I was raised by her saying that during the late 80s/90s when South Africa was in an intense crisis. She would say that it’s sad when people shun the chaos around them.”
“The whole world is going to somewhere,” he continues, “and it’s our duty to make fun and good music, but be conscious of where. You don’t have to be preachy, but I think it’s beautiful when you can address it in a creative and aesthetically pleasing way.” Mokgata says he’s been discovering how good someone like John Lennon was at doing that, with “just incredible musings on the world, behind beautiful music that doesn’t seem so ham-fisted but is saying important things.”
But he still maintains he has a lot to learn. “Like I said, I’m just teething, so the songs that come out are the songs that come out, and the ones I like to make. I don’t really have any rules right now.” That approach seems to be working well for Spoek Mathambo so far, and may also work for whoever Nthato Mokgata himself grows up to be.
First published in The Sunday Independent, 6 November 2011.