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Culture, Music

The Diva of Kwaai

by Thabiso Hika / 13.01.2014

It is quite rare to come across a completely unique artist in South Africa. While ‘unique’ has been a term that has been rather loosely used to define acts such as The Muffinz, The Soil and Bongeziwe Mabandla, the definition always seems to be a little far-reaching. On the contrary, describing Siya Ngcobo (known also by his stage moniker Umlilo) as unique would be a bit of an understatement.

Ngcobo charmingly defines Umlilo as his “delinquent musical brain child” and while this may be true of his musical style, the visuals that accompany his music are far more capturing. Call it Glam High-Fashion Performance art if you will, but Cape Town based virtuoso’s live performances and his dark behemoth themed music videos surpass originality.

Umlilo’s digital EP, Shades of Kwaai is a true reflection of a very broad spectrum of influences. When asked about the various genres that come to play in his work, Umlilo responds: “I think the reason why Shades of Kwaai comes across as so eclectic is because all my influences come out to play all at the same time. I don’t ever want to create the same song twice so every song I do must be distinct and I think knowing that is freeing for me.” The EP in itself is testament to this, with every song taking a different direction, borrowing traits from diverse styles.


It begins with a rendition of a traditional gospel song ‘In My Time of Dyin’’, a track previously recorded by the likes of Bob Dylan and Led Zeppelin. This dark, morbid song feels a little short-lived, even for an intro, but somehow still manages to demonstrate Umlilo’s intriguing falsetto voice more than any other song in the EP.

“I’m glad you like the song.” He says. “The cover kind of happened by mistake during a jam session with my producer friend Adam. We were trying out some new pedals and equipment and I began singing the Bob Dylan song we had played a little earlier. The song resonated with me and what I was going through at that time. I’m a huge fan of gospel and what they used to call ‘negroe spirituals’ and Bob Dylan was also quite influenced by that sound so it was fitting for me to do the song. I never saw it as dark and morbid, I actually found it quite profound and beautiful. I guess at the time and in light of the EP, the song for me was more about rebirth, re-incarnation and a sort of ritual of a new found expression or freedom within my music.”

Other highlights include the down-tempo reggaetron feel to ‘The Elements‘, which he describes as a sequel to ‘Living Dangerously‘, another haunting track on the EP as well as ‘Toyi Toyi’, where some rather peculiar rap sequences can be heard, the kind you would expect to hear from a Gwen Stefani and Azealia Banks offspring. “‘Living Dangerously’ was more of a general probe, asking why things are so hard and dangerous for some of us living in South Africa, ‘The Elements’ was more personal, sort of like me giving myself a pep talk and telling myself to get over certain things especially things I have no control over like nature and other people’s perceptions… ‘Toyi Toyi’ represents the kind of release one gets when Friday hits and you want to unleash your frustrations on the dancefloor. I produced both tracks with some help from Ross Dorkin from Beatenberg, who mixed and mastered the tracks.”

Umlilo continues to receive international attention, with mentions in various music blogs around the world, as well as international airplay. For an artist who is not signed to a major label, this is quite a feat. But what one might find disturbing is that his music is not being playlisted in South African radio stations. “I have had some interest and love from South Africa, maybe not as much as from overseas but there are people who enjoy what I do here and have been very supportive. I’m pretty lucky to be an unsigned artist living in this day and age because I have complete control over my vision and my music and don’t need a record label to get my work out there. I’m not forced to perform anywhere I don’t want to, collaborate with anyone I don’t want to…”

Umlilo would not be the first South African artist to garner more international than local appreciation. Die Antwoord are a perfect example of this, they have also discovered their own unique sound, forged a genre and added visual elements to their music that adds depth and texture that audio alone would be unable to achieve.


Umlilo goes further on describing his performances and also dismissing my claim that he might come across as an excessive expressionist by saying: “I tend to shy away from describing myself as eccentric because it’s flaky, not very descriptive and makes me think of Nicki Minaj or Lady Gaga and that’s not really my style. My performances always convey a certain message that’s always evolving and visual aids can help you deliver this message more clearly while also adding depth and texture. But it doesn’t mean you need to always have these aids, I also like just performing with no accompaniment and being able to entertain a crowd without too many little gimmicky things, that’s the true test of any performer.”

Staying true to his style of not doing anything twice, Umlilo states: “I never ever want to repeat a performance because I get bored easily so I try to make each performance special in its own way whether it’s under a certain theme, or mood, it keeps me on my toes. Sometimes it’s simple, sometimes it’s more complicated… Every performance should be different otherwise people only need to see you perform once.”

Although there are only five tracks on the EP, it still provides a solid repertoire. An eclectic compilation with its roots firmly planted in Pop, layered in delicate Hip-Hop, Acid-Kwaito and Electro flavours. The track “Out of My Face” is a good example of the multiple genres from which Umlilo draws.

Simply put, think of Shades of Kwaai as a Jackson Pollock painting; it’s unpredictable, fascinatingly so, and boldly dynamic. Lip-gloss, sequins, glitter and hair extensions aside, Umlilo is a talented performing artist, and while South Africa might not be ready for him, the world sure is watching.

Listen to more of Umlilo’s music here.


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