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Best of 2012 | What Do They Know?

by Andy Davis / Images by Sydelle Willow Smith / 05.01.2013

Originally published 14 June 2012

So it’s a Zaki Ibrahim listening session at the Red Bull Studio. She’s just signed to Motif Records, the label started by Tumi Molekane and long time friend, collaborator and manager, Bradley Williams. Zaki’s been in the ether for a while now too. We featured her track “Money” produced by King Britt, a few years back. Since then, she’s left Canada and is now based in South Africa more permanently. Every Opposite is her first, full length album to be released on home soil and to quote the hit track, “the kids are talking”.

But shit man, intimate listening sessions can get awkward. There’s no escaping in front of that small crowd, for spectators and performers alike. Zaki plays on the nervous awkwardness. Making light of her self-consciousness. Acknowledging it, the first step to owning it.

They kick off with the album’s first track, “Draw The Line” which brings us slowly into the vibe. “What do you call this?” I nudge the studio’s technician and Spoek Mathambo’s Mshini Wam drummer, Jake Lipman. “Nu soul.” He shrugs. But it sounds more complex like a combination of ambient dub beats with original, new school melodies overlayed. It’s hard to nail it down. There are a lot of influences being swirled into this mix. A kind of mid-tempo afrobeat electro with almost scatamiya type choral vocals and a touch of R&B in the grooves. Nu soul doesn’t quite do the diversity justice.

And during the first two songs, I’m still not sure I’d regularly listen to this on my ipod, but live, watching Zaki wriggle it out and deliver her lyrics over the soundscape… Watching her being moved by her own music. It’s hypnotic. Catchy and powerful. She’s definitely got what we in South Africa like to call “international quality”. The gold standard. Original. No surprise to learn that she’s shared stages with heavies like K’naan and Erykah Badu.

Then she really starts to fuck my shit up. She jumps straight into her first single “Something in the water” and now the place is starting move. Heads nodding, bums wiggling on the cold seats. Miles Keylock, Rolling Stone‘s big cheese, strokes his chin thoughtfully. Evan Milton, rocks back and closes his eyes. A girl with a headwrap breaks out dancing. Knowing smiles are passed back and forth between Molekane and Williams. Sakitumi on the sound machine looks ecstatic, focussed. The song finishes. Excitement ripples through the small crowd. Zaki introduces her “rebel army”. The two back-up singers, Sargeant Feel Good and General Electric. The faux-dictator-chic militarism is reminiscent of Gazelle. But the music is on another plane. The sonic landscape she sings in, masterfully curated/created by Tiago Correia-Paulo (340ml and Tumi and the Volume’s lead guitarist and an increasingly relevant composer and producer in his own right) and added on by the likes of Peach van Pletzen and Mr Sakitumi, gives the backing beats both depth and intrigue.

Then she drops “Kids Are Talking” and I’m lifted, lost in the spaces between. By now the music has transformed the cold and uncomfortable space. There’s a hot new freshness and everyone’s feeling it. This is not nu soul. Push from your mind jazzy R&B noodles laced in crunchy Niknak cheese. This is ambient trippy dub ‘n bass with an ethno 80s acapella beat box feel. “Kids Are Talking” has got Tiago’s light touch dubby fingerprints all over it. The sounds don’t simply compliment Zaki’s songwriting ability and vocal agility, they propel them forward. It’s exquisite, like an early Talking Heads jumped Kate Bush in an allley in Hillbrow.

Then she’s dropping the Nick Holder remix of her track “Heart Beat” and you can see the future. We’re in a big taxi sound system in an empty parking lot watching a izkothane crew dance and spit ultra mel custard into the air before stomping on some chicken and setting fire to their expensive mapaputsi’s. The studio heads are getting it, alternating between nodding and shaking. Jake declares how bad he needs this in his DJ set. And it’s easy to think we may have just stumbled across the next Malaika… But Zaki would probably object to that comparison, saying it lacks ambition.

*All images © Sydelle Willow Smith / Red Bull Studio.

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