Anthology Of Contemporary Music From South Africa: a collection of mostly minimalist ambient sound pieces

Various Artists, Anthology Of Contemporary Music From South Africa, Italy, Unexplained Sounds Group, USG081 CD (2022)

In his quest to find and document exploratory / experimental music as it is happening around the globe, Raffaele Pezzella turns his attention to South Africa where for the past 30 years a community of adventurers in improvisational and experimental music has been growing. This anthology is a survey of musicians and others deemed to be significant trend-setters in the South African experimental music scene: these artists range from DJs and underground DIY musicians working with the help of family and friends to those with formal qualifications in music after years of tuition and practice who perform in arts and music festivals and who perhaps also teach music and music theory and composition. As you can guess, this is a very eclectic collection music spanning genres such as musique concrète, noise, drone, electroacoustic and formal composition, jazz and sound art, often incorporating electronics and sampling.

The anthology starts well with the powerfully epic “nonentia” by Kalaharakiri, an expansive piece of synth and electronic drone combined with ambient noise that sends chills up and down your spine with its invigorating if hissy coldness, topped by a sample of ritual chanting and clapping that continues over the icy droning noise ambient soundscape and a pulsing rhythm. The contrast between people chanting and the massive, mysterious sounds shifting behind the clapping crowd is so large as to turn the whole track into a work of mystery and maybe occult magic. After “nonentia”, the compilation more or less settles down into a series of minimalist ambient sound art pieces, some of them repetitive and hypnotic, but few of them really pushing the sounds or melodies in unexpected directions. The most interesting tracks tend to be those like Kalaharakiri’s “nonentia” and Nardus Niemand’s “The Great Southern Cross” where experimentation with sound and music combines with African singing and music structures and traditions to produce gritty soundscapes redolent of their locations and backgrounds, and challenging listeners to think about and ponder their own expectations and perhaps biases and stereotypes about African music and music tropes. Other tracks worth mentioning here include the eerie “Inyanga Shuffle” from Aragorn23 which combines a drum beat and rhythm with ghost flute and other strange sonic flotsam and jetsam; and Chantelle Gray’s “Tide of the Insects”, a work of buzzing drone and rhythm.

Most tracks are interesting in themselves but when combined onto the one compilation that claims to be a summary of what’s best, the most innovative or the most likely to set the music world on fire, I can’t help but suspect that most of the music here is really not that different from what can be found in other parts of the world, especially in the West, under the “experimental” banner. One might have hoped for something really original and completely surprising from within music genres, genre fusions and cultures already present in South Africa, rather than just South African contributions to Western music categories.

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