Samthing great in Soweto
The self-taught musician Samkelo Mdolomba assails your senses in subtle ways.
His music induces a braille of the skin. An electric rush, beginning at the back of the skull, that travels down the spine and can leave you feeling uneasy. Between the beats and pauses, it finds a place within you to take root.
It homes in on a delicious memory. Something that lingered, a goodness that lasted, a proverbial hitting of the spot. There is sensuality in his harmonies.
It draws from you. A tug that unravels. It's outside what your ears expect to hear. There's something sacred about it.
"In the mist of all that I know/ in the Lord's name I came to glow/ in Christ's name I came to show what love must maintain man must behold," he croons in a verse of I've Given Up, a beautiful, haunting song from his latest release, the five-track EP Eb'suku.
Samkelo Mdolomba elucidates on this sentiment, saying: "I think everything can be spiritual or transcendent. It's on us to give meaning to the things we value … With the music it comes to a point where we start shaping people's lives through our work. We create marvels. We create what amazes. We create what all man must behold."
The 26-year-old world musician has almost 2 000 Facebook followers and an additional 1 000 on Twitter, thanks to his accolades as singer, composer and arranger. His fans admiringly refer to him as Samthing Soweto, based on where he comes from.
In an interview with Lawrence Thlabane of Power FM, Mdolomba said he entered into the music when he was a kid playing around. He recalls an incident in early primary school when he and his friends were singing a song. They got to a part where the rest didn't know the words but he did, so he carried on singing, inviting silence.
"I thought they were just surprised that I knew the words. As it turns out, they were surprised that I was singing so well and, when I stopped, everyone was, like, ‘No, continue!' That's how I started, I guess."
Now, more than a decade later, he has collided musically with the a capella group The Soil, Tumi of Tumi and the Volume fame, the poet Makhafula Vilakazi and The Fridge, with their temperamental, romantic neo-jazz. His mix tape This N That Without Tempo has received almost 30 000 listens online.
Eb'suku (At Night) has a level of complexity in which the time invested in the process of creation is evident. Mdolomba says he had to spend long periods in the city at night. He also worked relentlessly to arrange and rearrange the work until all the songs felt as if they belonged together.
"What happens normally is I hear the melodies in my head, then some sort of a mumbling voice that accompanies them. The mumbling eventually turns out to be the chorus and I have to draw the words out," he said.
You don't need a loupe to see the strata in his compositions. They're intricate but evident – tangible. Pulling off that level of layering in the inflections of his tunes, especially seeing that he is the only vocalist on the EP, requires an ear for harmony that can't be trained.
"Although I didn't go to school, I am always reminded of its importance in my line of work. That said, education is not an institution – it's the pursuit and acquiring of knowledge. I am self-taught. I guess other people would need school to understand the things I learned by observing musicians I look up to."
What Mdolomba does isn't quite syncopation, but there are elements in his music that lean towards it. Well-placed melodic fluctuations are how he has cultivated a way of making his voice tiptoe. He's not bombastic. He doesn't blast. He is a whisper that subtly creeps beneath the skin.