Ibrahim gives South African house a home

At Kudzanai Chiurai’s State of the Nation exhibition opening in Newtown, Johannesburg, last year, Zaki Ibrahim, in her ascribed role as president of a nameless new republic, stood regal in a black suit as she delivered a speech to the “citizenry” in clipped tones.

Her talk, supposedly the centre-piece of the night’s itinerary, touched on the need to attain an authentic revolution, reminding us that the only way to get there was by adopting new approaches to old problems facing the continent.

Her demeanour was satirical, of course, and Chiurai’s collection was not without its detractors. The idea of Ibrahim as a leader of the new school, however, was a nuanced, even ingenious sleight of hand by the Zimbabwean-born Chiurai, because it translates beyond any theatrical performance.

Even in songwriting, new ways of being are central to the Zaki Ibrahim modus operandi.

Rhyme schemes are sometimes secondary to intonation and melody, cascading beats submerge listeners into Atlantis-like netherworlds and lyrics become vehicles for metaphysical travel. Her latest album, Every Opposite, is another testament to throwing ­caution to the wind and creates a window on a life lived on the go.

In Khalo Matabane’s Conversations on a Sunday ­Afternoon, in which he interviews several foreigners on the idea of home, writer ­Ronald Suresh-Roberts remarks poignantly that “roots are for plants”. Home, he argues, is where you feel you are doing something important.

Outsider status

By the same token, the notion of home for electro-soul singer and global denizen Ibrahim has always been an up-in-the-air concept, but it is becoming increasingly easier for her to call South Africa, her father’s home country, her home.

The irony with the Canadian-born Ibrahim is that, even with her tenuous outsider status (she has been a South African citizen since 1998 but does not really live here), it often feels as though hers is one of the key voices to represent South Africa’s rising relevance in the global dance scene.

“South African dance music is raw; it is not like Euro dance music,” she said from a coffee shop in Melville. “In South Africa we dance, but it is not for the sake of the party — it is something else. And the way the music is received by the rest of the world is like: ‘What is this?’ House music is changing because of South Africa.”

Ibrahim, who was one of the guests at this year’s Miami Winter Music Conference in the United States, said it might well have been called the South African Dance Music Conference, given the way people responded to her songs (in particular Sunrise, her collaboration with DJ Kent) and the way DJs played South African music in their sets.

Ibrahim confesses to being initially reluctant to try her hand at house music. “Nick Holder [a Toronto-based producer and DJ she collaborates with] is the reason for me getting into house music. At first I was like: ‘When are we going to do some real music?’”

A South African tour of the “kwaito circuit” with Holder in 2009 changed all that. Fresh from a voyage to the American South, Ibrahim was submerged in a sea of bobbing kwaito heads in places such as Klerksdorp, Bloemfontein and Durban. By this time, of course, kwaito and house were virtually interchangeable terms in South Africa.

The release of the King Britt remix of Money, a deceptively simple, percussion-laced song in which her ­persona stands on either side of the dollar divide, reflects this epiphanic phase. The track did wonders for Ibrahim’s positioning on the global scene, breaking her into the small but influential British nu-jazz scene where tempos are often house-based but the rhythm structures traverse Afrobeat, hip-hop and drum and bass.  

Bringing it together

For Every Opposite, her first full-length release that followed two EPs — 2006’s Sho: Iqra in Orange EP and 2009’s Eclectica: Episodes in Purple — Ibrahim recorded in eight different places. She said her biggest ­challenge was bringing together something that was scattered “across the four winds” into a cohesive whole.

“Even with 340ml guitarist Tiago Paulo, who produced the bulk of the album, there were moments when I was like ‘this sounds like a 340 track’. So there was a lot of deconstructing and piecing things back together.”

Other contributors to the album include Ghanaian-Canadian producer Rich Kidd, Swedish-based Kenyan Wawesh, DJ Catalist ­(US and Canada) and the south London-based production team LV.

Although Ibrahim sometimes wears her influences on her sleeve, she has a unique manner of turning them on their head. In Go Widdit, she pulls off a futuristic take on Quincy Jones-era Michael Jackson. Even in a song in which she is challenging a would-be lover to keep up, Ibrahim sounds as though she is encouraging a free spirit to lose all inhibitions and take flight. 

Something in the Water, which is featured on the Otelo Burning soundtrack, captures the inexplicable feeling of being in tune with ­creative spirits and likens it to the effect of tinctured water. The punchy synth bass and what sounds like a rapidly picked, muted guitar actually submerge the listener in aural water.

The cohesive, atmospheric production aside, what sets Ibrahim apart from her peers is her turn of phrase. Unlike Eclectica’s more straightforward songs, Every Opposite, as the title suggests, is laced with double entendres, but you also get the sense that her blueprint is still in ­development.

Although her style is based on the knowledge that “tone and vibration carry a message as well”, the loose narrative of this concept album is hardly reflected in the sequencing, suggesting that a fully fledged magnum opus, one completely reflective of her insightful mind, lies on the horizon.

Every Opposite will be released on June 4

Kwanele Sosibo
Kwanele Sosibo
Kwanele Sosibo is the editor of Friday, the arts and culture section of the Mail and Guardian.
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