ELO stages a grand entry

Launching her debut album from William Kentridge's studio, ELO's ambition matches her talents. (POST POST Music)

Launching her debut album from William Kentridge's studio, ELO's ambition matches her talents. (POST POST Music)

It says a great deal about ELO’s ambition that the Johannesburg launch of her debut EP took place in William Kentridge’s studio.

In Maboneng’s Arts On Main, the expansive space is where you imagine the artist conjuring up, and meticulously planning, the details of his work, in particular his video installations. The elevated platform. The sturdy staircase, like a movable ladder. A place where experimentation can transmute into a breathtaking visual experience for the observer, as with his 2012 work, The Refusal of Time.

When ELO arrives on stage, wearing high-heeled black boots, a white leotard scattered with pink and blue dots and Pac-Man shapes, and glorious pink hair, there’s no doubting this newcomer’s adherence to the idea of experimentation.

Perfectly framed between two Kentridge megaphones, she launches into a sampling of the songs on her six-track EP (seven if you include the radio edit of Stare), ELOGRAM, and easily wins over the crowd. Among them is Nakhane Touré, a kindred spirit in the new generation of musicians who refuse to be pigeon-holed into ill-fitting and outdated genres.

If anything, it’s an affinity for the possibilities afforded by electronica that binds ELO to the likes of Touré, and her stablemates at POST POST Music, Fortune Shumba and Moonchild Sanelly.

Be It, the EP’s opening track, is a sparse, synthesiser-propelled meditation on following the creative pulse, no matter what. (“I have seen the light and I want to go to it/ Or rather be it/ I’ve been told the sky’s too high/ I won’t reach it/ But I’m in it …”)

One of ELO’s stated influences is FKA Twigs and on a track like Stare, with its hypnotic percussive beat and dream-like vocals, there are certainly similarities with the British artist’s early work (for instance, 2013’s EP2). But the strength of ELO’s voice leads her down other sonic pathways, and she winds her way through a pop-fuelled R&B trajectory on the acoustic guitar-infused Wonder and the emotionally charged Make U Stay, which featured in the film Golden Highway.

These diversions mean that ELOGRAM doesn’t present the intensely contained and shockingly fresh world that Twigs created with a work like last year’s thrilling M3LL155X. But that’s not a criticism. Only a short time ago, Lerato Sellane was working in music administration at Universal, grappling with becoming ELO and claiming her place in the limelight while working nine to five.

If anything ELOGRAM is an early calling card for an artist who understands, as too few here do, how important it is to match your music with a properly hewed and authentic aesthetic. Take a look at the video for Be It to get a feel for the direction that ELO is headed in. Directed by Tebogo Malope, it’s a striking counterpart to the audio version of the song, and powerfully captures ELO’s desire to upend conventions in love, life, religion, tradition and more.

What Malope’s video also manages to do is invoke an air of mystery about ELO, which she would do well to work at enhancing. At the launch of her EP, she followed in the footsteps of too many South African performers by opening her performance with a few words of thanks that wouldn’t have been out of place at a high-school event.

But, again, it’s almost churlish to point this out. ELO is new to being in the spotlight, having honed her voice as a backing singer for Vusi Nova. Plus she has, importantly, released an EP that sounds like little else in an homegrown industry that mostly lacks the imagination to facilitate the creative visions of black women.

Fortunately, ELO found herself working on ELOGRAM with Tshepang Ramoba, who is currently building a stable at POST POST Music that seems to thrive on real sonic adventuring. Ramoba is the drummer for the BLK JKS and so understands, more than most South African artists, what it’s like navigating beyond the borders of this country.

He knows that, even if you’re the global tastemakers’ flavour of the month, it’s not an easy journey to success overseas.

With Ramoba guiding her, and shows coming up at SXSW in March (as part of the South African music showcase), as well as New York’s CMJ Music Marathon in October, there’s every reason to hope ELO gets noticed – that this talented and audacious artist is given the chance to develop her songwriting and performance skills, and that she breaks through to a worldwide audience eager for the new wave of African artists who are making their presence felt.

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