There probably isn’t a bigger compliment for an artist than for their song to be called a “national anthem”. Stay with me. The compliment might come from a derisive source commenting on the artist’s overexposure, but there’s a sense of joy and comfort to have a song blasting from different houses during cleaning times on the weekend or, of course, the holy grail, being gleefully sung by little children.
For the past few months, a new “national anthem” has been on the rise: Akanamali by Sun-EL Musician, which features a voice I know well.
First appearing with The Soil, this voice emanated from the tall person among the four vocalists making sounds into microphones. By the time The Soil was dubbed a national phenomenon, the tall person was no longer in their ranks, but he could be heard in their music. It wasn’t just that he was a key composer and songwriter on their debut, it’s that the songs still carried his cadence.
The tall person, and voice, is Samkelo Mdolomba — most commonly known by the moniker Samthing Soweto, the 29-year-old composer, vocalist and songwriter who has made the act of harmonising exciting for the better part of a decade.
As a listener, I have found a comfort that comes from the familiarity of the sounds in Samthing Soweto’s music. That living-room church harmony, the falsetto, the bass that reminds me of the sounds of Ekuphakameni.
His departure from The Soil has always been filled with more questions and theories than answers, but as someone who lives anxiously, it has seemed like the most relatable thing. No world needs to end for you to leave. I understand how freeing (and terrifying) it can be to choose to leave, while on the brink of something amazing.
The more interviews Mdolomba does, the more the picture forms: he wasn’t ready, he had other projects he wanted to pursue, he was young and idealistic. “At first, it was pure expression. Now I know the difference between creating what I want and what the people want, and I’ve found a balance between the two,” he says of his artistic shift. “For a very long time it wasn’t a thing for me.”
One can argue that Samthing Soweto’s vocal work (and by extension, The Soil’s) came from not just a fascination with the ways in which the voice can be bent and stretched but also a kind of void. What he lacked in resources and instruments he made up for by teaching himself to make the sounds he was imagining.
As The Soil was over its campus-touring phase and signed to Native Rhythms, with an album out, Sam-thing Soweto was rebuilding. Along with drummer Adebayo Omotade and bassist Mothusi Thusi, the artist formed a jazzy band called The Fridge, calling their sound “urbanscape”.
The era of The Fridge (alongside bands such as The Brother Moves On, LoveGlori, Zuko Collective and others) was part of a live performance and music renaissance in Johannesburg. During this time, you could just leave work on a Tuesday and go watch a live performance for a few hours before heading home.
When we speak on the phone on a Tuesday morning, Mdolomba is open about his journey. Ungawa Kum by Thebe, Thath’ Isgubhu by Bongo Maffin and It’s About Time by Boom Shaka are among the national anthems Mdolomba good-naturedly rattles off when I ask him about his favourites.
I ask Mdolomba whether he’s the artist he left The Soil to become. “I’m happy. I always tell my friends that if I died tomorrow I’d be happy. I’m happy with my journey. There’s nothing about my artistry that I dislike. Everything that I needed to learn I’ve learned, everything I needed to leave behind I’ve left.”
On his debut solo EP, 2014’s Eb’suku, Samthing Soweto presented a sonic experience in five strong, layered and masterful songs. Aside from the first song Kwamampela, with its drum and snare, he tells me that the EP is purely voice-work. From this collection of sounds, it’s clear just how much he prizes the voice as an instrument.
The fourth song on Eb’suku is called Mdolomba, an autobiography of the artist and fan. “It’s time to listen to Mdolomba’s tale,” he sings repeatedly as he details his journey with music.
Samthing Soweto is a fan at his core, as is evidenced by his studying of Miriam Makeba’s early sounds. “Miriam Makeba took a sound that was popular at the time and made it hers,” he says of the legend.
As far as third acts go, the beginning of Samthing Soweto’s third offering is surely exciting. In February he released an album, Vala Amehlo, in part to support his An Evening with Samthing Soweto performance at the Soweto Theatre. There were 200 physical copies of the album made and they’re out there in the world, with about 100 sold. He chose to pull back marketing the project soon after he entered a conversation that’s likely to see him release a fuller project early in 2018.
“It took me an hour to write and record,” he says of Akanamali. He met Sanele Sithole, known as Sun-EL Musician, through an acquaintance after their music interests converged. “I had the verse, the chorus, the bridge and the bassline.”
Six months later, Sithole finally had a beat and production and Akanamali was born. If it wasn’t for the collaboration, Mdolomba says he would still have released the song, but is certain it wouldn’t have had the same effect on popular consciousness.
If the artist has his way, the music industry will one day serve the fans.
He wants to make music accessible and affordable, wanting his performances to be excellent because he knows music is a luxury. “I just wanna sing. I wanna sing at the highest level and I’ll do whatever to get there,” Mdolomba tells me. “I’m just hoping I have what it takes.”
Keep a close eye on Samthing Soweto’s third act because it’s bound to be a masterpiece. If we are lucky, it may even be revolutionary.