Muzi finds his way home

Muzi Mazibuko (27) reclines in his chair and furrows his brow. “That’s not entirely true,” says the Johannesburg-based electronic music producer.

“I wouldn’t say I was just making EDM [electronic dance music] all this time. My music’s always had African-inspired rhythms in it. But now I’ve gone from making electronic music with an African flavour to making African music with an electronic flavour. I’ve done a lot of growing up musically.”

The statement registers only a few minutes later but by then Muzi, as he’s best known, has moved on to the subject of why he’s in Cape Town. It’s late afternoon on a Friday and the city is moving at its characteristic pedestrian pace.

Dressed all in black — from his low-cut Vans to his cropped jeans and his top — Muzi is laying down the final touches to a remix of Questions, a song on his second album, Afrovision. He has a gig in Long Street later that night and he’s debating whether he should demo the remix during his set.

“It’ll depend on my mood,” he says flashing a smile. “I’m definitely not going to play any of the old stuff — not the originals anyway, maybe a few edits or remixes of some old songs but I’ll definitely be playing the album too. That much is for sure.”

A lot has happened since he started generating mainstream attention in 2014. His earlier releases, bass and synth-heavy EDM, garnered him acclaim from some of the biggest artists on the planet. Diplo knew about him, Stormzy featured in a documentary with him, and Damon Albarn from The Gorillaz respects his work ethic.

Despite this, fame had always proved a bit elusive at home. In an interview with the Mail & Guardian last year, the Empangeni-born producer spoke of his outcast status and how, at the time, he felt the industry wasn’t willing to take a chance on a black kid making EDM.

“The market only caters to people that sound like what’s on the radio or sound like things that we love on TV, because that means numbers,” he quipped.

By that time, he’d already moved to Berlin (where the electronic music scene is bigger, he says), going on to release his debut album Boom Shaka as well as a few EPs.

“I went to Berlin to perfect my craft,” he says. “I was still bubbling under back home, so I figured I could move quietly and just focus on making music without any pressure from anyone. But … ,” he pauses and waits for the words to materialise, “I don’t know, man. Home will always be home. I remember being over there and thinking just how far removed I was from everything going on back here.”

In the end, it wasn’t much of a decision at all. In January, Muzi came home for a visit and just never went back. “I had a return ticket back to Germany that I ended up just chucking away. My mind was made up. I was staying.”

In the 15 months that followed, Muzi planted his feet in Maboneng and set out to work on what would become Afrovision.

The 13-track album is an exercise in restraint. Whereas Muzi’s earlier discography bordered on brostep, Afrovision is defined by its fragility.

Best Friend, with Soulistic Music signee Langa Mavuso, features light xylophone taps and speaks candidly about a dying friendship. Similarly, the main single, Sweet Chocolate, featuring Una Rams and Nigerian singer Saint Seaba, is a slow-moving number about the pitfalls of falling in love.

One of the most interesting songs on Afrovision is Channel Black, which best defines the spirit of the album. With a beat that straddles weird sci-fi funk and Afrobeat, the song sounds something like Braamfontein on a rainy day. Muzi says he made the beat for his niece.

“I noticed my grandniece watching TV one day and thought what it would be like if she could tune into a channel that was all black people and see herself there,” he says.

And that is, perhaps, what’s most charming about Afrovision: it’s the sound of Muzi finally finding home.

The aggressiveness that defined some of his earlier releases makes way for maskandi guitar licks and vocal inflections and there’s a heavy use of Afrobeat-inspired percussion throughout. Kini, the album-opener, features a mbaqanga guitar, while Muzi sings: “When will you return? Home is calling for you.”

Sunset KwaZulu-Natal is similar with its guitar-led rhythm and heavy percussion. If some of his earlier work could be compared with Diplo and the like, then his new sound is something like Kaytranada set loose in Empangeni.

“I didn’t have any expectations when I dropped the album. But it’s been weird playing the album at listening sessions and seeing just how much people enjoy the music,” he says.

Bantu Space Odyssey, the last song on the album is his favourite: “I was bumping a lot of Sun Ra at the time and I wanted to make something that captured spacey-psychedelic funk spirit. So the song starts with a kick and then just gradually keeps building up. That’s what I imagine it must feel like to head into space.”

Earlier that week, I had watched Muzi make a maskandi song from scratch. It was midday on a Wednesday and Muzi had to leave by one o’clock to catch a flight back to Johannesburg where Una Rams, his friend and album collaborator, was performing his EP.

“This could work,” he whispered to himself when he finally found the right guitar sound. Soon, a rhythm broke out — an infectious maskandi guitar rhythm with the attendant sound of whistles and bongos. But then, right before the song crescendoed into what you would expect to be a verse featuring Zulu lyricism, 808 and some synths creep into the music. It’s jarring at first and suggests that Muzi is intentionally trying to throw you off but, after the shock wears off, the music starts working together and a song forms.

This is what Muzi must have been referring to with his earlier comment about “making African music”. The term itself, problematic and limiting as it may be, indicates that the Durban-born musician is now making music on his own terms.

He may have grown up listening to maskandi but he’s also a skater kid who has stayed true to the scene’s anti-authoritarian ethos.

Afrovision is a collision of those two worlds: an album animated by its refusal to be one specific thing. So, call it electronic music, call it “African-inspired” or whatever descriptor you think fits best but for Muzi the album is nothing more than the sound of finding home.

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