Nonku Phiri reloaded

The first time I heard composer and singer-songwriter Nonku Phiri was by complete accident.

After some coaxing from a friend, I found myself at the relaunch of The Good Luck Bar in 2015. I’d be lying if I said I remembered much of the night but I know for a fact that it was instrumental in hooking me on to Phiri’s distinctive sound. One night was all it took for me to want to hear more from the vocalist.

She had released her debut single Things We Do on the Weekend months earlier.

Every time I was present when Phiri performed — from the Oppikoppi Festival in 2016 to the Afropunk Festival in 2017 — I was always certain I’d wake up with tender thighs from all the dancing I did during her set.

The self-described eclectic R&B techno artist began her musical journey years back, while working as a graphic designer, illustrator and art director.

Her SoundCloud bio is refreshingly simple:

“hi im nonku

I sing

The end.”

Despite this simplicity, Phiri and her music are anything but.

Her distinct vocals have been featured on tracks with innovative artists such as Crazy White Boy, Branko, P.H. FAT and, most recently, M.A.N.D.Y. but almost two years have passed since Phiri has graced us with solo music — not since the edgy meditation we received in her dark, kwaito-infused single, Regrettables, released late in 2016.

“I just want people to listen to the music with an open mind, as I feel that my music has always encompassed a feeling of new possibilities.” Phiri says. “It is my hope that people find something unexpected that they enjoy.”

The unexpected is evident in her latest single, Sîfó, released on July 19. From the moment the track began, I found myself intrigued by the message she is putting across. In one sweeping moment, from the track’s deeply nostalgic melodic opening, I yearned for my grandmothers. But it also had me with my arms raised above my head, eyes closed and chanting along with her in the club.

Written and produced by Phiri and her production partner Dion Monti, everything about the single feels deeply personal and spiritual. While the electronic production is intricate and flawless, the melody is electronically thrilling, building as it progresses. Above all, Sîfó feels like a heavy blanket, safe and comforting.

Phiri is versatile. Her delicately layered vocals are reminiscent of more traditional South African music, made fresher as they’re cradled over an electronic beat.

With a strong melodic rhythm, Sîfó is memorable because of its clever use of repetition coupled with Phiri’s humming and ululations.

Her vocal delivery is vibrant, confidently weaving and giving way to the music, so that listeners can relish the production just as much as Phiri’s distinctive voice. Phiri and Monti strike a perfect balance on Sîfó, blending soundscapes in ways that are complex yet feel effortless.

Phiri, who has spent the past couple of years listening to various forms of music, “ranging from noise to archived music from around the continent”, believes that her current sound is nothing she’s heard or released before.

“We definitely created a new and unique sound that has plenty of room to grow,” she says.

“I usually start off with an idea, melody or an improvised loop that guides the direction of the song. Since I’ve been working with electronic instruments that allow me to play around with sounds both on and off stage, I’ve been provided with the opportunity to test out new material and revisit songs while we’re on the road.

“I find that a lot of this has informed the manner in which I approach making music in the studio, and this helps keep me in a constant flow of creation.”

As a meditation on “vulnerability in a time of great loss”, the promising single holds grief and celebration in its keen hands, with chanting that borrows from meditative prayer and praise.

“The new EP is definitely more experimental and layered than my previous work. I was very fortunate to work with an amazing producer who has helped me develop this new sound,” says Phiri.

“I’m really enjoying being able to play around with my voice and have started using it as more of an instrument. Also, I’ve been very hands-on in terms of the conception and production of this project, so you can expect more insight into who I am as an artist outside of my collaborative efforts.”

Phiri’s forthcoming EP will be released on her independent record label, Albino Black. 

Subscribe to the M&G

These are unprecedented times, and the role of media to tell and record the story of South Africa as it develops is more important than ever.

The Mail & Guardian is a proud news publisher with roots stretching back 35 years, and we’ve survived right from day one thanks to the support of readers who value fiercely independent journalism that is beholden to no-one. To help us continue for another 35 future years with the same proud values, please consider taking out a subscription.

Related stories


press releases

Loading latest Press Releases…

The best local and international journalism

handpicked and in your inbox every weekday