12:35 pm Jul. 12, 2012
“It was the most stupid, least rappy, unmistakably South African name I could come up with.”
So explained Johannesburg-bred vocalist-producer Nthato Mokgata, remembering why he chose to call his performing alterego Spoek (pronounced “spook”) Mathambo. The wryness in his voice was palpable on the phone from his current home base of Malmo, Sweden. He was up late Monday night, speaking to me after a long day readying for his North American Spoek Mathambo tour, which gets underway in New York City this week (he plays Le Poisson Rouge tonight) in support of Father Creeper, his debut for American indie label Sub Pop.
“I first heard [the name] on a comedy TV show,” Mokgata, 27, said. “I was considered a pretty big rap nerd—had been rapping since I was about nine—and I guess by the age of 18 I'd grown tired of the super-serious, American-ey rap names. I was into X-Clan, Ice Cube and Da Lench Mob, Paris. The name"—which is a bilingual/biracial concoction of Afrikaans and Zulu that translates to "ghost of bones"—"just seemed completely ridiculous, so I went with it.”
Then again, it's a bit too smart to be called ridiculous. Mathambo's sense of humor is more in line with Emily Deschanel's dry, hyperrational forensic anthropologist on the TV show "Bones" than the silliness he suggests. (Mathambo nearly had a career in science, actually; he attended med school before dropping out to pursue music and graphic design.) What makes his new disc so striking is how the rational aspects of his musical persona make way for both the hedonistic as well as the clear-eyed and free-associative.
Mathambo's work is playful, the way much of the music coming out of the South African hip-house scene can be (the genre has earned the title “township tech”) but it's never cartoonish, like the much talked about fellow South African rap crew Die Antwoord. But the playfulness is balanced by the brooding textures and subject matter that came to the fore on Mathambo's first, pre-Sub Pop album, 2010's M'shini Wam. That title, also the name of his touring band, is more cheeky wordplay: a riff on an African National Congress slogan for taking up arms. But the album's shot-heard-round-the-world was the beatwise minimalism on Mathambo's cover of the postpunk staple “She's Lost Control” by Joy Division, renewing it as an anthem for mopey cosmopolitans from Jo'burg to Tokyo.
“I came up in the transitional period from the old apartheid government to the new government, so there was a lot of conflict around the city of Johannesburg when I was quite young,” he said. “My teen years were mostly in the suburbs, though, so there was that suburban isolation, suburban boredom thing.”
Add a dollop of cyberpunk imagination courtesy of self-professed Mokgata idols Philip K. Dick and William Gibson, and it's easy to see why the term “Afro-futurist” follows him around. He embraced the usage wholeheartedly when it came up in conversation, professing engagement with—but not necessarily emulation of—the work of George Clinton, the Detroit electro outfit Drexciya, and author Octavia E. Butler.
“I like the idea of 'Afro' as signification of things removed from Africa," he said, "as perhaps a cultural space in contrast to Europe and America.”
One reason the term seems so relevant right now is that the music on Father Creeper doesn't fall neatly into any established musical genre. Mathambo was quick to point out that he's the sole producer this time, in contrast to the lineup of guest knob-twiddlers that helped out on M'shini Wam. The musical thrust is no longer strictly dance music, though the drum programming on pieces like “Kites” and “Venison Fingers” is supple enough to get you on the floor.
“I guess about three years ago I noticed this sort of darker strain in my songwriting, sort of out of maybe Sonic Youth or the Pixies,” he said. Perhaps fittingly, Mathambo sings nearly as much as he raps throughout the disc, sometimes pushing his voice into an evocatively strained higher register. Elsewhere, the lyrical then climactically raucous guitar that charges up “Let Them Talk” and “Stuck Together” moves him out of clubland altogether. And despite the presence of interludes that seem to owe a debt to Congolese soukous (“Dog To Bone”), or partake of the homegrown rhythms of the South African townships (“Skoroskoro (Walking Away)”), there's no mistaking it for an album of Afro-pop.
The track that has instant karma written all over it, however, combines his newfound sonic vision with topicality. “Put Some Red On it” is an imagistic critique about the trade in blood diamonds, rendered atop rave-centric primal beats and synths that are a cross between siren and carnival air-horn. The album version is considerably more weighty than the one I heard him perform at Lincoln Center's Damrosch Park last summer, though Mathambo admits that his touring band, once heavy on samplers, has undergone some changes in preparation for the tour.
“It's still a pretty compact group,” he confessed, “but not only are we using a live drummer, the musician on sampler doubles on guitar.” He pauses for emphasis, then revisits the wry charm. “All I'm gonna tell you … is to expect the unexpected.”
Spoek Mathambo performs July 12 at Le Poisson Rouge as well as a special concert with Georgia Anne Muldrow, Dudley Perkins, and Thundercat on July 14 at the Weeksville Heritage Center's Garden Party in Crown Heights. Directions here.
More by this author:
- Discussing soldiers of color, dreams, music, and 'Holding It Down' with Vijay Iyer and Mike Ladd
- Striking views of a tumultuous era at BAM's 'Do The Reggae' film series