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THE HEALER’S BLUES

WORDS:

Nathan Levinrad

PHOTOGRAPHY:

Khanyisa Mzinda

It’s not easy. It’s midway through my interview with Sanele Blaai, a Cape Town based electronic artist and graphic designer who in March 2021 released his debut mixtape, Lokshin Blues Volume 1. Lokshin, is South African slang for township and comes from the Afrikaans word lokasie which was used under Apartheid to refer to areas where Black and Coloured people live. “It’s not easy” is what Sanele answers when I ask him what he wants people to know about being a musician in South Africa. This is especially true coming from the township, as Sanele does. The South African music scene finds itself in bleak times. In Cape Town, we have seen several music venues close down as the result of months of off-again-on-again government-imposed lockdowns and liquor bans. I think that is why when I heard this project it felt so triumphant. It is precisely from this bleakness that Lokshin Blues draws its inspiration and, in doing so, overcomes.

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There is something expansive about the genreless, five-track project that in my humble estimation is something of a lovechild of South African Deep House and Indie Soul. Despite its near 20-minute runtime, the EP takes the listener on a cinematic and evocative journey from the downtempo album opener Ngithande Bani where Blaai sings over sparse vocal layers. The project uplifts one with Sanele’s layered melodies and the varied instrumentation on the production – reaching a high point at the third track Hey Ngwanyana – a six-minute, slow burning house joint. The dance number somehow smoothly transitions into Mphepho Vibes, that halfway through the track the house rhythms give way to Sanele’s vocals paired with bluesy reverb guitar – a sparseness that contrasts against the rich layering of the previous tracks.

It’s a Monday afternoon, I meet Sanele Blaai on the corner of Lower Main and Trill Road. Observatory, Cape Town. There’s been a mix up with the keys for the Other Records, the record store where Sanele works, and the coffee shop next door. We make a quick stop at the coffee shop where Sanele remembers leaving the keys and the mix up is sorted out. We drive to my place in Woodstock and set up for the interview. We are sitting in a sunny room, Moses Taiwa Molelekwa’s album Gene and Spirits plays in the background on Sanele’s request.

 

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I tell Sanele that the project for me feels in one sense timeless, but in another sense rooted in the era of Frank Ocean. I ask him, as hard as it is, whether he is able to categorise the project sonically? “There are a lot of elements to each song that makes each song distinctive. There are a lot of genres on the whole tape [LBV1]. To put it in one – it’s a feeling. The textures of each song reflect how I was feeling when I put it together. It’s got a lot of electronic music.”
I ask him which electronic artists influenced LBV1?

“James Blake, Sampha, Bon Iver. Those artists that write about emotionally deep stuff [laughs] on top of layered electronic sounds. I think that I am particularly influenced by artists who create down-tempo music that aims at making more of a feeling or a state than for entertainment. I think I took those elements of those artists and told it from my perspective in my own voice.” “It took time for us to get those tracks.”

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The project started as a collaboration with Ledama Masidza on the production of LBV1. LEDAMA, as his name is stylised in the production credits, was born and grew up in England. Sanele met him at a jam session three years ago. “I had a residency playing keys with a band called The Main Loafers at a spot in Observatory called the Main Loaf – now African Box. We had sessions there every Saturday and different people could join. Ledama came through to one of these sessions and picked up the trumpet. He heard me singing and we connected and decided to make music.”

“We had a couple of studio sessions and started playing around with ideas. I used to start by layering sounds on say a synthesizer and we would build on it from there. “ I ask whether the tracks on LBV1 are a result of those jam sessions you started having in 2018? If so, that is a while to sit on this music. Especially as there is pressure these days for creatives to constantly release content. I ask him what can he say to that? “Yeah, there were a lot of interruptions. Ledama went back to England and then Covid hit. There was a lot going on but that also gave us time to really refine the project.”

“I don’t really feel external pressure to release, the pressure comes from inside me. I feel pressure to challenge myself. As an artist there is so much you need to explore within oneself – that’s the pressure I am facing. I am asking myself what’s next for me? I am trying to run away from the norm and create my own style. I think about High Life, Soukous, Maskandi and it inspires me to tap into those frequencies, the originality of my roots, and stay grounded.”

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“The only external pressure comes from monetizing the art. Not being screwed over and just making sure my stuff gets to the right people.” I ask Sanele what he feels about R&B going through a bit of a revival with Alternative/Indie R&B coming back into the mainstream?

“I grew up listening to R&B and Soul. My parents really put me on that. I used to sing along to Boyz II Men – I feel that’s where I developed my vocal range. I am untrained but everything I do is to advance my skills. “I often just play what I feel.” Ledama is a trained musician who can read and write music. He would understand where I am trying to go, for instance in the layering of sounds and would tweak where he can.”

“As much as Lokshin Blues exists as a result of the revival of R&B and emergence of Alternative R&B. The Lokshin Blues is its own genre. It’s my brainchild but there are guys who I have worked with like Sizwe “Madzeni” Nyanga who had a hand in influencing the genre. [Sawubona My Friend by Madzeni is a great track and worth checking out]. The influences range from High Life, West African music, Sub-Saharan. It’s evolving and I think Lokshin Blues Vol. 2 is going to reflect those influences.”

When did you pick up the guitar? “My aunt gave me a guitar a couple of years ago, but it was just a bad guitar. It was during my first year of college in 2014. My guitar playing needs a lot of work. The guitar on LBV1, especially the refined riffs – that’s Ledama. He really enjoyed my guitar loops but he would take it and fine tune the riffs and melodies that I had laid down. He recorded his sister playing the violin for Lokshin Blues (Outro) while he was back home in England.”

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What do you want people from other countries to know about South Africa in terms of music? “It’s not easy. We have a lot of greats who came from South Africa and did well in the States. They had to be on that side to actually accomplish something. I think that now it’s worse because of Covid. I’ve come to a point where I know that music is something that I need to do. It’s a purpose – I need to heal people. I feel that I am a healer like Erykah Badu is a healer. I see myself as a traditional African healer in the format of music.”

Does it feel good to have released this project having been working on it for so long? “It feels good, it feels like a weight off my shoulders. I’ve always wanted to release a project, to share it with the world and let them know I am here. I’m an artist from South Africa.”

Sanele smiles. “A lot of people gave it love, Spoek Mathambo gave it love. He put the song on a reel of him and his girlfriend on an island or something. I have been talking with him but there is no rush to make music, he is cool about it, it will happen organically. It’s not a thing where we need to force it. When it happens it happens. He’s been motivating me since 2014. I sent him an animation I made paired with a track I made on GarageBand. He was really encouraging and urged me to keep going.”  That motivated me to do more projects. I released two projects under the persona of Rob Indie at one point. It was bad, so corny, but the music was nice.

What do you want people from other countries to know about South Africa in terms of music? “It’s not easy. We have a lot of greats who came from South Africa and did well in the States. They had to be on that side to actually accomplish something. I think that now it’s worse because of Covid. I’ve come to a point where I know that music is something that I need to do. It’s a purpose – I need to heal people. I feel that I am a healer like Erykah Badu is a healer. I see myself as a traditional African healer in the format of music.”

Could you please translate some of the lyrics on LBV1? Especially Hey Ngwanyana. “That one is a twostep! It’s part of the culture in townships in South Africa, that in December [Dezemba] there are a lot of weddings. There would be songs that were popping at every wedding. I feel like Hey Ngwanyana is a wedding song in that way.”

Is that how it ended up or is that how you wanted it to be from the beginning? “It ended up that way [laughing]. Ledama produced the entire beat for Hey Ngwanyana. I recorded the vocal takes in the middle of the night and I really went in.” “I had to just really go in, man. It was like 4AM, recording the vocal takes and deciding what the melody meant. I had to finish the song and it had to be full and make sense. I tried to not always be repetitive. I think I am a very lazy writer; I feel like I haven’t experienced much.”

Sanele translates the lyrics to Hey Ngwanyana the third track on LBV1. Ngise Mathandweni mina (hela Ngwaneso ke maratong keao chaela) I am saying “I am so in love with this girl!” Sanele talk-sings the translation comically. “The second part is me telling a friend. Kaeo chaela is kasi-slang for “I am telling ya”

Hey NGWANYANA ska tlo N’kisa kwana le kwana( hao boni keao batla) “I am saying “hey girl” and telling her don’t be running around the bush, can’t you see that I want you? Kwana le kwana is SeSotho for don’t take me this way and that way. I am saying stop sending me back and forth. It’s a love song, it could be a wedding song.”

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“At the time I was corny and mediocre. I am from a small town, Vereeniging, in Gauteng. I am from the hood, Sebokeng. I was a soccer player; the music was in me but that came later. In high school, I would audition for musicals but I would always get bored and go back to the pitch. I was that kid who is talented but is all over the place. The name Rob Indie comes from my nickname on the soccer field, Robinho.”

“I was bashed on VUZUtv, in 2014. VUZUtv came to Vereeniging and I was telling them I was Rob Indie and nobody knew what that meant or what I was trying to do [Laughs].” Did you perform shows in Vereeniging? Where would you play? “Yeah. I did shows but not a lot. I would perform at a couple of places in Braamfontein, Johannesburg. I still have never gotten paid for making music.”

“I don’t know what drove me to becoming the artist that I am. I wouldn’t say I am consistent but I have been dropping music since 2016. Dropping beat tapes that I made on Logik. I just want to drop music for the sake of releasing music.” “Volume 1, is the tip of the ice-berg. Volume 2 is going to come from a different stage of me being more grounded. The sequel is going to be more influenced by my sense of self. Volume 1 shows part of me but not all of me.”

I want to be so good that I am signed to Brainfeeder. It may not be easy to be a young creative in these uncertain times but with his debut, Sanele has been able to create a project that sounds both organic and effortless. Lokshin Blues Volume 1 is distributed by Soul Sound Factory and out on all streaming platforms.

It’s not easy. It’s midway through my interview with Sanele Blaai, a Cape Town based electronic artist and graphic designer who in March 2021 released his debut mixtape, Lokshin Blues Volume 1. Lokshin, is South African slang for township and comes from the Afrikaans word lokasie which was used under Apartheid to refer to areas where Black and Coloured people live. “It’s not easy” is what Sanele answers when I ask him what he wants people to know about being a musician in South Africa.
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