@ Lincoln Center
Jo'Burg Swagger at a New York Pace
On Sunday night in New York, with the hot sky threatening to pour down on Lincoln Center’s Damrosch Park at any moment, a multi-culti crowd sporting big hair and flailing arms got tremendously down. By and large, they were there to see an artist we’ve heard lots from and seen very little of in the U.S.so far: South African rapper, producer, DJ, and visual artist Spoek Mathambo.
Concert-goers with preconceptions about what Africa sounds like in the 21st century would almost certainly be wrong. Distorted kicks, sizzling arpeggiators, and crunchy bass synths flew out of the Lincoln Center speakers. Those sounds were topped by Spoek’s smart post-rap, delivered in his unmistakable Jo’Burg lilt. There was a lot of electro in there, but also a lot of hip hop, and hints of indie rock and the house music that bangs throughout South Africa’s townships. The result is a distinctly futurist vision of present-day Africa. Gobbling up global pop culture, and taking off in a spaceship. At loud volumes.
Spoek, who divides his time between Cape Town and the Swedish hipster-laden port of Malmo, began to seriously hit radars last August with the release of his debut album, Mshini Wam. Although he’s still a relatively new artist in the U.S., the crowd at Lincoln Center appeared to be familiar with his music. When he played album hits “Mshini Wam” and “Don’t Mean to Be Rude,” screams of recognition echoed in the audience, hands flew up into the air, and dance-moves were dialed up a notch.
The artist responded to his enthusiastic audience by going all in. Throughout the performance, Spoek sweat and writhed on the stage like a seasoned rock star, occasionally kneeling on the stage and pulling the mic-stand down to his lips like a South African Van Halen. The expression on his face was wide-eyed, fierce with intention, almost possessed, as he bopped back and forth between two different mics mysteriously positioned at the front of the stage.
Spoek was unable to bring his full band for the occasion, but a small group of musicians backed him up on stage, helping to bring the mostly pre-recorded music to life. Standing behind a tower of unidentifiable electronic equipment and wearing a tenor saxophone around his neck, the Danish-based producer CHLLNGR was one of them. CHLLNGR, who is signed to Ben Bronfman’s Green Owl records, has co-produced some tracks with Spoek and plays with him frequently live, bringing a dubbed-out, R&B aesthetic to the music. Throughout the set, he blew his saxophone into a microphone tricked out with effects, stopping only to occasionally twiddle knobs and sweep filters on nearby synth modules.
On the other side of stage, a man looking suspiciously like some kind of elf warrior played a multi-tiered percussion set-up. Gunnar Olsen, a Norway-born and Brooklyn-based drummer, had never played with Spoek live before, but he gelled with the band nonetheless. Although set-up include roto-toms and wood blocks, Olsen seemed to spend most of his time on the hi-hat, banging out the tight syncopations characteristic of South African house music and bringing a laid-back swagger to the often four-on-the-floor beats.
Most of the seven-song set was made up of songs from Mshini Wam. In the middle, however, he threw in “Put Some Red On It,” a new track produced with CHLLNGR. It’s the first track that was teased off Spoek’s EP of the same name, soon to be released by Seattle’s Sub Pop records. Over a beat made up of fast-flying wood blocks and giant crunk bass, Spoek does was he does best: tackle serious topics (for instance, the blood diamond trade in Africa) with the right balance of black humor and wry innuendo for instance, the obvious reference to Rich Boy’s Throw Some D’s On It).
Bearing the end of his set, Spoek’s played the hard-driving “Thunder.” He sang the words “It rolls like thunder down the street” ominously, as the clouds gathered overhead and violent gusts of wind cut the heavy air. He closed the set out with “Control,” a loose cover of Joy Division’s “She’s Lost Control” that takes the new-wave classic and infuses it with dubstep-era wobble bass and the shuffling snares of township tech-house.
With the next act coming on right away, there was no time for an encore. The set was short and the sound imperfect, leaving the audience wanting more. Luckily for them, with a new label deal recently inked, we’re bound to see plenty more of the up-and-coming star shortly.