27th January 2021
Every country has its own style of house music, but South Africa’s has a uniqueness about it that makes it immediately recognisable. Established global names like DJ Fresh and Black Coffee, and recent heavyweights such as Prince Kayebee and Kabza de Small have taken ‘our’ sound to a level of sleek sophistication. The DJ I’m featuring today is a part of the ‘heavyweight’ group, Sun-El Musician.
I have covered his story in depth before, but as a quick recap, this ZwaZulu Natal youngster grew up with four siblings and was raised by his domestic worker mother. He attended a university party where DJ Tira encouraged him to learn some basic production software (FruityLoops). Using a trial version downloaded onto a university library computer, he taught himself enough to lay down a demo track which he gave to Demor Sikhosana, a part of Black Coffee’s Shanamusic collective. Demor was impressed and signed Sun-El and so started the process of learning his craft, his profession, and honing his sound.
He has gone on to win numerous awards and was even flown to the USA to work on a new album with Alicia Keys and her husband, Swizz Beats. His fast-growing catalogue of work has seen him feature some remarkable local vocalists – and that’s where the second part of today’s feature comes into play.
I touched base with Sun-El’s YouTube channel and was happy to discover some recent tracks, each featuring some of our new leading ladies of song. While researching these ladies I unearthed a mine of wonderful songs and enough info to do a future mini-feature on each.
The first track today features the vocals of a 19-year-old go-getter from Durban, Azana. Her debut album, Ingoma, hit #1 on the local Apple Music Pop Charts with the single Your Love bringing her to the attention of the listeners.
As a shy girl who loved singing and dancing in her room where people could not see her, she gradually gathered the courage to perform in front of others. Her school teachers and mother noticed her talent and encouraged her to pursue a career in music. She drew her stage name, Azana (meaning queen), from her real name, Makhosazana. At 15-years-old she started recording songs at a neighbourhood studio. Because he loved her voice so much, the producer did not charge her, unlike other artists.
Sun-El’s production of Azana’s song Uhuru was released on 2020’s Mandela Day. Azana wrote the song after a conversation with DayDeejayMondy SA about the challenges he faced in the industry at the beginning of his career.
I’m sure we’ll see more from this remarkable young talent soon.
The second songbird to have graced a Sun-El track recently is Simphiwe Nhlagulela, better known as Simmy, the neo-soul, neo-folk and house music singer from Johannesburg. Growing up in a music-loving family, she was raised on a diet of local Maskandi music and lots of Country songs; a combination that had a big influence of her songwriting style.
As the youngest of four children, her parents were strict and after she had completed her matric they insisted she attend the University of KwaZulu Natal where she studied Social Sciences. She had auditioned for the South African versions of The Voice and Idols but wasn’t successful. Thankfully she didn’t give up on her dream.
While at university she met and got a chance to sing for, Sun-El Musician (to use his full stage name) thanks to her brother who was a huge R&B fan. The 17-year-old impressed him with her vocal style and he offered to sign her to his record label, but he had to delay working with him as completing her studies came first.
She was finally signed to El-World Music and began working on Sun-El’s Africa to the World album in 2017. On release, the songs that featured her vocals started receiving massive airplay and became crowd favourites, especially when the promotional videos were released and her fans ‘met’ this local beauty.
Simmy’s debut album Tugela Fairy soon followed and was featured on the Apple Music artist spotlight which has helped establish her as one of the country’s new stars. One of the recurring comments on YouTube is how refreshingly pure and innocent her songs are when compared to the usual themes of ho’s, nudity and drugs that often dominates the genre.
Let’s take a listen to some Simmy / Sun-El magic with the track Emakhaya.
To finish this round-up of Sun-El’s recent releases I have saved my favourite for last. For anyone who hasn’t read my praises for Msaki in the past (and they have been numerous), you are in for a treat.
Msaki’s childhood was filled with music, and with a father who was a DJ and choirmaster, she knew from the outset that there was magic in music. While studying Visual Art & Design in East London (Eastern Cape) she became a part of an alternative rock collective and started spending time in the studios of friends. She continued her studies in Visual Art at Grahamstown University where she formed her first band. Msaki furthered her studies at Leeds University (UK) as an exchange student, which is where she taught herself the guitar and further hone her songwriting skills.
On returning to Grahamstown Msaki started performing regularly and in 2012 was selected from an international list of 900 applicants to study in North Carolina along with 30 musicians, writers and artists. This experience is what propelled her to become a full-time independent performer. On returning to South Africa she signed herself to her own newly formed Indie Label, One Shushu Day.
Msaki plays with Xhosa lyrics and African poly-rhythms in an innovative sound that is never jarring. I think that she has the vocal quality of Ella Fitzgerald, and like Ella, never puts a musical foot wrong and is always listenable. Her backing musicians are an ever-evolving, and growing, band of top musicians from across the musical spectrum which Msaki has dubbed ‘The Golden Circle’.
From soulful folk-inspired reflections to Jazz inspired masterpieces, and even a number of dancefloor hits, has seen Msaki continue to gain stature as one of South Africa’s major new acts. Her wide appeal has fueled a constantly growing fan-base and numerous well-deserved awards.
If you are new to Msaki’s music I urge you to explore a little and take a listen to her mesmerising catalogue of work. You’ll thank me later! Here’s the latest Sun-El / Msaki collaboration, Ubomi Abumanga.
Thanks for going local with me today – Catch you soon.
The Loving the Music mini-features are written and compiled by me to support Loving the Music’s Facebook page and group. Join the community for regular themed three-part posts that do do more than just share a song.
The Author owns no copyright on the images or videos in this article. All images and links sourced from YouTube and Google and within the public domain.
Words © Andrew Knapp 2021