Artist: Nakhane Touré
Album: Brave Confusion
Label & Year: Just Music, 2013
Just who is Nakhane Touré, and why is his debut album Brave Confusion causing such a stir? Does the music justify the hype? The singer is rewriting the rules - an openly gay pop star from the rural Eastern Cape, creating modern SA music with timeless international influences. And rather than being brushed under the carpet, his music is drawing major acclaim in the process. What's his secret?
One listen invites an assault to the senses, but without relying on overblown production. It's not a sonic assault but an emotional one - something sorely lacking from most pop music at the moment. Here is something that South Africa has never heard before. The upbeat opener 'Christopher' sees Nakhane break out his falsetto and sets the tone for the rest to follow. Names are a recurring theme on the album, with other tracks titled 'Robert', 'Abraham' and 'My Jonathan'. At times he seems ready to move up a gear, but instead of resorting to guitar solos for example, he pulls it back again, letting his greatest asset - his voice - remain the focal point.
This is deep, emo, often gloomy stuff - perhaps to its own detriment. It's not going to cheer you up, but it will get you thinking. In a South Africa context this is somewhat special, but Touré's influences are hardly original if one looks further afield. There are obvious nods to Morissey and early Radiohead on tracks like 'Fog', one of the singles and videos from the album. Jeff Buckley's ghost is all over 'Tabula Rasa'. Strangely or not, some songs could have been released 20 years ago within the grunge or Britpop scenes. He also cites Ali Farka Touré as an influence - so much so that he lifted his name from the Malian crooner (I guess it helps portray a more worldy persona than his Mahlakahlaka). Sadly (for me at least), the songs bear little local influences at all, except for some Xhosa lyrics on tracks like 'As I Crane To See'. This is where Toure differs from his contemporary Bongeziwe Mabandla. Time will tell which strategy works best.
Nakhane doesn't try to re-invent the wheel, nor do anything too complicated. But he makes his own music the way he wants to, and he's not scared about conforming. Its beauty lies in its simplicity, and its emotional authenticity - just simple intrumentation, complemented by Matthew Fink (keyboards & drum programming), Waldo Alexander (strings) and the Blk Jks' Tshepang Ramoba on drums, all laying the groundwork for Nakhane's seering vocals and provocative lyrics.
Nakhane emerged as a frontrunner at the 2014 SAMA awards, eventually bagging Best Alternative Act, but missing out in other categories he was nominated in, like Best Newcomer, Best Male Artist and Album of the Year. The fact that he was tipped by some to be the year's big winner says something (not only about the lack of quality out there) about his place in the market - an outsider musically and socially, but one whose music was the power to appeal to an audience of all ages and tastes.
It's taken a long time but at last an artist has broken down the perceived barriers between black and white music so emphatically, and recieved widespread popular and cricial acclaim in the process. Throw away the preconceived binaries of black/white, rural/urban, gay/straight, local/foreign - here's just a guy, his voice and his guitar. True to its name, this is a brave, if somewhat confusing debut effort. Few will doubt that it could well signal start of big things to come from this young musician. Perhaps the only thing this album is missing is a certified hit. Hopefully he will continue to develop his own sound and not be scared to draw on some influences from closer to home. Either way, Nakhane is forging a path for himself into a brave new world of South Africa music.