South African duo FAKA have been prominent standard bearers of queer culture in their native land since 2010, delighting and shocking the populace in equal measure through their unabashed, flamboyant, rhythm-centric yet melodic version of gqom. Gqom is a musical genre that evolved throughout this century from the ashes of what used to be called kwaito. Kwaito was a righteous form of dance-orientated hip hop (the word literally means ‘anger’), socially indivisible from township culture. Gqom is a lot closer to techno and electro than hip hop or 90s house. The particular version FAKA deployed skirted euphoria and joyous tongue-in-cheek double-entendre usage while sticking to its minimalist drum machine core.
In 2020, FAKA’s Desire Marea released a solo album, DESIRE, a dance floor-centred project seasoned with dashes of longing and heartbreak just as often as its mood nudged toward ecstasy. His second long-playing release, On the Romance of Being, is a more organic, spiritual, and analogue experience that feels like finding a solitary pearl in a congested global sea.
Throughout the last two years, the Amandawe-based artist trained as a Sangoma, a traditional Nguni spiritual healer. This is not a part-time pastime and requires its practitioners to allow their own spirit to die in order to become a vessel for others. Marea’s music now seems transformed by external and varying influences; the resulting record is a bewitching blend of styles and perspectives.
Opening tracks of grand works should be immediately identifiable as such and ‘Ezulwini’ couldn’t really go at any other point in the running order. The expanse of classical instrumentation suggests the welcoming opening of the gates of heaven itself. Every instrument sounds enormous, dancing around Desire’s repetition of the word ‘levitate’, with certain elements seemingly being played in overlapping time signatures.
The subject matter of ‘Be Free’ is a former partner’s inability to accept themselves. Musically, it’s a pulsing throb of urgency fed by a gurgling bassline that occasionally breaks out into wandering percussive jazz sections and an epic, synth-packed final minute. There are multiple types of percussion across the entire record, but the core drumkit sounds emanate a sense of raw, punchy power that’s probably best displayed in the moments of transition in ‘Be Free’.
‘Makhukhu’, like a lot of the album, is dripping in implied eroticism. Still, its playful, slower tempo does a good job of moving thematically between pure lust and tender vulnerability characterised by the lively woodwind parts bouncing off the vocals in symbiosis.
Starting around a tom-heavy beat that would vibrate the most underused of gluteal muscles, ‘Mfula’ is an absolute journey of a composition that begins with multiple figurative thrusting pelvises, has a 90-second exorcism complete with guttural growls from Marea before finishing in a place of wistfulness. It certainly seems like the most explicit example of his cross-spiritual embodiments. As Desire himself says, ‘In my work as a sangoma, ancient songs and drumming sequences are used to invoke spirits who live in me, so I enter into a trance state. In my work as a musician, I heal people using music. It’s a different kind of medicine but one in which I often have to channel different spirits, different truths. and the essence of light.’
The introduction to ‘Arrival’ is not unlike the theme of a spy movie, with added funky-picked bass notes that are way more subtle than they’ve any real right to be. Unlike a lot of other songs on the album, ‘Arrival’ sticks fairly tightly to its core rhythm and only expands on this rather than having huge, splashing breakdown bits that re-emerge anew.
Disappointingly not about a hospital in Paisley, ‘Rah’ is a sprawling 9-minute fusion of gospel-like spiritualism and incidental jazzy embellishments. The layering of varying vocal parts from multiple vocalists somehow doesn’t detract from the song’s feeling of a person as a central point of experience. There’s a calm, a stillness about the vocal deliveries around which everything else happens rather than the voice becoming a contributor to a maelstrom.
‘Skhathi’ starts with rich electronic piano chords joining a floating synth pattern all bathed in Marea’s smooth, deceptive timbre. His voice manages to hit high notes and registers while maintaining an offsetting, throaty baritone harmonic that defies proper description.
Closer ‘Banzi’ exudes a centred stillness, quickly disintegrating into hard bop jazz carried by a vocal distortion of zealous pastors who are overcome by the Holy Spirit. The song’s title translates to ‘expansive’ in Zulu and is inspired by the ocean, a portal to heavenly dimensions in Nguni lore. As the track evolves, there are some of the most joyous moments of jazz cacophony ever committed to magnetic tape.
On the Romance of Being is an outright, self-assured achievement. A singular opus that traverses styles and, at times, souls. Unbelievably, given the musicianship present, almost all of the recordings were done in one take, and this seemingly aids the pivot from Marea’s previously electronic output to this rich blend of musical styles from various cultural geographies, anchored on the ancient music of the Nguni and Ndau peoples.
On the Romance of Being is out 7th April via Mute