Native Soul - Teenage Dreams 2xLP

Native Soul - Teenage Dreams 2xLP

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The South African electronic music scene was only able to find its stride from the mid-90s onwards. As Nelson Mandela and other political prisoners famously walked their first steps as free citizens in the first half of the decade, cultural boycotts of South African art were lifted by many countries. Almost simultaneously, music from other countries became more easily accessible locally. This not only meant that electronic music could be imported into the country, but also that global trends would influence the South African music scene, helping to birth Kwaito music and launch the careers of producers and DJs who are now luminaries.

In South African slang, “born free” denotes someone who, born after the onset of democracy, did not experience apartheid even as a child; “ma 2000” is a term used for young people who were born after the year 2000. Both of these terms are often used patronisingly, with connotations of flimsy immaturity associated with them. Ironically, in the layperson’s view the socio-economic adversity of apartheid is still valued above only having experienced democracy.

In common parlance, the two producers who make up Native Soul would be considered “ma2000”, by virtue of their age. Kgothatso Tshabalala is 19 years old and Zakhele Mhlanga (DJ Zakes) is 20. Their debut electronic music album, Teenage Dreams, is not easily dismissed as a project that shows their age, though. Far from it. Teenage Dreams presents a youthful, experimental sound, but the arrangement of each song and how each of the project’s composite parts are put together demonstrate an artistic maturity beyond the two producers’ respective ages.

A cousin of Tshabalala introduced the two in 2016. Native Soul was formed in 2019. Until then, each of them had been producing music in a variety of styles including hip-hop, different types of house as well as amapiano. They decided that with Native Soul, their focus would be on amapiano—an electronic music movement which, by then, had begun to dominate both mainstream and underground music scenes in South Africa.

Amapiano is an electronic music movement first created and still most popular in the townships surrounding the major cities of Gauteng province in South Africa. The style borrows from various genres which have been popular in South African townships during and after apartheid, including jazz, folk, afro, deep and tech house, kwaito, dibacardi and others. As well as paying homage to all its predecessors, amapiano also has traits entirely of its own making, which differentiate it from its lineage. The most recognisable of these being the drums made from basslines which stick out like a pocket turned outside of pants.

Part of what has made amapiano as impactful on the South African music scene as it has been is the DIY ethos behind it. Tshabalala and Mhlanga both live in the greater Pitori area which surrounds Pretoria city. But they are a significant geographical distance from each other, making in-studio sessions rare. “My partner and I live far from each other so we rarely have studio sessions,” says Mhlanga. “Most of the times when we work on something, either I will start a project or he will and we send the work to each other over the internet for additions and completion. But when we are together, I get busy with the keys and he gets on the drums.”

For Tshabalala, the drums are the foundation on which they build when creating new music. “I start with the drums when starting a song,” he says. “Melodies come after the drums. DJ Zakes (Mhlanga) usually handles the bassline on projects I send him.” The process is organic for both artists, choosing to be inspired by the process more than having a set idea in mind. “I don’t necessarily need inspiration to come up with a song idea,” Mhlanga continues, “I play what I feel like playing for the moment and then everything else follows.”

On their debut album released by Awesome Tapes From Africa, Native Soul demonstrate the depth of the musical well they draw from. The drawling tempo and synth chords on "Way to Cairo", the album’s second song, are reminiscent of a certain type of Kwaito popular with pantsula culture. The most discernible nod to Afro House on Teenage Dreams comes in the form of "Dead Sangoma"'s percussive drums. Similarly, the aptly named “United As One” carries a tinge of Moloko’s Sing It Back which was released in 1999, became anthemic in South Africa and continues to represent a belle epoque of electronic music in the country.
Speaking about the conspicuous lack of vocals on the project, Mhlanga says “Vocalists are scarce in my area. I usually create a project and if a vocalist wants to collaborate, I give them the same project for us to take forward.”

There is no single song that stands out far above any other on Teenage Dreams, it is Native Soul duo’s experimentation, composition and arrangements that make the album a strong first offering which exceeds the expectations of the young duo. Throughout the album, each song develops patiently—introducing various instruments and elements in turn. With each layer added, the emotion elicited from the listener is deepened. In this way, Teenage Dreams is not just a dance album, but one that understands what can be gained when artistic maturity meets experimentation.