09/12/2012 12:18 pm ET Updated Dec 06, 2017

Petite Noir and South African Sounds

South African Kwaito music has been referred to as the defining sound of the first post-Apartheid generation. The word itself is derived from the Afrikaans word 'kwaai,' which means angry, but has come to be colloquially equated with the American use of the word 'cool.' It's ironic to say the least that a musical genre incorporating anti-Apartheid messages derives its name from the language spoken by the oppressors. Nevertheless, Kwaito, which emerged in Johannesburg in the 1990s, is similar to house music with an incorporation of African sounds and samples. The bass lines are deep reverberating synth tones and drum machine loops with choruses often repeated in rap and song form.

"Kaffir" by Arthur Mafokate became one of the earliest popular Kwaito singles, a politicized reflection of newly earned freedom of expression. The term 'kaffir' was used as a racial slur toward black South Africans, originating from the Arabic word 'kafir' which directly translates as "one who conceals." With a simple catchy chorus ("don't call me a kaffir"), both sung and spoken, and an infectious, whirling clubby synth, the song was a major success for the genre in terms of popularity and political significance. Mafokate is considered the originator of the genre in South Africa, earning him the label King of Kwaito.

It has been debated as to whether Kwaito is a musical subgenre completely unique to South Africa itself, as it incorporates images and motifs reminiscent of American rap. It's a pointless argument, as tracing the roots of any idiosyncratic brand of music yields traces of other elements that influenced it. Take for instance, Noir Wave, the hybridization of New Wave and Post Punk music, as 21-year-old Cape Town native Yannick Ilunga describes his own sound. His music with electronically inclined group Popskarr and his most recent solo outfit Petite Noir reflect a heterogeneous blend of influences ranging from Kwaito to Joy Division.

For Ilunga, a child of post-Apartheid South Africa, the musical offerings of the world were far less restricted. It's so remarkably fitting that Joy Division became a part of his musical landscape as a child, Ilunga's deep, tremulous vocals sounding derivative of those of lead singer Ian Curtis. Though this influence is wildly apparent the result is also along the lines of Tunde Adebimpe's bellowing soulful pipes in TV on the Radio, with a whole lot less falsetto. That same damaged, pleading defiance of TVOTR is evident on records like "Till We Ghosts."

"I have a pretty deep voice and I've been told I was born in the wrong era," Ilunga recently told me. With a recent resurgence of American interest in the dynamism of 80s sound and all the glittery wonder that goes with it -a perfect example is Twin Shadow's most recent record Confess- Ilunga may have struck at the right time after all.

But retro-vibe aside, what is most interesting about Ilunga's music is how detached from direct cultural influence it sounds. Petite Noir bears little resemblance to Kwaito or any South African music that preceded it, in terms of both its aesthetic and lack of political affiliation. "Politicians are like the middle men to disaster," Ilunga effortlessly surmised. It isn't a prerequisite that South African musicians talk about politics, despite its overwhelming presence in the consciousness of everyone there. To remain apolitical in music by no means suggests the same can work for a day-to-day existence. Ilunga bears the brunt of racist remarks flung recklessly at him in the street. We don't have a means of comparison in the United States, but as far as I can tell Katy Perry has yet to focus on health care or the economy in any of her ballads.

But maybe it speaks larger volumes to create music whose country of origin isn't easily discernible. Things wouldn't be so rosy if every artist committed to writing music directly reflective of their current culture - Autotune and dubstep are what seem to be American right now. Noir is refreshing to hear due in large part to the focus of his sound, and the absence of elements indicative of popular American hooks and bass drops, which are somehow trying to infiltrate almost every nook and cranny of other global subgenres.

There's something viscerally stirring about Ilunga's repetitious lines like "all we have in life will disappear," lyrics derivative of some older proverbial wisdom. In his newest song, "Disappear," it is clearer than ever that he is contending with the demons of his past, as he grapples with the fledgling beginnings of an artistic venture. While the sound is not necessarily new, (driving, sort-of echoic guitar riffs over a grungy, dance-inducing bass), it's hard not to be compelled by Ilunga's command over his own voice. It's the kind of music that can make sad drunks cry and happy drunks rollick in effervescent fits.

There's a lot of talk of change in Petite Noir's music, chants of "I'm never gonna be the same again," in "Till We Ghosts," becoming larger motifs for the artist. And while the sound is anything but what a foreigner would deem traditionally South African, this theme of change is inherently ingrained as a cultural landmark of the country. "South Africa is a keloid growing at the back of an infected earlobe that was touched by dirty hands straight after getting pierced! It's home though," a poetic summation of Ilunga's country, said most eloquently by the musician himself.