Boston Globe, March 23, 2012
“It would be nice if you call me Nthato. It’s how I introduce myself.’’
Nthato Mokgata is trying hard to manage his identities in the face of his blossoming fame. By day he’s Nthato, the low-key, well-spoken 26-year-old from Johannesburg who dropped out of medical school to make his career in music.
By night, in the studio and on stages around the world, he’s Spoek Mathambo, a fantastical futuristic figure who writes, raps, and produces some of the most vibrant and doggedly unclassifiable electronic pop music in the world today.
And he’s celebrating the record’s release with a North American mini-tour that took him and his four-member band to SXSW in Austin last week and brings them to T.T. the Bear’s in Cambridge on Sunday.
“Father Creeper’’ isn’t the first Spoek Mathambo album. Its 2010 predecessor, “Mshini Wam,’’ released on London label BBE, was a dynamic set of club-oriented, bass-laden tracks with an eerie edge. One notable track was a sepulchral cover of Joy Division’s “She’s Lost Control,’’ complete with stunning black-and-white video shot by South African art photographer Pieter Hugo.
And Mokgata has a rich track record of non-Spoek projects: the bands Sweat.X and Playdoe, and a slew of collaborations with producers and DJs in multiple countries, for a total, he estimates, of about 30 EP releases in just a few years.
But “Father Creeper’’ is the apotheosis of his work so far. An urgent-sounding album that’s best heard end-to-end, it adds to the bass foundation of his previous projects a strong guitar dimension – of both the snarling rock and lilting Central African varieties – and complex songwriting laced with references to sex and social conflict, personal memories and echoes of war. It’s still music for the dance floor, but it’s more honest with its moods, more expressive.
“The songs are richer – I’m thinking contextually richer, structurally richer, more personal,’’ Mokgata says of the new album. He cites one, “Stuck Together,’’ in particular: “That’s about a cousin who committed suicide when we were 13. We had grown up together, we were best friends, I always have dreams about him, but in my artwork I’d never engaged with it.’’
“I also got married three years ago,’’ he says – to Croatian/Swedish rapper Ana Rab, a.k.a. Gnucci Banana – “and throughout my career I’d written songs as a bachelor, like bachelor music, but now I’ve found my girl. And then a bunch of stuff about my generation of South Africans that I think has never been touched on.’’
He throws in this last point like an afterthought, but providing a certain depiction of South Africa is central to Mokgata’s work. For one, it brims with local references, including the Spoek Mathambo character itself: “It means a skeleton or ghost, it’s a nickname that people give to really skinny people. I heard it on a TV show and thought it was funny, so I took it up.’’
Likewise “Father Creeper,’’ the title, stems from an old TV jingle, Mokgata says: “It’s like an inside joke for South Africans, but it has another meaning for me.’’ For him, it has to do with growing up. The album’s cover art shows shrouded figures walking away from a fire, referring to an initiation rite: “You go into the mountains, elders teach you things about being a man, and you burn all your childhood stuff behind you.’’
At the same time, the figures in the picture are walking through a rural landscape that appears reflected in the glass façade of a skyscraper. The image captures what Mokgata says he aims to express, in both lyrics and sound, about South Africa now.
“A big thing which my music addresses is the meeting point of high technological society versus a deeply traditionally based culture,’’ he says. “People live according to very old ideals but exist in the modern world with all its new systems of production and communication. I address that by working to be quite sonically forward-looking and progressive, with a sense of Africa and African culture.’’
For Tony Kiewel, the Sub Pop A&R executive who contacted Mokgata and signed him to the label, it’s Mokgata’s skill at juxtaposing ideas, sounds, even eras of music that sets him apart – and makes him a trailblazer.
In Mokgata, he’s found an artist who feeds on everything from Chicago house and Detroit ghetto-tech to metal, psychedelia, New Wave, and multiple regional strains of African music, yet produces a sound that feels rooted and coherent.
“There’s moments in the past when we’ve seen that sort of collision,’’ Kiewel says, citing Brazil’s Tropicália movement of the 1960s, for example, for its blend of hyper-modern internationalism and deep local context. “But now there’s hundreds of ideas happening. There’s no longer an accessibility divide, just an ambition divide. I feel like Spoek is just the beginning.’’