South Africa: Album Review | a Slow Burn of Discovery

music review

Producer, vocalist and songwriter Simz Kulla's debut EP is a dexterous exploration of merging electronic music with piano and 'every kind of guitar you can think of'.

Simz Kulla's debut EP is easy listening founded on complex arrangement. At least 26 musicians and artists lent their instruments and expertise to the project. The result is a canvas on which Kulla's sonic brushstrokes comment intuitively on vulnerability, community, manhood, aspiration, introspection and love.

Kulla started recording Discovery, which Aural Sense Entertainment released on 9 April, in a home studio in his flat in Ormonde and, years and a move later, finished it at his apartment in Joburg's central business district. The lead vocals for the five-track, 21-minute offering were recorded at his friend Velaphi Ramphele's - aka VtheVowel - defunct Ducklike Studios.

Carefully layered to mimic a Walkman cassette player, the EP starts with the sound of the mechanisms that convert the slick, black reel of a tape into sound. "I went to YouTube to listen to how it sounded organically when you pressed play. That little zoooo-click. The little hiss in between because those tracks were recorded from LPs," says Kulla.

"I made sure that in those seconds, you got that this was a cassette tape. I'm turning it over, putting it back in, closing it, starting it... and let's go. It took me a while because I wanted it to be authentic. But actually, you're listening to about six or seven different sounds from different places that I put together to make it sound like one," he says. "I spent a day just doing that first part of the track."

For Kulla, the nostalgia he is trying to tap into is him at about 11 or 12 years old, attending a church camp accompanied by a Walkman his father had recently bought him.

"The song I was bumping the most was DJ Walker's Chesa Mpama, and Romeo Wa Nkolota, and a lot of Trompies. That's why I put it there, because my first musical experience with a Walkman was sharing it with my friends." The track Higher "takes me back to this life".

On Zoom, Kulla reaches for something out of frame: his headphones. He slips them on and bops for a couple of seconds to illustrate his point - the time he is referencing.

"I wanted to make it feel like it was a jam from a cassette tape ... That you're in this world. Because a Walkman was a personal thing. From the get-go, I wanted you to feel that."

The video for Higher is gritty and grainy. It features scenes from rehearsal, recording and live performance sessions. The crackling aesthetic is reminiscent of a super 8mm film effect with timestamps left in for a vintage feel, a sense of nostalgia that permeates this project.

The makings of a discovery

A stop-start process, Discovery has been years in the making. A confluence of factors informed how he landed on his sound. As part of acclaimed band The Muffinz, Kulla had a sense that he'd be more comfortable behind the scenes in the music industry than at the forefront, travelling and touring. With ambitions of having a "family and a stable life", he sought work that would offer a solid base and ventured into production.

As he realised that he wanted to create an album that would unequivocally personify him, Kulla was struck by an exhaustive list of questions: "The dilemma of what is my sound? ... Is it the music I listen to on the daily? 'Cause I listen to a variety of music. Or is it quite specific, quite niche in its nature? ... What's my kind of music? Because I've been writing for everyone and doing stuff for The Muffinz."

This loop, playing on repeat, led him to realise "that I needed to figure that out and the album would be my figuring it out ... That's how I came up with Discovery."

Although Kulla was clear on what he wanted and how he wanted it to sound, he found himself unable to move forward. In the beginning, it was just him with his instruments - and the questions that wouldn't stop. "I got stuck being alone for a long time, and that's when I reached out to guys like Hakeem [Andrsn] and a lot of my friends who played on the album."

He answered these questions by assembling a team of artists who could express his initial explorations. Reaching out, he'd say: "I know if you add your piece of brilliance, it'll take it to the next level and inspire me to think of other things that will bring the whole together.

"Another huge thing was that [on] this journey of discovery, I'm not supposed to do it alone ... I came to understand ... it's okay to lean on other people to take it where I wanted it to be. And then that space got created where the circle was getting bigger."

A collective sound

Kulla describes music as a gesture, an expression and a symbol, something that represents something else. "It has devices, and I know how to use them to make you feel a certain way. For me to create something that represents me or represents what I'm trying to do, it has to come from within. It has to come from experience. And if we're collaborating, we need to have an experience together so we can share it in this piece of music."

He refers to brotherhood having been an inherent and integral experience, as he grew up in a family of boys.

"We need to be a brotherhood, we need to be vulnerable, we need to do things together outside of music. We need to be able to enjoy each other's company ... Community ... is about I'm drawing inspiration from this conversation, I'm drawing ideas from what you're saying. Even if it's a theme, or how you're making me feel, I'm drawing from that, trying to turn that into something else. That's why I lean on those things: community, brotherhood, vulnerability."

Doo-wop backing vocals are the tenets of Rain on Me. The interaction between soprano, alto, tenor and baritone - interspersed with trumpet and saxophone solos - is fresh and playful, as the players cajole and joust for space.

The instrumentalists behind Interlude are members of The Automatikz, featuring a core group of musicians; Kooper Keys (Mpho Koopedi) on piano, taXda (Geoffrey Chitima) on bass guitar, Matt Muiz on drums, Cinnamon Buns (Simon McCauley) on electric guitar, Skwara (Kwanda Cakata) and Jamo Music (James Julies) on production and synth, as well as vocalists who shift and change, including an evolving troupe whom Kulla refers to as his "musical friends".

Excerpts from conversations between Kulla and Andrsn reveal the concepts explored in the album, laid over bass guitar, electric guitar accents, piano, and cajon. The instruments set the groove with the piano trailing between light lilts and heavy chord-setting.

Stronger is a gentle serenade that taps into a capella elements with Mpendulo Sibanyoni and Luyanda Makapela on backing vocals. Kulla shows his dexterity by programming drums and synths and a striking guitar line in an interplay with the voices.

Shouting dreams

Andrsn, who takes lead vocals with Kulla on Rain on Me, has been composing since he was seven, although back then it was penning rap lyrics to Brian McKnight and Boyz II Men. He explains: "I learned song structure. I learned how to listen to music beyond what everyone else was hearing ... I've learned how to sneak nuance in, how to weave feeling into song.

"I write to hide things in the music. If you listen to the lyrics of Higher and Discovery, there's something spiritual in the way we wrote the songs. Also, because I know the artist and we have a history of working together, I know what music he listens to, what resonates with him, what he vibes with, what he finds goodness in. I also know what makes him go... " Andrsn takes a sharp breath in and draws his shoulders to his ears "... ooooh." It prompts a shoulder-bouncing chuckle from Kulla.

In Discovery Kulla drops in a verse in isiXhosa, a tribute to his father who he lost while writing the song, someone he describes as a "strong Xhosa man". He says, "A lot of the song is a mirror of the type of music my father loved in terms of musical devices, like the three-time track. It speaks about discovery, but it also speaks about manhood ... A lot of this song is a representation of my dad and that's why I felt it would be fitting to sing the second verse in isiXhosa."Hakeem helped me so well, I love the lyric 'I'm dreaming louder'. It represents exactly what the Discovery EP is about. I'm shouting out my dreams in front of you and you better listen."

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