The media coverage of last weekend’s South African Music Awards has been dominated by Riky Rick and AKA’s petulant responses to not winning any awards. Basically, they feel that they were snubbed. Shame. Unfortunately this has overshadowed how another of the night’s winners- Petite Noir’s La Vie Est Belle/Life is Beautiful (which won in the best alternative category) is one of the most innovative and sophisticated albums to have come out of South Africa in years. Released through UK label Domino , Petite Noir (aka Yannick Ilunga) has been touring the world and winning critical acclaim for his pioneering ‘Noirwave’ style.
On Life is Beautiful the ghosts of 80’s new wave artists like Depeche Mode and The Cure are mixed with contemporary SA electronic production and Afrobeat drums to produce elegant songs of romantic regret and personal disillusionment. ‘Freedom’ stabs like ice shards to the heart, while ‘Just Breathe’ is warm and elegiac. The wildly infectious ‘Down’ sounds like a lost collaboration between Fela Kuti and The Talking Heads.
Petite Noir’s closet contemporaries are bands like TV on The Radio and Wild Beasts, who trawl the sounds of Europe, America and Africa’s recent past to make cosmopolitan rock for the present. But the ‘Noirwave’ tag goes beyond just a sound- Ilunga sees it as complete aesthetic. Defying backward or rustic sterotypes, Petite Noir creates a kind of retro Afrofuturism. This is showcased on the music video for ‘Best’, in which mythological imagery runs riot. As the notes for the video describe it ‘ Best’ ‘’ looks at how only through visiting the continent can anyone gain a sense of one of its most fascinating features, that of its split identity; how incredibly and indescribably beautiful it is on the one hand, yet on the other hand, how raw and unforgiving it can be.’’ And aided by the imagery created by his collaborator and partner Rharha Nembhard, Petite Noir is taking Noirwave to the world- a style with no boundaries, at home everywhere.