Photography by Chris Saunders

Hlasko: an artist’s cosmology

As much a cinematographer as a producer, Hlasko’s music spins imagery from sound.  “I look at it like films: the setting, the situation, the subject, the object, [all] used in the creation of the song”. For me, the setting for Hlasko’s music is a grey beach, abandoned at dusk. In the distance is a lone figure, her clothes pulled towards the sky by the moaning wind. In intermittent, rhythmic gestures, the figure bows towards the ground, gathering shards of sea glass, driftwood and scattered debris left behind by holidaymakers. In her home, I imagine a ceiling of carefully-sculpted hanging charms — their sea offerings chiming in haunting, metallic symphony.

It’s a scene that encapsulates so much of Hlasko’s artistry and process. The producer and vocalist is himself engaged in forms of hording, experiment, and assemblage.  He describes his music as a palimpsest of gathered stories, projections, dreams, and thoughts. As with the construction of hanging charms, creating unity from this haberdashery of sound requires a process of threading and weaving. The thread, in this case, is space and time.  “It’s like weaving, ja. How you use time and space in the music. Sometimes it can be very minimal but sound very whole. Sometimes it can be very cluttered, but sound very spacey and minimal”. It’s an art of knowing how to place disparate things, how to stitch them, and how to work with the empty spaces. It’s the process of making chaos poetic. “Since I started producing music, I started understanding a lot of other things that I struggled with. It sort of has a mathematical inclination. I feel I have more logic now. Although I’m quite an irrational person, I think music put me in a state where I understand order …”

Hlasko’s musical assemblages can be likened to that ceiling of suspended sea treasures.  His sound is a dreamlike chant, ringing with the rusty textures of motley percussion.  His arresting vocals whisper through the production, like a singing wind, or a distant birdsong, or an incantation.  Often the call is in Sesotho — the language of his mother’s tongue. There’s a reverberation in the music: a consistent echo that makes the listener feel a sense of solitariness and mysticism.  As with an assemblage of hanging charms, the imagery is one of lingering and suspension. It’s no wonder Hlasko’s sound is so evocative of pictures, given his Newtown training as a printmaker.

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Hlasko (Neo Mahlasela) grew up in Soweto. He began experimenting with music production in 2010, during his final year of school. He remembers this as a time of abundant creative energy. “I guess I was part of that wave”, he says. The music junkies in his neighbourhood were listening to new electronic sounds from across the globe, including Bjork and Aphex Twin, alongside local nineties Kwaito. “Nineties was a time when I was bombarded by a lot of stuff – entertainment, television. I was very conditioned by whatever was being put out. I still have a very heavy garage influence [in my music], and trip-hop [influence]”. 

Hlasko released his first digital EP in 2011 — a Soundcloud collection titled Songs of an Ancient Alien Tribe. In 2013, he participated in the Red Bull Music Academy Bass Camp and, the following year, featured on the Design Indaba Music Circuit.  Together with Reunion Island Producer, Labelle, he founded the duo, Kaang. In 2015, they released a self-titled EP under the French label, Eumolpe Records.

Just as Hlasko gathers and re-assembles sound, so too does he build his own instruments. Most recently, he has been building a series of African bows.  “I’ve been experimenting with making harp-type ones that you strum.” Hlasko is set to continue this work at the Google Cultural Institute in Paris, where he has been awarded a residency to transform African bows into controllers.  “So [like a midi controller] you’re launching other sounds but still you’re using the bow as an interface. There are some physiological things that are attached to playing it”. The project speaks to a broader intuition in Hlasko’s work, which has seen him stitching together old and new. While calling forth seemingly ancient chorus and drum, the artist also transports us to futuristic places of sonic surrealism.

His description of his process draws on a language of meditation and catharsis.  “It’s very spontaneous, but the only thing that’s quite consistent is that I prefer to be by myself in most cases.” Creating requires Hlasko to find some sense of stillness. It’s difficult “if there’s a lot of chaos or if there’s a lot happening. I have psychic congestion at times because I feed off a lot of people. I’m inspired by…I just have an urge. It’s purgative”. In this process of purging horded experiences, Hlasko also participates in music-making as a mode of transportation. “I think it’s vivid imagination. I think I’m inspired by the fact that I have a very active imagination.”

In a beautiful meeting of producer and listener, Hlasko’s music draws audiences into a very similar psychic terrain as the one from which the sound itself was produced. Both maker and receiver are bewitched, exalted and immersed.

When I asked what setting he imagined listeners to engage with his music, he said: “I like to imagine it’s an intimate thing, in your room, [and] maybe on your computer like I am”.

A sonic sorcerer, he speaks of music as “a calling” and even a process of divination. Sometimes songs are cast as spells, with the aim, he tells me, of attracting particular things into his life. Other musical offerings are sold as spiritual remedy. His song, In The Sea There is Me, is a soundtrack for that grey, abandoned beach, and is captioned by the following script: “cures hypertension, anal retention [and] pressure headaches. May remedy negative symptoms of tireless dancing”.  Like a sonic Sangoma, Hlasko throws his collection of spectral sounds, and then works with both noise and silence, to suture disharmony.

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