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Album Of The Week

Shine Bright: Okzharp & Manthe Ribane’s Closer Apart
Tristan Bath , July 5th, 2018 14:46

Out tomorrow on the Hyperdub label, a rock-hard sparkling album from London, Johannesburg and Cape Town

It’s an indictment of our times that opting to be positive seems like leftfield move. But on their debut full-length album, Okzharp & Manthe Ribane have done just that; Ribane herself has said Closer Apart’s aim is to be an “antivirus”. It shreds much of the club music styles that dominated their earlier recordings and heads deep inwards - this is a lush set of simpler pop melodies rather than gnarly riddims and rhymes. Okzharp & Manthe Ribane have swapped grit for soul, circumnavigating the dancefloor to beam their music straight from heart to heart, and positivity and sensitivity permeate every inch of this record.

Cape Town-born, London-raised musician Okzharp first met and worked with Johannesburg choreographer Manthe Ribane a few years ago, around the time she was touring as a dancer with Die Antwoord. He cast her in the short film he was making with Joburg video artist Chris Saunders and, as Ribane had never made music before, her vocal skills came as something of a revelation during production. She is the star of the film, Ghost Diamond, and her voice also wound up featuring heavily on the soundtrack. A couple of years later, the ‘diamond’ remains key to the duo’s work. They don't see it as a mere precious mineral, or as a mined resource with negative historical connotations, but rather as a totem of the value created by life's many cuts. The pressure and experience of life, Ribane and Okzharp argue, turn us from uncut diamonds into multifaceted and valuable individuals; people are worth treasuring.

After Ghost Diamond, the pair quickly started making music together, cutting EPs in 2015 and 2016. Dumela 113 and Tell Your Visions were directly inspired by the fierce gqom beats emanating from South Africa’s third city of Durban, as well as the jagged energy of London grime. Initially settling into a remote collaboration between Johannesburg and London, the duo eventually started making the songs on Closer Apart while touring in Europe. (The Paris-based Chris Saunders also remained a key collaborator, making O&MR’s visuals and videos.) They could finally create songs in person, with Ribane contributing more directly to the music, and Okzharp's fingers increasingly falling on physical synth keys and drum machine pads rather than software alone. The result is an instant uplift in the quality and clarity of the duo’s melodies. Ribane’s musical instincts are clearer than ever too, turning MC murmurs on moody tracks like ‘Make U Blue’ into soulful earworms. Okzharp’s backdrop of synth lines are also decidedly smarter. Another late-night soul jam, ‘Why U In My Way’, has Okzharp variously mirror and counter Ribane’s vocal lines, keeping the heavy rumble of bass and kick that defined previous bangers like ‘Fede’ to a minimum in favour of a cloud mattress of sugary sweet keyboard lines.

Much of the record was made at speedy studio sessions in Vienna and Paris, during gaps on tour. A sizeable amount of the final record even comprises first or second takes, buoyed by the spontaneity and impulsiveness of Ribane. Okzharp has described the physicality with which Ribane performs in the studio, singing just like she moves, sewing together myriad influences from various South African traditions in addition to hip-hop and other modern dances. There’s still a handful of club bangers on the record, too. Lead single ‘Dun’ is practically an assault on the hips, Ribane slipping back into brooding realms MCing over skittered snares and claps. The dancehall bounce of ‘Theletsa’ is a welcome break, appearing towards the end of the album alongside ‘Dun’ before the duo take us out on slowburning finale ‘Treasure Erasure’.

Okzharp’s production is softer and warmer than ever before but, having played the MC role previously, it’s tough for Ribane not to be the focal point here. Closer Apart is practically a document of Ribane as a ball of positive energy. Interviewing her earlier this year, I found it impossible not to be infected by her positivity and charmed by her enthusiasm for this record. She always lit up recalling the album's songs as I asked her about them, grinning and singing them back to me, somewhat skeptical that she could have even come up with something so great. Okzharp is clear too that, as much as his production and caretaking of the project has pushed it forward, he feels indebted to Ribane for the positive life lessons she’s imparted.

The soul of the record is best summarised by the utterly wonderful ‘Kubona’. Ushering in the final third of Closer Apart, it’s a medium-pace celebration of the self. Ribane’s lyrics in the warmth of the chorus couldn’t be clearer - “I’m precious / I’m timeless / I’m priceless”. On this ode to treasuring yourself, the keyboard chimes and the crystalline drum machine even sound like the diamonds that recur in the duo’s work. While their evolution in favour of modern soul perhaps won’t fill as many dancefloors as their earlier releases, Closer Apart is one of the most life-affirming and addictive records of the year, from a collaboration that truly justifies its existence. This album is proof: positivity remains an option.