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Album Of The Week

Different Spirits, Different Truths: On The Romance Of Being By Desire Marea
Jeremy Allen , April 6th, 2023 08:32

The South Africa-based artist channels a different kind of medicine on an album of mercurial electronic soul jazz, finds Jeremy Allen

It has become a cliche in music writing of late to say that an album inhabits its own universe, and yet it has surely never been more appropriate than in the case of Desire Marea’s second solo album. Listening to On The Romance Of Being feels like submerging yourself in some empyrean realm with its own weather system raining blood, sweat and tears. The gravity is heavier, the colours brighter and more swirly; the scenery, as opulent as your brain can muster and then more so. It’s a proudly, profoundly and incontestably queer universe where the spiritual and the erotic are as indivisible as the constituent parts of the Holy Trinity, and where the language of love is only hidden if you don’t speak Zulu. If this record comes fully formed then it’s a long way from the singer's beginnings.

Desire Marea first came to wider attention eight years ago as part of the queer South African gqom-based rap duo FAKA, signed to the then up-and-coming NON label. FAKA’s preposterously glamorous videos featuring Marea and Fela Gucci dressed up in high-end threads, were largely driven by the arty fashion photographer Kristin-Lee Moolman (Moolman, incidentally, is one of the 425 people Cindy Sherman currently follows on Instagram). Tracks like ‘Uyang’khumbula’ certainly have their merits, though the videos feel self-consciously stylised and winky seen in retrospect, largely due to what we now know was to come.

On The Romance Of Being represents an impressive evolution in Marea’s creativity, a sonic leap forwards even from two years ago. If Desire was a world away from the McLaren-esque manipulation of FAKA, then On the Romance Of Being takes what the self-titled debut started and fashions moons and stars and cascading waterfalls from its molecular origins. 2021’s Desire had its share of outré moments, not least of all, the ten-minute avant-garde sonic ordeal that was ‘Studies In Black Trauma’, featuring Johannesburg-based rapper Gyre. That electronic-centred record was broadly more libidinal and earthy, whereas this new one explores the metaphysical with extended live improvised instrumentation, achieving moments of transcendence for everyone to get happily lost in.

Opener ‘Ezulwini’ only hints at what’s to come in its opening bars, with Marea warbling about levitation over some tinkly piano. As the song unfurls, that levitation is achieved with the musical dynamism and adventurousness of the unit the singer has positioned around him, shifting from sweet soul to overdriven rock with threads of free jazz holding it all together. Marea has drawn heavily from the thriving South African jazz scene, and it turns out to be a masterstroke.

The best known of the players is pianist Sibusiso Mash Mashiloane, the Durban-based composer and educator whose sixth album Music From My People was well-received last year, and others include Andrei Van Wyk aka Healer Oran who popped up on Gilles Peterson’s Brownswood compilation Indaba Is in 2021, providing soundscaping for The Wretched. Another essential player is Portia Sibiya, whose staccato bass drives the hypnotic, alacritous ‘Be Free’, while on ‘Rah’, it’s oddly redolent of ‘Love Is The Drug’, ergo, Roxy Music at their most funky. And drummer Sbu Zondi is a beast of rhythmic burden, bringing compositional, percussive flourishes to tracks like ‘Mfula’ and ‘Be Free’, which lifts off like a giant mythical bird at its conclusion.

On The Romance Of Being is largely inspired by Marea’s mission to become a ngoma practitioner, a spiritual healer who believes in ancestral spirits: “In my work as a sangoma, ancient songs and drumming sequences are used to invoke spirits who live in me so I enter into a trance state,” he has said of his religious proclivities and how they relate to his job. “In my work as a musician, I heal people using music. It's a different kind of medicine but one in which I often have to channel different spirits, different truths and the essence of light.”

That feeds into the music and lyrics: “I baptised myself in the ocean / And my turmoil turned into pearls / With a shimmer borrowed from the ocean’s surface…” Desire croons enigmatically on the mercurial electronic soul jazz showstopper ‘Banzi’ at the end of the record. The words are as visually sumptuous as the music, even when you don’t exactly understand them, recited as they are in the KwaZulu-Natal native tongue.

That’s not to say there aren’t earthly delights to be had too. “Smell your ass on my lips as I enter the Uber back to my chalet,” he sings on the distorted, guitar-festooned ‘Mfula’ (or ‘river’), sung in English, in case you had any doubts. In this fantasy universe, everything tallies in a fully-formed baroque futurescape, a hyperreal place in the imagination where love is free and beauty is worshipped above all else. It’s a remarkable, sometimes excessive vision realised, full of liturgical phrases that get repeated over and over (“Soloke ngikulindile wena”) on extended nine-minute songs like ‘Rah’, featuring the singer Zoë Modiga – a star in South Africa – who helps Marea achieve a sonic nirvana as vocal foil.

If it all sounds a bit much then frankly that can be the case at times. But even when it’s too rich, you find yourself pulling back and admiring the ostentatious structures of the compositions and sighing at the wonder of it all. On the Romance Of Being is a multi-sensory trip into a universe of its own making, created by a cast of creative and intuitive musicians and presided over thanks to one man’s elaborately unique vision driven by belief in a syncretic religion. There's nothing clichéd about that.