South African music is one which exists in an odd intermediate zone between African and European influences with a lot of mixing between cultures that could leave us with a very distinct, unique style. Despite this very little South African music has been seen to break into the mainstream western music scene with the only real example being the highly controversial “Die Antwoord”. Some see Die Antwoord as an unfavourable aspect of the South African music scene and Petite Noir will likely be seen as a bastion for the more positive side of this nation’s music. His music exists almost exactly in the zone between European and African music with many styles of music from both continents proudly displayed.
A common trait for European musicians has been the implementation of African music in their works with groups like Blur and Vampire Weekend being among those to redistribute African music and culture into their mostly indie rock music. It’s refreshing now however to see the reverse at play with Yannick Ilunga incorporating large amounts of 2000s indie rock into this album alongside the ever present powerful drums and soulfulness of the African music.
The album itself is a true delight, a sensory feast with every song feeling like the lead single on its own album of sounds like itself. It is genuinely difficult to pick parts of this album that could be considered significantly better than the rest but it is hard not to mention the tight, exceptional drums that are ever present on this album and most important to talk about being the vocals. I have quite simply never seen the range and diversity possessed by Yannick Ilunga on any other male vocalist. His vocals are immaculate with the incredible difference shown throughout this album leading the less inquisitive of listener to have to conclude that certain songs and even certain sections of songs have multiple vocalists at work. It is a sound that would be near impossible to replicate.
The album itself eases into gear with its first track being the mostly instrumental “Intro Noirwave” and from the very beginning it is clear that there is something special at work here. The drums have a great build with the scattered disjointed backing vocals matched perfectly with the soaring howls of Ilunga that sets the listener up for the main single from the record from the album “Best.”
“Best” is best described as an emulation of the alternative rock sound created by people like Franz Ferdinand and Bloc Party that was never achieved by them or by their successors. It is both highly intelligent yet still retains that dance-ability that is hard to acquire. The song feels like it comes and goes in a moment despite its 4 minute length with the brass and synths adding a layer of real beauty and triumphantness to this song.
The album continues on this high form that it never leaves with Freedom, Ilunga’s vocals yet again sour over the sound created by the drums and twitchy guitars. Following on after this is one of the standout songs “Seventeen(Stay).” This is the most indie rock of all the songs on this record and is on par with anything ever released in the genre. It is on one simple album track the sound Interpol have been trying to emulate for over a decade. The song has an air of effortlessness with Petite Noir pulling out sounds and vocals for fun that people have been starved for in the indie rock scene for years.
The rap stylings of Congolese rapper Baloji add another level of depth to the record in “La Vie est Belle” and following on from this “MDR” and “Colour” add very simplistic, anthemic elements to this record with their minimalism drawing focus to each songs repeated slogans that are infectious and stick right in your head.
The final song on the record “Chess” feels like the final statement of this record and although the song was present already on this years earlier EP “The King of Anxiety” it finds its true home as the conclusion to this album. Everything present on this record, Ilunga’s vocals, the percussion and the guitars (which at times are both jittery and also delightfully encompassing) are all at their highest levels of excellence in this song. This is also the lyrical highlight of this record. As the song and in turn the record builds to its conclusion there is a real sense of something new in the air with these South African maestros leaving you despairing for more.
One criticism would perhaps be the lyrics in general on this record, there are some excellent lines but overall it lacks a small something in comparison to the rest of the album’s brilliance. However with Ilunga’s vocals he could probably sing the phonebook and be captivating.
At 50 minutes this is by no means a short record but it is so easily listenable you could find yourself listening to it two and three times in one session without once becoming tired,with every listen you discover some other piece of excellent instrumentation to ponder over and as the drums fade out in “Chess” the urge to hit replay or head back to side 1 of the LP becomes stronger. It very much feels like the epitome of the music created in the first decade of the 21st century with many influences lying there and with the more obvious African drums and stylings, Petite Noir are deeply exciting, almost inspiring and I really hope that they can return even stronger next time.
Get this album. Get it on vinyl. Listen to it on repeat for weeks and in decades to come brag that you were one of the first to discover the mastery that is Petite Noir.