Asmooth-jazz xylophone melody escapes the studio with Yannick Ilunga as he slips out of his rehearsal session at Cape Town’s Red Bull Studios. The melody jolts, out of place, upbeat. It’s aeons away from Ilunga’s work as Petite Noir; lush, layered, thick with tricky rhythms and monumental synths, anchored with earnest and soaring vocals. But then again, the melody could easily have been unearthed from one of the many layers on La Vie Est Belle / Life Is Beautiful, his debut album out late last year on the UK’s Domino Records.
Raised in Cape Town, Petite Noir has been touring Europe for just over two years, but has never played his home town. This is what brings him to the Red Bull Studios: rehearsals for his South African debut, his triumphant homecoming at this year’s Cape Town Electronic Music Festival. He hasn’t played here since he was one half of electronic synth duo Popskarr, an experimental outing that contained many of the sonic ideas that came to maturity in Petite Noir. Born in Belgium to an aristocratic Congolese dad and Angolan mom, Ilunga moved, when he was six, to newly democratic South Africa. He began evolving into Petite Noir around 2012, when he produced a couple of tracks, and started using the term Noirwave to describe his music.
At around this time, he relocated to London. Booked as Petite Noir, he cast about for touring musicians. “It was like a few people my manager knew. They all played in different bands and it all just came together, and everyone just sort of gelled.”
Petite Noir appeared at select Summer 2015 festivals. He was championed by an array of press outlets (Dazed, Pitchfork, ID, The Guardian, The New York Times, Fader, Stereogum, Vogue) and hailed as the next big thing by Solange Knowles. He recorded with Yasiim Bey (formerly Mos Def ). Then Petite Noir toured the UK and key European cities on a sold-out run. At the tail end of 2015, following up on his EP King Of Anxiety, La Vie Est Belle / Life Is Beautiful was released to critical acclaim.
“Psychedelically tinged baroque contemporary African pop with heavy Goth undertones,” said Pitchfork. “By turns, it’s abysmally abject, bravely hopeful, unguarded, canny, sexy and profound,” said The Fader.
“I’m pretty nervous,” is the first thing Ilunga says as he sits down. About playing Cape Town? “Well, yes, you know.”
Interviewing him can be like putting a multiple-choice quiz together on the fly. On some subjects he will wax lyrical and on others there’s a sort of faltering process of throwing a few words at it.
“I mean, if it was meant to be earlier, it would be earlier – you know what I’m saying. It’s been a crazy journey, working on all this music, and then it was only normal for me to play ... like all that type of stuff and touring, but things always seem to catch on a lot faster that side, so...” He trails off for a second. “But I’m playing with a different band here. With a band from here.”
Jake Lipman of the festival explains that they had tried to book Petite Noir in 2015 already because they had been supportive of him since the Popskarr days.
“Why does such a powerful SA-based artist have to go overseas just to get shows or gain recognition?”
But to fly a whole band from overseas was a massive expense for a new festival.
Then Life Is Beautiful was released and “things kinda got desperate for us”, continues Lipman, “because that album is a masterpiece”. One option was to ask Ilunga if he felt comfortable to put together a group of musicians locally. “When he said yes, we flipped out.” Lipman’s fanboy enthusiasm is typical of the energy that drives the local festival.
“So,” says Ilunga, “basically I just chose the best musicians I knew and that sort of affected the vibe here.” Temporary Petite Noir members at the Cape Town festival will be Andre Geldenhuys (guitar), Meggan Diedericks (bass) and Tshepang Ramoba of BLK JKS fame (drums).
“It’s definitely gonna sound and feel different,” enthuses Ilunga. “It’s almost like the band I’ve always dreamt of ... I want to make the set as interesting as possible, like something I’ve never done before, so I’m pretty nervous and not too sure.” I say: “All Capetonians see of you is on…” “Exactly; on the internet, so it’s like…” What I think he’s referring to here is the reception back in the day of Popskarr, which was ahead of its time and didn’t always get the most rabid crowd response, typical of Cape Town audiences. Frankly, I tell him, had he tried to launch Petite Noir in South Africa, he would never have managed to reach this level of critical acclaim.
“Popskarr was also an experimental period – and now I’ve just kind of grown out of that and become something new,” he says.
Ilunga is a tall man, and has a sort of quietly imposing demeanour that can dominate a room even when he’s just standing there doing nothing. To sit with him and hear him talk about how much he wants to give his best to his home-town audience, an audience that used to basically ignore him, and to see how nervous that makes him, is both quietly inspiring and a little heartbreaking.
After Cape Town, his 2016 European tour kicks off, starting in France. “Then London and Ireland and Warsaw and Poland, the Netherlands … It’s crazy because I’m gonna be doing a show every single day in March.”
The success of Petite Noir, beyond the raw openness of Ilunga’s singing style, which begets constant comparisons to 80s vocalists such as Morrissey and Ian Curtis,
LUSH ELECTRONICA The artwork for Petite Noir’s debut album, La Vie Est Belle / Life Is Beautiful
AVANT-GARDE CGI A screen grab from the title track of La Vie Est Belle / Life Is Beautiful by Petite Noir