Pe­tite Noir

CityPress - - The Good Guide -

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,

PHOTO: PE­TITE NOIR / DOMINO RECORDS

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

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