A noir wave goodbye

2012-11-25 14:52

I once asked Yannick Ilunga what gives his edgy pop music its African aesthetic. “Me,” he replied. The same applies to its global headspace.

The 22-year-old was born in Belgium to Congolese and Angolan parents but was raised Capetonian. Today, though, he is a Londoner because his solo outfit Petite Noir has signed a major record deal.

Petite Noir – yes, with the extra “e” – means “Little Black”. “Naming it ‘Big Black’ would have been too obvious,” he says.

He calls his music Noir Wave, a retrofuture sound that adds further depth to Africa’s emerging global electronic styles.

The name brings to mind the eighties South African New Romantic outfit Petit Cheval (“Little Horse”) but Ilunga shrugs at references like that.

Not a man of many words, I got him on the phone from Cape Town a couple of months ago while he was packing to move to London.

How was the UK tour?

Good.

Good?

Amazing.

Amazing how?

Just going on a tour and then signing with a new label.

You signed a deal?

With Domino.

They’re very important?

Fairly important. They have label deals in so many countries, so.

Was that the plan all along? To go international?

Ja ja ja.

You’re 21, so you can say things like that.

(Laughs) I turned 22 in August.

Leo?

Huh?

Are you a Leo?

Virgo, actually.

So it’ll be Petite Noir’s first full album. Have you started?

I’m working on going on tour. Then I’ll start recording.

You’ll go make the album in London?

I’m moving there.

So goodbye South Africa. How was it for you?

Amazing. I mean, it’s been basically my whole life. We moved here when I was six.

Why did your family move?

My dad started a new company and stopped working for the Congolese government.

Oh really. Doing what?

(Long pause) That’s not really … Something I talk about. He was the finance minister.

How have you found Cape Town?

It’s a good city. Just super, super small. I get restless.

Mira Nair said: “Cape Town is not itself. Even the vegetation is imported.”

Ja, it’s a strange place. People go with the flow here.

Do your parents like the music?

They’re down for it now, now that it’s moving.

Did they object?

They’re the kind of parents who’ll let us choose – but if they see you’re failing, they’ll say: “Okay, you’re studying this now.”

What did you study?

Advertising and then I dropped out and studied sound engineering. Then I dropped out of that to make music.

You were that certain?

I was convinced I was doing the right thing.

Your music isn’t obviously South African.

There are things in there that I enjoy from South African music.

Like?

Beatwise. Especially house music. It helped me go back into older African music.

There’s something camp, a throwback. Do descriptions like that offend you?

Not at all.

It has a dark edge.

I don’t do it on purpose.

Then at the same time it’s over the top yet also understated. Is that how you are?

That definitely reflects my personality.

What’s your process when you make songs?

Uuh…

Do you work alone?

Ja ja ja.

You sit alone in the studio and make music?

Almost every day.

What music did you grow up listening to?

’N Sync and Outkast. I was into rap music. And a lot of kwaito – the stuff that came on the TV.

Did you ever listen to Depeche Mode and Human League and Joy Division?

Not until I got told I sound like them.

Are you conscious of branding? Or is that uncool?

No ways! Branding’s good. Artists in South Africa have a very big branding problem. They don’t know how to brand themselves properly. Everyone just wants to be cool but that’s not enough.

Ja?

Ja.

That was your longest answer so far.

(Laughs)

So what kind of deal did you sign with Domino?

One album and publishing. They don’t take anything from my live work. And I get an advance. They’ll be doing the marketing – they work it. They’re one of the biggest.

Did you approach them?

No. It was when I was in London now, just after the Boiler Room performance. They contacted us and said: “We really like you.” I think one of them saw the live stream.

You say “us” but Petite Noir’s really a one-man band?

Me and my manager.

What’s Boiler Room?

It’s this really popular online live streaming show. They hold gigs in different places in the world. In London it was in this really small venue, like 60 people. They film it live from the top and stream it and hundreds of thousands of people watch it.

We have a new longest answer.

(Laughs)

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