When Samkelo Mdolomba, best known as Samthing Soweto, calls himself a super musician, it is not out of arrogance. It is out of the awareness that ingenuity drips out of his pores and that his love and vision for his music are bigger than him.
Coming from the melting pot of cultures that Soweto is, Sam experiments with neo-jazz, alternative and a capella in a slick and emotive way.
The texture of his voice – elastic and deceptively fragile with a slight vibratory intonation, commands a physical response. When you close your eyes, mimicking his action on stage, it’s less about the brain’s mirror mechanics. It is about submitting to the potency of his affecting sting. And it goes deep.
His dedication and methodical approach to the voice is similar to Bobby McFerrin’s. But whereas McFerrin is iconic, Sam is a hip and raw breed of the African vocal genre.
He speaks with conviction about the voice and his obsession with it comes from being a kid who had less resources.
“I remember being 17 and could not afford a musical instrument. When I was confident enough I formed a group. The voice gives me the edge because I know how to exploit and manipulate it. I’ve taken the time to know its strengths and weaknesses. I have been a vocalist for so long and when the voice is all you have, you learn to make do with what you have,” Sam says.
His devotion to the voice is inseparable from his adoration for Miriam Makeba.
“I have studied Miriam Makeba, especially her younger self. She is a powerhouse. I would like to compare myself to her in the way she approaches her music. What people don’t know is that I make an amazing Miriam Makeba impersonation. I have learnt what she’s done, and vocally she is everything you need,” he says.
This perhaps explains the old-soul character that his voice emits on stage reminiscent of the Makeba and Billie Holiday ilk. It’s also interesting how women influence his art – he sings mostly about women.
“I write about myself, my wishes and beliefs through love. I write a lot about women. I like describing beauty in the form of women and describing beauty in women. I was raised in a woman-headed household. Women are super complex and super strong. I look at how hard my mom worked to get us the life that we live. Male figures in my life haven’t been as supportive and as building.”
“In general I like to spread goodwill amongst people. Women have been the vehicle for that,” he says.
Sam is very protective of the sound he wants to create for himself. This makes him stubborn, naïve, clever and intuitive all at the same time.
He co-founded the urban soul a capella group, The Soil and left amicably after the release of their self-entitled debut album, when business was not on par with his vision. He found musical affinity and camaraderie with the acid jazz band, The Fridge and they disbanded after a short good run, due to work constraints.
A keen collaborator, Sam has worked with rapper, Tumi Molekane (now Stogey T) and soul singer Kabomo. He appears as collaborator and producer on poet Makhafula Vilakazi’s spoken word album, I’m Not Going Back To The Township. Recently he wrote and composed music for the Durban contemporary isicathamiya group, Thee Legacy.
In between collaborations he nurtured a solo a capella influenced sound. There was the first EP, This ‘N That Without Tempo in 2011 and the conceptual EP, Eb’suku (meaning night time) in 2014. This ‘N That Without Tempo is linear whereas Eb’suku is fuller with vocal harmonies layered into stylish and dense arrangements.
The music borrows from mbaqanga; isicathamiya; apostolic and Zionist gospel, American doo wop to RnB with a street and post-kwaito sensibility. Eb’suku is being picked up by Soundwaves Records in the UK for a vinyl release later this year.
One of Sam’s strengths is that he can compose and remix his work to fit any genre from pop to world music with the soul and edge of the composition intact. “I’m always trying to better one song and doing it differently that what finally gets released is a version of many other versions that people never get to hear.”
Shy, and a self-confessed industry recluse, Sam is now trying to do things differently. With the new Samthing Soweto band and a new album, he is keen on documenting his music right now.
“I have had a problem with how the industry works. It discourages creativity where radio in particular does not react to your music. When creating, I’d been forced to make a decision between creative freedom and making something that radio will play. I ended up not releasing things. I experimented with sounds I never got to release and for a long time I worked like that because I knew the industry is not focussed on talent. For a long time I was sensitive about that and stayed away.”
“Now I want to document some of my old and new music right now so I can move away from it knowing I recorded it in this moment. It’s an exciting time for me.”
The new album is called Vala Mehlo (Close Your Eyes) aptly because the gesture is a performance trait of Sam’s when he responds to the moment and takes you with him.
The Samthing Soweto band is made up of Mduduzi Mathebula on bass; Bafana Mlangeni on keys and Ntsikelelo Matshatshe on guitar, all from the East Rand. Sam has found a home with them.
“When I came up with the name, Samthing Soweto, the vision was always that of a collective, not a one man show. This band gives me an urgency to document what we’re doing. I was always waiting on a good sound. Now it’s all about making the music and letting the people catch up. The sound we make is mature and it represents the person I am right now.”
The album launch takes place at the Soweto Theatre, Saturday 25 February with a show called An Evening with Samthing Soweto.