Ambient Electronica: The experimental genre sweeping across the local scene

Sweeping alien synthesisers travel along stark, foreign soundscapes while drum beats dot the spectrum here and there, pinning down an otherwise ethereal and intangible sonic tapestry.

The genre is ambient electronica and it’s fast becoming one of South Africa’s most well-loved sounds. Not so much through classic gigs or radio play, but rather through it’s unique sound and a close knit community of fans and artists, pushing it out across online platforms and into the everyday suburban household which coincidentally, is exactly where it originated. 

With life on the streets inspiring much of the early hip hop, and a fed up and disillusioned youth giving life to punk and its various sub genres, an almost ontologically based inquiry into life beyond the everyday is what has given rise to the experimental genre of ambient electronica. Boxed up and hidden away behind the high walled, gated communities, bedroom producers began tracing ethereal sounds, laying them down over sparse, punctuating beats and looping sequencers, breaking the silence of the suburban landscape.

While ambient electronica isn’t exactly new to SA, it’s been on a slow rise, namely through a few local producers scattered across the country, and occasionally, through a compilation of the scene’s up and coming producers, called Subterranean Wavelength. Curated and arranged by Johannesburg’s Micr. Pluto, the series of experimental electronic compilations was dreamed up out of a drunken conversation between Micr. Pluto and a few other local producers. Promising himself he wouldn’t let the series remain nothing more than a beer soaked idea, the first Subterranean Wavelength was started that very night and now boasts three volumes, with a fourth on the way.  

“I guess the genre would be a reaction against what became normal and mundane in music, or a sort of yearning to escape and explore other subject matter which had nothing to do with actual consciousness of what’s happening in everyday life,” explains Micr. Pluto. “I believe this music is very visual in its own right. I personally see a lot of images when listening to music as well as imagine sound to visuals when looking at them without any music. One always enhances the other, so the value of visuals and vice versa with this type of music is the complete experience one goes through when both are involved.” 

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Another prominent name in the scene is Drift Prism. First experimenting with music back in 2005 through a band made up of a few friends, Drift Prism has gone on to put out a distinct brand of experimental electronic music that’s never far from conversations surrounding ambient electronica. For him, the genre is also one that is difficult to describe. He puts it down to a hypnotic sound, slow and considered, allowing for a patient and more appreciated build up in place of gratuitous choruses or bass heavy drops which characterise much contemporary electronic music. The quiet and close knit community of producers is something Drift Prism cites as a main source of inspiration.

“I haven’t personally met all the artists I like listening to from SA, but it sure feels as though there is a community. At least through the internet,” he says. “A lot of producers are really supportive of each other and collaborate on stuff which is always great. Subterranean Wavelength introduced me to a lot of really cool stuff I had never heard of before.”

Certainly, the work that Micr. Pluto has done through Subterranean Wavelength has garnered a considerable amount of support from those within the scene as well as accrue a solid and ever expanding fan base. Vox Portent, who’s been playing with experimental sounds since the age of 15, explains that the unity amongst ambient producers doesn’t only come in the form of sharing or remixing one another’s tracks, but that an increasing form of collaboration is what’s driving and platforming the ambient community. 

“I feel that people just need to be more open to collaboration and not just through music,” he says. “It can be through visual art like film, illustration, photography, and stage design too. There are many talented individuals in South Africa who can create amazing things together.”

Ambient, experimental electronica, like most local electronic music, is still predominantly a boy’s club, but unlike most local electronic music, it lacks the showy, cutthroat nature that many of the other sub genres possess. It’s a unique spectrum of sound that’s as at home in the club as it is travelling through a pair of headphones or car speakers on your way to work.

“When composing these songs, you’re not particularly drawn to a specific idea of what it is you intend to create, but rather, you’re on a journey while creating the piece. This journey consists of different roads to take and also converging with them. The sounds that exist on this journey come from what you’ve already been listening to while on your way to work, what you’ve heard on the radio, different sounds on the street, construction, vehicles, the rhythm of a hammer to a nail, all these moments contribute to a listening phase in your life and greatly inspire the music you create today” says Vox Portent.

With South Africa’s current local music scene in a constant state of reinvention, producers plugged into laptops are exporting their sounds far and wide, gunning for the pole position in genre breaking fame. Ambient electronica, however, remains a consistently unique sound, drawing inspiration from anything and everything, quietly, but steadily making a home for itself across the country.  

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Accompanying artwork from Kim van Vuuren’s 100Forms project. See her website, Instagram and Behance.

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