Conventional wisdom has it that Manchester is a city dedicated to telling and retelling its own story. That every weekend, countless clubs play music made in the city – made by the city, it starts to feel like – and everyone dances like Ten Storey Love Song hasn’t been on the playlist every weekend for past 20 years. Conventional wisdom has it that being homegrown here is important, that maybe it’s better, even.
Similarly, there is a popular notion of what music from Africa sounds like, or should sound like: like “world music”, like Ladysmith Black Mambazo, like something that can be taken and repurposed or popularised by white artists.
So to see Petite Noir, the South African (via the DRC, Angola and Belgium) singer-songwriter, in Manchester seems fitting. Not because his music sometimes sounds a lot like Joy Division, which it absolutely does, but because his music undermines the very notion of homegrown, undermines the familiarity and exclusivity that comes with that notion.
The set opens like his new album, out this month, does, with a complex instrumental track – driven by drums and yet somehow frustratingly restrained, the escalation or drop just out of reach – called Intro Noirwave. Noirwave is the term Petite Noir uses to describe his style. He defines it as a way of combining all his influences, as new wave with an African aesthetic, but what it means practically speaking is music that defies definition, that features elements of alt-RnB, dance, hip hop, punk.
He joins his band on stage and they move wordlessly into Best. What starts out as synthpop transforms, out of nowhere, into something completely different with the chorus: drums and jarring brass and a shouted refrain. I don’t care what you will do / so please just go back home.
Till We Ghosts and Shadows, both from his King of Anxiety EP, follow, and live, they are surprisingly elastic: Petite Noir’s music always sounds full – there’s no other way to put it – but on stage, the songs swell, taking in more sound: heavier drums, basslines that fuzz and fray, reverb. If Petite Noir is retelling his story, it’s an iterative (and I hate to admit it but I mean that in the agile-software-development way) retelling: it grows and changes each time, incorporating and interpreting new influences. His live show is a less computerised, rockier – and therefore much louder – affair than the studio album, which means that some of the nuance is lost, but the audience is too busy dancing to notice.
And yet somehow, the gig has an intimate feel to it, an intimate sound. MDR suggests a possible explanation: his earnest lyrics. Did you know you’re beautiful / in every single way. The song is twitchy and sweet, despite a nod towards the potential for heartbreak: Just don’t / or you’re gonna be my very end. The second verse ends with a dramatic sigh before the chorus bubbles up: Cos you’re the one that I want / You’re the one that I need.
Come Inside’s call and response has the audience singing back at him: You are not my only sacrifice. He slings his white guitar round so he can show us when to clap, implore us to keep clapping. On Freedom, he asks us to add our own voices – shouting “woo!” of all things – to his baritone, and counts us in every time. Freedom comes at an expense / Freedom comes when you least expect it. A more nuanced observation than it seems on the night, when the room is hot and everyone is dancing.
When he speaks between songs, which is rare – he’d rather rely on the music to do the crowd-work – his accent is unmistakeable. Accents are important here. “You guys are beautiful, man,” he says towards the end of the gig, and at that word – “man” – I have the terrible impulse to go up to him after the gig and tell him I’m from South Africa, too, as if that should mean something to him, or make us fast friends. As if being homegrown together – grown of a different home together – would be important, would make the usual (pretty excruciating) artist-fan interaction any better. As if it wouldn’t be limiting. But it would be limiting: while his music feels deeply grounded in South Africa, it’s also borderless, broader in range than almost anything out there at the moment.
La Vie Est Belle, which features Congolese rapper Baloji, is much more mournful-sounding and driving than the studio version. Down starts with a fuzzy hum into the already-fuzzy mike before shifting into an incredibly danceable rhythm, his voice delicate and insistent all at once: Tell me now / are things gonna be alright? / We’re not going down. The audience fills in where the studio version features laughter. Everyone is moving and shining with sweat. He closes out the gig with Chess, a track that shimmers with glitches and his falsetto. Tell me boy / do you really think we’re gonna make it? The song fills out, becomes denser, in waves, and then he is back to baritone: Tell me girl / do you really think I wanna break up? It ends in what seems like a jam session, noise and unrelenting drums and Petite Noir turned away from us, bent double over his guitar. My ears will buzz for the next day.
Petite Noir’s stage presence is restrained, watchful, and I’m reminded of something I read recently about the brilliant Christine and the Queens and how she inverts the usual audience gaze so that she desires from the stage rather than being desired while on stage. Even if his lyrics are introspective, Petite Noir’s gaze, in terms of influence, aesthetic and sound, is outward, unbounded by the notion of what African art should be. This is not “traditional”; this is not “world music”. This is noirwave, and there’s no room for assumptions.