Desire Marea's genre-melting music stirs South Africa, and the world
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Desire Marea's genre-melting music stirs South Africa, and the world
Desire Marea in Paris on Oct. 30, 2023. The 32-year-old’s work in Zulu and English traverses styles and explores queer histories. This week he releases a new EP, “The Baddies of Isandlwana.” (Sam Hellmann/The New York Times)

by Lior Phillips

NEW YORK, NY.- On a crisp Thursday morning hours before Desire Marea’s performance at the Transform Festival in Leeds, England, earlier this month, the South African songwriter sat in Kirkstall Valley Nature Reserve, communing with his Zulu ancestors. It’s a practice he honed through his training as a sangoma, a traditional spiritual healer, and it is essential to his craft.

“There’s no music if my ancestors aren’t invited and honored,” Marea, 32, said in a video interview from his hotel room later that morning. Quick with a smile and clad in a simple gray T-shirt and plain shorts from South African designer Lukhanyo Mdingi’s 2023 collection, Marea was far more soft-spoken than he is onstage, where his high-drama performances and penchant for experimental fashion speak loudly.

Marea sings in English and Zulu; his music melds styles (funk, Afrobeat, electro, experimental pop) and traverses topics including queerness, Zulu culture and history. His 2020 debut, “Desire,” was a solo album of pulsing, burbling synths and beats. Its follow-up, “On the Romance of Being,” featured a 13-piece band bringing urgent, jazzy compositions to life.

On Thursday, Marea will release “The Baddies of Isandlwana,” a propulsive three-song EP that encompasses his ambitious creative scope: Its title refers to an 1897 battle in the war between the British Empire and the Zulu Kingdom; its sounds were inspired by his search for identity in the nightlife of Amandawe, a small township south of Durban; and its lyrics imagine the lives of queer Zulu soldiers.

Born Buyani Duma, Marea grew up in Amandawe, and like many Black South Africans of his generation, his childhood was affected by the political unrest of the ’90s. When Marea was only a few months old, his father went missing in the midst of protests in Durban and was never found. His mother supported his early appetite for performing, accompanying him when he appeared in an ad campaign for a carpet company: “She knew then that I was a star,” he said.

When she died in a car accident six years after his father’s disappearance, grandparents, aunts and uncles helped Marea follow his dreams and attend a fine arts school as a teen, where he initially planned on studying drawing.

After trying his hand at visual art and then fashion, Marea discovered the power of music and began operating under his stage name: Desire allowed him to embody “the carnal energy of creation,” while the Zulu word Marea, he explained, “is the ocean, the tide, the star of the sea.” He also began teaming with a friend, Fela Gucci, as Faka. The duo produced an explosive take on gqom, a South African genre that combines elements of classic Chicago house and traditional African rhythms.

Through their performances, photography and an inclusive club night, Faka explored queer identity, African art heritage and free expression. The project “was a cultural reset in the fashion and music space,” South African singer Zoë Modiga wrote in an email. “It was spellbinding, it was new, it was a frenzy.”

South African designer Thebe Magugu, who went on to collaborate with Marea on looks for photo shoots, heralded Marea’s merging of “his heritage, culture and spiritual journey together with his queerness,” in an email. “Seeing people interrogate themselves so freely reminds us to do the same,” he added.

Marea said Faka was powerful but only the beginning. “We had a responsibility to serve our people, to serve Black, young, queer Africans, by putting ourselves out there, being visible, and saying all that we needed to say with the conviction that we said it with,” he explained. “But there was something propelling me to answer this call, to give the world this music.”

He started having vivid dreams; in one of the most striking, he saw visions of himself as a sangoma. A powerful figure with roots in the Xhosa and Zulu traditions, sangomas have fulfilled a variety of roles over time, including spirit mediums and practitioners of traditional medicine.

“Music was my first teacher of matters of the spirit and how to receive messages, but in 2020 I was told it goes beyond being a musician,” Marea said. He noted that he had been “feeling strange” for perhaps 10 years. “I knew there was something I needed to get, a level of actualization that only comes with undergoing initiation.”

Marea spent seven months training to become a sangoma, and while stereotypes of hyper-masculinity can pervade traditional spaces, he found quite the opposite. “I trained with a lot of other queer sangomas — almost as if queerness was a spiritual condition,” he said with a warm laugh. “From what I understand, it’s a very known thing, but even our ancestors support it. I don’t have homophobic ancestors.”

Daniel Miller first heard Marea’s music around that time. As the founder of Mute — a label known for releasing works from electronic acts like Erasure, Depeche Mode and Goldfrapp — Miller quickly recognized Marea’s musical innovation. “I’d never signed an artist before without actually meeting them, but we met on Zoom over a few occasions and really hit it off,” Miller said on a phone call from his home in the United Kingdom. He was delighted that Marea “didn’t sound like anything else on Mute at all, anywhere close.”

Newly initiated as a sangoma and signed to an international label, Marea set to work on what would become “On the Romance of Being,” released in April. The influence of South African electronic elements like gqom and its more lounge-y sibling amapiano remained, but he added a band stacked with mainstays in South Africa’s thriving experimental jazz scene, including keyboardist Sibusiso Mashiloane and bassist Portia Sibiya, as well as writers and producers Thuthuka Sibisi and Sanele Ngubane.

For Ngubane, Marea’s role as a healer permeated the creative process. “The signs were very clear that he has a strong calling and witnessing him before and after his transition, it all makes sense now,” he wrote via email.

Many of the “On the Romance of Being” musicians returned for “The Baddies of Islandlwana,” three tracks that explore a visceral sonic landscape. If the LP is “an offering to my ancestors,” Marea said, the EP is “more an offering to myself.”

The new songs originated at a moment when he had returned to Amandawe after a period away. “I was surrounded by all these Zulu men, and I was like, ‘Who am I now? Historically, who was I then?’” he said.

Marea found himself envisioning the Anglo-Zulu war and imagining what queer life must have been in that time of physical conflict and stoic masculinity. The resulting music — with gleaming horns, churning percussion and chantlike breaths — is electrifying. “What if God doesn’t know?/What good is it to know?/What good does it serve?/Are you really at peace if you know?” he sings on “If You Know,” as the smoldering track boils over with stabs of trumpet and crashing cymbals.

“I will dream of melodies,” Marea said of his deep connection to the music. “Sometimes it’s a bass line, sometimes a drum line, sometimes a vocal melody. Whatever they’re sending me, I will go and re-create that to my best ability.

“There’s a conviction now,” he explained, “because it feels like I’ve figured out who I am as an artist and as a human being.”

This article originally appeared in The New York Times.

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