“Africa has always been the ghostwriter of the world” – OKZharp and Manthe Ribane on their new album Closer Apart

South African duo OKZharp and Mantha Rebane have created one of the year's most intriguing debut albums, despite living thousands of miles apart.

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I was first introduced to the music of South African duo Manthe Ribane and OKZharp two years ago. A friend sent me “Teleported” – a drum-heavy, pulsating track full of crackling energy taken from the pair’s gqom-inspired Tell Your Vision EP – and I was hooked. Since then, I’ve been waiting for the return of the musical powerhouse and last week that wait was rewarded with the Hyperdub release of their first full-length album, Closer Apart.

Speaking to OKZharp and Ribane over email in the lead-up to the release, they recall how they first came together in 2015 during the making of Ghost Diamond – a film incepted by Okzharp and close friend and collaborator Chris Saunders. Ribane, a backing dancer for Die Antwoord at the time, was chosen to play the leading role and when OKZharp suggested making a soundtrack to accompany the film, Ribane was “over the moon with joy,” she tells me. OKZharp remembers the birth of their very first track together well, describing it in detail. “We had finished shooting for the day, and everyone went uptown to celebrate, but Manthe and I stayed behind… I had a nice mic but no mic stand, so we taped it to the upright of the bunk bed. We started recording, and within about 15 minutes we had “Dear Ribane”. That was the start.”

The first recording quickly turned into a debut EP, followed later by Tell Your Vision. Now Closer Apart has arrived. It’s a record that feels different to previous offerings. While it still carries some of the same characteristics – OKZharp’s singular, futuristic production style liberally watered with Ribane’s free-flowing lyrics – Closer Apart’s voice is gentler. A mesh of crystalline melodies, riffs and synths, it feels soulful and introspective. The release also comes as part of an opulent visual package, made with Saunders, and sits cradled by striking imagery essential to its story. Much of this emanates from Ribane herself, who reigns resplendent. Endowed from an early age with an innate sense for good music by her late parents, she explains, Ribane has since evolved into a multifaceted originator. She embodies artistic practices from across the spectrum – musician, dancer, designer, producer and performer are just some of the strings to her bow. Indeed, in the opening lines to our email exchange, she tells me, “I am art”.

The making of Closer Apart also looks somewhat different to earlier work. The pair shunned the idea of building tracks remotelythe easier option given that Cape Town-born OKZharp now lives in London while Ribane, a native of Johannesburg township Soweto, continues to reside in South Africa. Instead, the two decided to make this record on the fly. Beats and melodies were born in any and all moments that they could capture for creating together in person. The track “Time Machine”, for instance, was dreamt up on the floor of an airport terminal while they waited for a delayed flight.

As the duo release their first full-length project, we talk with them about the challenges of creating from different hemispheres, the importance of visuals to this body of work and the recurrent theme of diamonds in their work.

Notion: Why did you feel this pairing was a good fit for you as an artist?
Manthe Ribane: I LOVE the power of collaboration: you’re consistently growing and learning. The working relationship is very professional, and we both believe in each other’s opinions – respect is the main tool to keep the progress alive. OKZharp is a musical genius, he’s constantly creating new, future sounds. It’s the power of working with people that are always thinking ahead.

How has the relationship developed since the earlier work you did together?
Manthe Ribane: We’ve been touring a lot internationally and now we’re preparing for New York AFROPUNK.

OKZharp: Yes, we’ve grown through through shared experiences and challenges. In some ways that’s the story of our music. We’ve learned to work fast and trust our instincts. I hope our sound is still developing, though.

What did the making of ‘Closer Apart’ look like?
Manthe Ribane: It looked like hard work.

OKZharp: Manthe was a co-producer on this album… she selected sketches and helped to develop them, arrange them and finish them into songs. She has a wonderful intuitive way with sounds, rhythms and melodies.

Manthe: Yes, I had a lot of input with the production side. It was powerful.

What was your favourite part of making the album?
Manthe Ribane: I love the track “Kubona” – talks about self-reflection of the diamonds in all us. I love every song.

OKZharp: I love the word ‘billaweh’. Manthe was using this word to freestyle various ideas, so I asked her what it meant, and she said she didn’t know, she just made it up. So, for the rest of that trip, we were coming up with different meanings for it. Manthe settled on ‘find a way’, and the word ended up being a part of “Blue Tigers”.

What did you set out to achieve with ‘Closer Apart’?
Manthe Ribane: Trusting your process of your own journey, and inspirational music for the future generations.

OKZharp: When Kode9 asked us to imagine what an Okzharp and Manthe album might sound like I don’t think either of us imagined Closer Apart. Looking back now, the process seems quite organic, but it didn’t always feel like that at the time. And yes, it’s full of the messages, images, words and melodies.

Was it difficult to collaborate on this piece of work from two different countries?
Manthe Ribane: Yes, it was hard, but we kept on seeing what was ahead of us and having the people around us who believed in the album helped.

OKZharp: Yes and no. It’s not an internet collaboration. All the songs were made when we were together in the same room, so there were times when this was a challenge, and we had to be patient. But we were quite lucky because there was never more than a couple of months between shows last year, so we were able to keep making new music around those tours.

Manthe, how do you feel all your other creative practice feeds into your music?
Manthe Ribane: Art is a home with different rooms: music, fashion, dance, colour, film, photography, and more. All these elements come alive through our visual communication on this album.

The visual side of this album is really stunning. How much input did you each have with the visuals and aesthetic of this release?
Manthe Ribane: It sounds cheesy, but teamwork makes the dream work. We worked with Chris Saunders, Deon Van Zyl, Nirox Sculpture Park, and Hazard Gallery. We really wanted to invest more on the visual aesthetic, so the work may remain more timeless

OKZharp: And dream work makes the team work… The cover image was taken by Chris Saunders in between shots on the Closer Apart film set during our Nirox artist residency. Chris took quite a few photos that day, but I remember having a feeling about that one.

Manthe – in the featurette you released with the album you perform your Pantsula dance. How important is that visibility of your own heritage in the work?
Manthe Ribane: It’s important to embrace what has been rooted for us, celebrate and share the gift with the world.

Why do you think South African sounds have started to be embraced worldwide over the last few years?
Manthe Ribane: Africa has always been the ghostwriter of the world, and I believe in time the world will start crediting it as such. But regardless of that, it’s beautiful to witness the appreciation.

OKZharp: I think because there are some really brave South African artists doing unique things that demand the world’s attention.

What do you both have coming up that we should know about?
Manthe Ribane: AFROPUNK New York, album, album, album, album, tour and the new campaign.

OKZharp: We have our first t-shirt collab coming soon with Hyperdub. It’s a collaboration between us, them and Optigram. Keep an eye out for that.

Closer Apart is out now on Hyperdub.

Photography Chris Saunders
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