Introducing Soweto Songstress Elo

Newcomer singer and songwriter Elo shares her promising R&B pop debut single "Stare," coming out on Tshepang Ramoba's Post Post.

Soweto-born singer and songwriter Elo recently came out with her first single "Stare," a promising and nostalgic statement about self-acceptance built on a pumping bass progression and shimmering guitar lines. "['Stare']... reminds me of myself when I was carefree, sometimes reckless yet still choosing and loving myself," she explains. The electro-pop track is carried by the newcomer singer's hazy R&B-influenced delivery and production work from BLK JKS drummer Tshepang Ramoba, who will be releasing Elo's 6-track debut EP Elogram through his company Post Post — a newly revamped Johannesburg-based music agency. Ahead of the release, we spoke with Elo about the influences on the EP, her start in music and working with Ramoba. Read ahead for the interview and download Elo's "Stare" below.

Okayafrica: How did you get started writing music?

Elo: I started composing in late primary school with fellow classmates. We were a group of 5 and 4 of us loved being in the school choir. We loved singing and we sang all the time even in class. We started picking melodies and harmonic arrangements from the songs we liked and rewrote the lyrics... soon after we'd rearrange and add 5th harmonies to what was a 3-part and we played and played till I was confident to write on my own or even a make loud originally composed noise (according to my sister) in the bath (and I took long baths).

OKA: What are the influences behind the upcoming Elogram EP?

E: I still remember R&B from the 90s when each individual had their distinct vocal approach and that still inspires me, so does Bjork and Rihanna. I'm also inspired by people and life. How to better myself and how to share that. I'm also inspired by my producer Tshepang Rambo. Without his touch I'm afraid I would be irrelevant or still stuck in my 90s rather than having a rejuvenated sound that is also internationally influenced. I didn't know how to be current and fresh without only perusing my love for rock 'n' roll, considering the market in my county isn't entirely into it. And I watch The Voice a lot. The talent on that show...?! It's just amaze balls.

OKA: Can you tell us about the background of "Stare"? What's the song about?

E: I struggle with being the person who always wants to cushion people's emotions and it's from me being the last born in my family watching the struggle my parents had raising 3 kids and not knowing what to do. See, my mother is a nurse and it was much harder for her since my father had no job [and], at the same [time], he had his personal struggles because as girls we had times when we became unruly and that probably hit him hard even when it was 10 years after his first born (only) son had died from drugs as a teen. I felt so obligated to manage my emotions and see how I could make life better for them. It was hard because I didn't learn or let myself know how to express myself with people unless I'm on stage.

When I got into music college I met [a friend] Lara Thomas who was in my lecture and was studying therapy. She led me to the place where I can free myself and just exist as myself. However, between now and then, my struggle still exists. "Stare" is a song that reminds me of myself when I was carefree, sometimes reckless yet still choosing and loving myself. So this song takes me to a place where I watch that me and deeply want to reacquaint myself, while the current me still is in this pit of being the good person towards others.

OKA: What was the process like working with Tshepang Ramoba on these songs? Tell us about the songwriting sessions.

E: I've been always gone to a producer. [I] take a beat I like... even if [it's] incomplete, and sit with it until I mumble a melody which at times comes immediately during the first listen, to which I add lyrics and adjust as we go along in or out of the studio. Tshepang is so talented it's crazy and I'm always grateful for meeting him and for him believing in me. He has such uniqueness in his composing/producing and he always says he works with what I give him (best ego rub). That makes each project mean 'us' rather than just 'me,' and he's allowed me to meet and work with people around him like Honey Makwakwa and Moonchild. They are my team and my success is theirs. I don't really care if it works the other way.

Image: Courtesy TIFF

Jenna Cato Bass is Capturing the Horrors of an Unhealed Nation

The film marks the South African director's third debut and stride towards making a name for herself in the international film circuit.

Ever since premiering her debut film, Love the One You Love, which won the Best Feature Film at the Jozi Festival in 2015, Jenna Cato Bass has been a name to watch on the international film festival circuit. Her 2017 feature, High Fantasy, was the first of her films to land on the Toronto International Film Festival (TIFF) lineup, followed by Flatland in 2019. Her latest offering, Mlungu Wam (Good Madam), debuted at TIFF in September of 2021 — marking her third time at the esteemed Canadian film event.

Often provocative, always thought-provoking, Bass' films have come to establish her as a director who looks at South Africa's youth, the lives they're living and the future that awaits them, with a nuanced, open-minded lens. For the first time in her career, Bass uses the genre of horror to dig into an enduring mark of the country's past — that of the fraught, complex relationship between madam and domestic worker, in Mlungu Wam (Good Madam). Set in Cape Town, the film follows the unusual, disturbing things that start happening when a young woman moves back in with her estranged mother, who is the longtime caretaker for a rich, white household.

Bass also co-wrote the film Tug of War (Vuta N'Kuvute), which became Tanzania's first film to be selected for TIFF this year, and she co-wrote Rafiki, which was Kenya's first film at TIFF in 2018.

She spoke to OkayAfrica about playing in a new genre and her hopes for African cinema.

Still from Bass's film Mlungu Wam Image: Courtesy TIFF

This story revolves around the relationship between a domestic worker and her 'madam.' What made you want to make a film about this subject?

When I make films, I like the concept to revolve around something that we all have in common - because, despite the many fractures in our society, these shared places exist. And in South Africa, we felt that everyone - in some way or another - has been deeply affected by domestic work and domestic workers, who are a keystone in our society's structure. Additionally, the 'maid' and 'madam' relationship is the ultimate symbol of race relations in South Africa - as well as how they haven't changed significantly, despite almost thirty years of democracy. So a domestic worker was the perfect character around which to centre a South African horror.

The genre of horror works really well to explore this subject and tell this story — when did you know it would be the genre you'd want to use?

The early stages of developing a film aren't always linear for me. I'll be thinking about a genre I'm interested in, and then parallel to that I'll have an idea for a story or a character, and later on, will realize that these pieces all fit together. In this case, I'd been wanting to make a horror film for ages, but hadn't found the right story… until I had the idea for Mlungu Wam, and I realized I was finally ready to try this genre.

What challenges did you face in making a horror?

It was my first time working in this genre, and it was intimidating because there's no saving you if you fail. We were also working on a very, very limited budget, so it wasn't possible to show as much as we'd like to - but then again, this story was all about the subjective and the unseen, so I did as much research and planning as we could, and just had to trust it would work.

Where did you film, and did that have any impact on the process at all?

We filmed in a house in Cape Town, in a gated community in the Southern Suburbs. The house and the environment had a major impact on the film - especially because we were also quarantining there for the full 7 weeks of rehearsal and shooting. The house was our set and our accommodation, so it was very intense, very claustrophobic, and very triggering for many of our team members.

How did you and co-writer Babalwa Baartman work on the story? You've included cast members in the writing process in your previous work — did you do that here too?

Mlungu Wam was made along similar lines to my first two films, Love The One You Love and High Fantasy, where we started with an outline, cast actors, then workshopped the characters collaboratively before completing the story breakdown and using improv for the dialogue. Babalwa and I had worked together using this method on a short film we made in 2019 called Sizohlala. She really understands the process, and it was a really rewarding experience exploring the story with her and our cast.

How did Kristina Ceyton, who produced the excellent acclaimed horrors The Babadook and The Nightingale, through Causeway Films, come to be involved in this film?

I had met Sam Jennings, who is also a producer with Causeway Films, several years ago at a festival. We really connected and kept in touch over the years, sharing our work, and hoping there'd be a chance to collaborate. So when we were developing Mlungu Wam, I pitched her and Kristina the concept and they were immediately supportive. It has been a massive pleasure working with them both.

Your films are known to venture into themes of identity and healing from the past — how does this film speak to that?

Mlungu Wam is definitely about this too - it's a story about three generations of women (actually four, if you include Tsidi's grandmother, who is an unseen character in the film), how they are haunted by the past and eventually refuse to remain chained any longer. Their healing is collective, linked to each other, and wouldn't be possible for them alone as individuals.

Still from Bass's film Mlungu Wam Image: Courtesy TIFF

You've been at TIFF before - how has your experience of it been this year, with it being a hybrid of virtual and in-person?

Things have been quieter and a bit harder to navigate, but the TIFF staff have done incredible work getting the festival off the ground, despite endless challenges. It has felt very surreal to be here, and a privilege - and inspiring too, that we can still get together to celebrate films, even though our world is in such a mess. We had over 200 (socially distanced) people at our last screening, and that was an amazing feeling.

Yours is one of few African films on this year's line-up - is there anything you'd like to see happen to try improve that?

Regarding African cinema, TIFF has a real range of films this year, across several sections. Compared to many other festivals, they seem really invested in supporting cinema from the continent. Of course, this could be better, but it's also an example to other festivals who claim there aren't enough African films, that this is clearly not the case.

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