Inside Msaki & Tubatsi’s New Debut Album Synthetic Hearts

Maski x Tubatsi – a new project formed by fast-rising South African solo star Msaki (a double winner at the 2022 South African Music Awards) and Tubatsi Mpho Moloi of Johannesburg band Urban Village (and also a member of the Keleketla! collective alongside Tony Allen, Shabaka Hutchings and Joe Armon-Jones) – release their debut album ‘Synthetic Hearts’ through Nø Førmat! records (Ballaké Sissoko, Oumou Sangaré). The record also features French cellist Clément Petit (who’s previously collaborated with Aloe Blacc, Ballaké Sissoko and Blick Bassy) – the 3 artists originally encountered each other when Msaki & Petit guested on Urban Village’s critically acclaimed 2021 debut ‘Udondolo’, which examined both the contemporary experience of black South Africans and the horrors of Apartheid.

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The first words you hear on ‘Synthetic Hearts’ are “Come with me”. Ushered in by Clément Petit’s rhythmically plucked cello, Tubatsi Mpho Moloi and Msaki issue an invitation to the listener and lover to journey to another place – where hearts, experiences and sounds meet, shift and evolve across an inventive nine track album. Experimental, playful and complex, ‘Subaleka’ – the first track on their collaborative project – introduces a merging of voices and instruments, across geographies and genres, in sparse, yet lush atmospherics.

As individual artists in their own rights, the discographies of Msaki, Moloi and Petit attest to an ability to shapeshift across genres. Born in East London, South Africa, self-described “songcatcher” Msaki moves across electronic dance, folk, pop and amapiano with ease – rooting her sound in heartfelt lyrics that express the entangled personal and political. Msaki’s sophomore album ‘Platinumb Heart’ (2021), won her both Female Artist of the Year and Best Adult Contemporary Album at the 2022 South African Music Awards, and she’s also known for multiple chart-topping collaborations (Black Coffee, Diplo, Prince Kaybee, Sun-El Musician…). Similarly, as part of the four-piece collective Urban Village, vocalist and multi-instrumentalist Tubatsi Mpho Moloi’s music digs into the strata of the post-apartheid reality, grounding itself in the quotidian experiences of township life in Soweto and moving across and beyond folk, rock, mbaqanga and maskandi and more.

Msaki and Moloi’s folk sensibilities are present on ‘Synthetic Hearts’, even as it too defies easy categorisation, mixing live and electronic elements, as Petit teases out distinct textures from his cello. Raised in a diverse, community-based Parisian banlieu, Petit’s approach reflects his early immersion in Afro-American, Caribbean and electronic music, vast experience in contemporary and improvised music, and quest to continually reinvent instruments, rewrite the rules and find new musical languages. “He doesn’t treat the cello like a classical cellist”, Msaki notes.

The album is both introspective and conversational – disentangling emotions held within, and considering what is shared and private in the messiness of our relationships with ourselves and others. The album “speaks about having an equal responsibility to look after each other” and questions how “we express feelings of love towards each one another”, Moloi explains. Love, longing, confusion, sorrow and despondency, are opened up and negotiated. The themes of the album echo the process of its creation, as two voices and three artists find ways to balance their sounds, find each other, compromise and journey alongside each other in these songs.

‘Synthetic Hearts’ began with ideas from Petit’s archives, with Msaki and Moloi selecting the songs that resonated, to forge something new together over a week-long residency in April 2021. Composed at Nirox Sculpture Park, just outside Johannesburg, the music is a witness to the changing seasons – literally, as they sing of leaves turning colour in ‘Madonna’, and in life too, as relationships move in and out of ease across the album. Created in an organic and unprescribed process, the music naturally moved towards explorations of love’s knotty realities, in what they describe as a productive and unlaboured creative process.

To the project, Moloi brought ‘Zibonakalise’, a song created in response to Covid-19 and resonating beyond it. Translating as “show yourself”, the track plays out a prayer to ancestors, asking them to rise up and seeking solutions to all that feels unclear. Similarly, Msaki wrote ‘Fika’ after the Nirox residency and offered it for the album. The prophetic album-closer calls for a loved one to arrive back home, to a time of ceremony and communion. Finding their way through the collaboration, Msaki describes how the music is coloured through the “three paintbrushes” of their approaches. With minimalistic production and an embrace of space, she adds that “restriction [became] a beautiful way to give the project a language”.

Recorded at Jazzworx, Johannesburg and co-produced by Petit and Frédéric Soulard, it’s a body of work that intentionally reveals the inescapable brokenness at the heart of what it means to be human, and the inescapable risk of what it means to love. The songs on the album, enquire, examine and implore in their unadorned disclosures. ‘Madonna’ sensually sings of distance and detachment – ‘Stay As You Are’, on the other hand, is intimate in its proximity, asking a lover to remain the same “till the day you can no longer”, promising to lean into the feeling too.

This sense of revelation is threaded through ‘Synthetic Hearts’, sometimes as the slow, sore sound of a heart about to break. The poetic ‘Hearteries’ finds the reasons for rupture in one’s own reflection, as Msaki sings “Can’t face the ending / Brittle bitter bending / How your pain stays twisted inside you / Coz you can’t forgive / Yourself”. At other times, it lays bare the glistening hope of romance’s thrilling beginnings, or simply promises only the present moment, and nothing more. But at its core, it’s a willingness to love, through it all, that is the emotional centre of the album. It’s an attitude most clearly reflected in ‘Come In’, where Moloi and Msaki’s stunningly complementary voices drift into each other with ease, singing “So come in / I love you / take off your chains / kiss me again” with determined, uncomplicated assurance.

These are not clear love songs, sticky with sentiment. The tracks on ‘Synthetic Hearts’ twist and shift in the thorny complexities of the feeling instead. “It feels like the beginning of the end or the end of the beginning, it’s not very clear. But there are a lot of invitations, and there’s a lot of vulnerability, which is probably reflective of where we were as well”, Msaki says. Blending voices, styles and experiences, Synthetic Hearts pulses with the immense respect and appreciation the three artists have for each other, finding musical chemistry in the willingness to let go and simply be: in music, just as in love.

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