The singer Samthing Soweto, formerly of The Soil, is one of South Africa's least-known musical giants. But after surviving the kind of childhood that very few do, and a spell in the wilderness of silence, he is taking back the mic
When Samkelo Mdolomba was six years old, he stumbled on his power. "We were at school in Soweto, practising reading aloud from simple books," he recalls. "I didn't know how to read, but I had heard the first page so many times that I knew what it said. It was about a character called Mo the Monkey. And I got the idea to sing the words, improvising a melody.
"One minute I was looking at the book, singing, and the next minute I stopped and looked up and got a fright, because there was a whole crowd around me. Fifth-graders, fourth-graders. And I screamed - and everyone screamed with me, screaming, 'AAAH! DON'T STOP!'
"That's when I realised, OK, hmmm. Maybe I have the gift."
Mdolomba is still making people scream 23 years later. But too few people get the chance to scream, because he is inexplicably unfamous.
Now better known by his stage name Samthing Soweto, he is a walking, crooning riddle, not least to himself. He was once the leading voice in the acappella group The Soil, but left them in 2011 - just before they became stars - due to a contractual tiff with their record label Native Rhythms. At the time he was also the frontman of a neo-soul outfit with a cult following called The Fridge, and the tension between the two projects triggered his exit from The Soil.
After The Fridge disbanded in 2012, Mdolomba released an obscenely beautiful solo EP, Eb'suku, in which he multi-tracked his voice to conjure a one-man choir. It's impossible to describe the spectral dreaminess of Eb'suku. But to get an idea, imagine that Joseph Tshabalala and Erykah Badu conceived three love children - one tenor, one bass, one soprano - who grew up and formed an acappella band.
Then Mdolomba misplaced something and fell silent for the past two years, consumed by doubt. "I had lost hope and felt I was writing too much. That was a problem because I loved writing, especially about things I felt. I came to a realisation that my work might not have currency anymore. This is who I am, and I can't do anything else."
But two weeks ago, at a sold-out Soweto Theatre, he donned a mismatched three-piece suit and sang those doubts to smithereens. Holding 400 fans in a rapture for two hours, he also launched a new independent album, Val'amehlo (Close your eyes) which will be released on iTunes on March 31.
He has a six-month-old daughter, and like many new parents without much money, he has a strong suspicion that his calling must pay for the call. "People ask me, are you underground? And I say I'm not underground, because I want money. They laugh at that. I was fine with being underground before, but now there's nothing honourable about being broke."
Mdolomba is six foot tall, with a bearish build that's incongruous with his butterfly falsetto. His range is vast - he has an impressive bass that he keeps in his pocket for a rainy night - but he reveres the female voice. "Male singers are super lazy. Females go hard. Even the male singers I like have a somewhat female approach, like Bab' Tshabalala from Ladysmith Black Mambazo."
His stage presence contains similar paradoxes: he is charismatic but awkward, regal but self-effacing, flippant but vulnerable. All this might be explained by what happened to him after he put Mo the Monkey to music in 1994.
"I was raised by a single mother," he says, "and she was an English teacher. Pretty ironic, because for a very long time I didn't know how to read. In third grade, I was held back because of that - it didn't help, or improve my reading. They just let me go, and I went through the system until I got to Grade 8, and quit school for a year. I just couldn't handle it anymore. I was in school in Eldorado Park - my mom sent me from Soweto to Eldos because she thought it would be better. It wasn't, actually. It was just terrible.
"And I was really a very lost kid for a very long time. I quit school, and then I had to teach myself how to read, so I started reading the Bible. I remember reading 'tongue' and saying 'tong-gew'. It was awful. I think I'm a bit dyslexic. I don't read things by reading. I recognise the word, pattern-wise."
Mdolomba says local schools "employ ancient methods of learning that don't work with me. I've spoken to French people who say our education isn't enriching. We're exposed to one system that doesn't favour other types of thinking."
He was exposed to a different, perilous system of education.
"I started smoking marijuana at 11, started drinking, and later on started doing mandrax when I was 15. I had probably five years of messed-up life. I was going through a lot of things. My mom went through a depression, she was bipolar. And I was the third of four children.
"So when she went through this, my family went haywire. Single parent, nobody really taking care of us. I couldn't read. It was hell. So I found refuge in friends, and did what kids do at that age with no supervision.
"I got myself into trouble with the law when I was 16. Got charged with armed robbery. The crowd I was running with had guns. We would steal people's cellphones on the street. I had a drug habit and I had to feed that."
He calls it "a typical township story, the type you see on TV all the time".
"I have a criminal record to show for it. I was charged and spent two-and-a-half months awaiting trial in a juvenile detention centre. As soon as my trial was done I was given a suspended sentence because it was my first offence. So I experienced what it would be like if I continued the bullshit. And it worked. I didn't want that for myself anymore.
"On the first day I got there, I realised how messed up I had been. I wasn't really a bad kid. I was just not having great experiences."
Thankfully, his mother's illness was treated.
"For a long time we thought she was just crazy. We took her to witchdoctors. You think it's your neighbours who hate you, who are bewitching you. Harry Potter shit. I don't believe in any of that stuff anymore, but at the time we didn't know.
"My sister was just getting ready to give up on my mom, but she sent her to Tara mental hospital. Because she had a government job she could get in. She got diagnosed within six months, got some pills and she's been fine ever since. She went back to work, and she retired three years ago."
Throughout this crisis, Mdolomba's voice was silently waiting.
"I didn't sing a note back then. When I used to smoke drugs with my friends, I used to tell them, you know, one day I'm gonna SING. And they would laugh at me. Crazy! It lived in me.
"Over time, some of them lived long enough to see me actually do it. Some of them are still going through different addictions. For people who never stop, there's always a new drug. Some of them died, some of them stopped. Very few though."
Getting locked up may have saved him. "I found religion - that was pretty much the reason I started The Soil. I had a church background from the age of seven till 11, when I started smoking. At church, we played clap-and-tap, pretty much an American influence, but in South Africa we do it double time. So later that's how I got to Billie Holiday and Sam Cooke, and then only later to Miriam Makeba. And I just held onto her because she was the closest thing to where I come from. Soweto native, Xhosa. Female voice."
In pursuit of a retro Makeba-flavoured sound, he started The Soil. "My bandmates were at Vaal University of Technology, and I wasn't, but I was living with them at res, to keep the group going, for maybe two weeks in every month. Every time I went home, I had nothing to do, so I went and founded The Fridge. The sound was influenced by big band music - Louis Prima. The drummer used brushes, and the bassist played in that upright style.
"So I signed up to The Soil's record deal with Native Rhythms, and the label's boss, Sipho Sithole, wanted the rights to release The Fridge too, and I was happy about that. I pitched it to the guys, they loved the idea, but by the time we had to sign, they didn't like the contract. Sipho said if I can't get the rights to this project, and release it later, he was going to cut me off from The Soil.
"He said The Fridge would make similar music, with my voice as the signature. If I had known him a bit longer, I would have understood, but he was a stranger to me, and he was telling me he would fire me from a group I was with for years.
"I was like, 'Yo, you can't really say that.' But he was adamant. It's a business thing, that I fully understand now. If you're going to invest in a particular group, you want to make sure nothing interrupts their earning power. Now I get it. I'm 29. Back then I was art-oriented. Business was an afterthought for me."
Mdolomba and Sithole have since patched up, both acknowledging their roles in the fight, and he has no beef with The Soil.
Listen to Samthing's Soweto's track Dreamin' of you
He considered forming another acappella band, but his vocal originality is difficult to multiply.
"Finding people to do that with is difficult. I have a problem with giving instruction. I don't use words often. Sometimes I can't articulate what I need to be done. So group situations normally don't work out for me. I also believe that someone who's going to sing my songs needs to unlearn a lot of stuff they've learnt. When other singers, especially music graduates, try to cover my songs, the result is often off. Musically it's not right.
"I employ a particular technique - it's more like making random noises than actually singing. It's not about fixing the voice and projecting from your stomach. I employ more basic sounds, and sometimes they are not musically correct. But if you work it right, it hits that primitive place that you always bond to. My understanding of music is not so formal, which is frowned upon at music school, and you don't find many examples of it in the media."
Mdolomba is no fan of South Africa's rash of Idols-ready singers. "It's kinda annoying. They all sound like a carbon copy of a carbon copy of a carbon copy of a great singer. I'm proud that I try to get away from all of that."
But he did once try out for Idols. "I was 22 or so. I didn't make it to the first round. People say: How? It just happened."
He recalls the audition with wry amusement. "You stand in a long queue, and you get into the room, and you're expecting the judges. Instead you find a video camera and a producer, or I don't know what he is. He just stands there and says, 'Yo, sing.' And you sing and he says, 'OK, thank you.'
"After they've done a group of 10, they come out and say, 'This person made it and that person made it.' After that, you go to the first round. I would have had a better chance to reach the judges if I'd made a complete fool of myself and got into the wooden-mic category. Sang the wrong thing and danced around."
Mdolomba grew up on old-school hip-hop, and bemoans the clunkiness of contemporary rappers. "For the last two years, you saw the rise of this new, idiotic hip-hop lyric. It's like: 'Walking down the street/ Got myself an ice cream/ Hit you in the face with the ice cream!' My gosh! Where's the depth? Where's the poetry? It all sounds like nursery rhymes. Really crude and vulgar. And it just flies off the shelf. It's so strange. I used to listen to [Black] Nubian, Canibus, Gang Starr, Guru, DJ Premier, that old West Coast stuff, Tupac."
Being a singer with spookily pure pitch, he hates the autotune revolution.
"You never know whether what you're listening to is machine-made. Pitch correction is next level now with Melodyne [a production program that corrects off-key singing]. It's awesome, it's a great tool, but it's cheating. It's too perfect. It's not real."
Of course, for most record executives, "not real" sounds just right - because it sells. South Africa's current pop music giants - AKA, Cassper Nyovest, Black Coffee and the like - are bossing the charts by offering the youth platinum-plated fantasies of sumptuous luxury and macho glory.
But Mdolomba's softer, subtler dreamscapes are just as potent, and he is itching to infiltrate the world of the club floor, via house and hip-hop collaborations. Most of all, he refuses to fall silent again. "I'm just back. I'm not taking in much. I'm just making sure that what I do finds its way to the listener."
Best we listen up.