Ghana-based Benjamin Lebrave speaks fluent French and English, and can schmooze in Spanish and Portuguese. He’ll report on new African music every month for the Lungu Lungu column. Today, he meets South African house music producer Aero Manyelo to find out what drives his innovative spirit.
If at any point in your life you’ve been into house music, or electronic dance music in general, visiting South Africa is a surprising and exciting experience. House music is everywhere. Barber shops, sportswear stores, restaurants, taxis, even background music at the mall.
The genre is house, the business behind it is the same as anywhere else: the biggest names have heavy machinery behind them, and attract much of the attention. A few DJs and producers at the top dictate what much of the South African house music output sounds like.
Luckily for our ears—and for this column—there are also passionate artists who make music they want to hear, rather than music they think most people want to hear. Aero Manyelo is one of these artists, a seasoned house music producer who’s first official release came out in 2007. He has kept his course and has been steadily rising ever since. International releases on Outhere and Sound Pellegrino, and now the simultaneous release of two full length albums on Herbal 3 Records and Akwaaba.
Who is Aero Manyelo, and how did you get started with music? My name is Chobolo Eric Manyelo—my stage name is Aero Manyelo. I was born in the Limpopo province of South Africa, and grew up in the Ivory Park township of Johannesburg. When I was 16 years old I got my first computer, and since then I have never looked back. I got a demo version of the ACID music software [and] played around with the loops that came with the software, but the funny part is I couldn’t save the songs because the software was a demo version, so I used to create new songs every time I opened the program. It didn’t bother me though, because I thought that’s how it was supposed to be! In 2003 I got Fruity Loops, now known as FL Studio, I started creating my own melodies and programming my own drums. I still use FL to date.
The music you make doesn’t sound like anything I heard while I was in Joburg, why is that? In South African house music I’m one of those producers who makes weird dance music, but people still love it, my kind of sound is not the usual house music sound you hear on the radio. A handful of producers control what plays in SA, so most producers don’t make what they love, they follow the trends they hear on the radio [and] try to work on something similar to what is already playing. Whereas since my first record in 2007, I’ve been making only what I love. I can’t fake it, I can’t do something I don’t like and pretend like it’s cool. I always believe in everything I do.
There was a time when there was no space for what I do on radio, but I didn’t let that keep me down, I kept doing what I do, and now South Africa is getting used to the electro vibe I bring, and they are starting to play my sound. If you stick to what you do, then you get real loyal fans. I’m one of those producers who has a following with or without radio or media playing my stuff.
So you manage to push your sound on your own? It’s all about how you hustle. For instance, in 2012 I was DJing in Richard’s Bay, where I left some promos for the DJs playing there. The following week DJ Tira of Big Nuz came to the same area, he got excited about the songs the local DJs were playing, then he called me up and I worked on a song with them. It’s very common to rise by collaboration or introduction via a big name. It can have a big impact on up and coming producers: many of them try to make it up, but they don’t have that push. Big names like Oskido, DJ Fresh, Vinny da Vinci, and DJ Christos put out compilations or host radio shows which can push new producers.
I think there is room for a lot of stuff, especially when you bring something interesting. When it comes to house music, a lot of people in SA are so easy to turn on to good sound. Whether it’s deep house or commercial or electronic, people adopt new sounds. So I believe there is more room for new sound, new styles, rather than sticking to the basics that have been happening for the past years.
In some of our previous conversations, you referred to your sound as electro township house, can you tell me a bit more about that? Remember Mujava? People were calling it township electro, mostly in Europe, but meanwhile in South Africa we didn’t have a name for it yet. Not that many people do this sound here, but people like DJ Spoko, DJ Cleo, Classy Menace, Mogrigo, Crazy White Boy and myself are pushing it.
What’s your routine on the DJ circuit in SA? I play most Saturdays, sometimes from Thursday till Sunday. I play at different types of events, sometimes clubs, sometimes street bashes, sometimes lounges, stadiums. Most of the time I play the music I produce. Some clubs are open from 6pm to 6am, but you won’t notice any difference between the DJs. Whereas other clubs will advertise different acts playing different sounds. For instance, Vinny da Vinci will play deep house, Oskido will play SA tribal house, then me dropping the electro township kind of vibe, then someone maybe playing-hip hop [and] another DJ playing kwaito.
Two months ago, Puma came to me and said they want me to be a brand ambassador, they said they have been following my stuff. Those things too happen. I should also give credit to my agent, Black Major, who is also doing a great job at promoting me.
What’s next? My goal is to work with fresh talent that nobody has ever heard of. Then I want to get this music to play everywhere. In the process I also want to show other producers that you shouldn’t limit yourself when it comes to music.