In Zulu tradition, one does not decide to become a spiritual healer (or “sangoma”) so much as they are called to do so – often as a result of a hardship or illness. For KwaZulu-Natal-born experimental artist Desire Marea, the calling (something he tells me is part of his ancestral lineage, but “skipped generations” due to a crackdown on traditional pagan practices following South Africa’s Witchcraft Suppression Act of 1957) became clear with the onset of vivid dreams in which he saw serpents, bodies of water, and himself wearing traditional healing attire and surrounded by other healers. These visions are honoured in the imagery of his latest record, On the Romance of Being, which includes an image of Marea in front of a cerulean sky with a Boa constrictor wrapped around him, and another where he’s standing in a waterhole wearing an ornately embroidered pink jacket.
“I felt that my previous life [as a touring musician with performance collective FAKA] completely rejected me in order for me to be on this path,” explains Marea of the shift in direction when I call him up via Zoom. It’s an uncomfortably hot afternoon on the North coast of South Africa, where he’s visiting his partner, and he apologises for only being dressed in a pair of statement black-framed yellow sunglasses from the waist up. “With making music, there’s a bigger intention, but we were doing it in a lot of places that weren’t very intentional, or safe, and it just didn’t seem to go right. I ended up moving back home, and that was the year I fully accepted my calling.”
Spirituality has always had a place in Marea’s musical output. While his 2020 debut Desire was an introspective exploration of the divine mediated through drone, noise, and club sounds, his latest album On The Romance of Being looks at the relationship between the human and the celestial through a more communal, ceremonial lens – a perspective he cultivated during his time training as sangoma for the past two years. Recorded using a 13-piece live band, the project also saw Marea work with the renowned classical composer Thuthuka Sibisi and long-time collaborator Sanele Ngubane, a creative process he describes as “meeting somewhere in the middle where it was very sweet and hot.”
Marea’s experience of training as a sangoma is central to the record, as is the role that music played during it. Students are not allowed to listen to music from the outside, but drums are a constant presence (sangoma can also be translated into “the drumming one”) and there is a song for each step of the spiritual journey.
“Every song in that process was romanticising and immortalising everything about your being, from the moment I arrived to the moment I graduated and went home,” Marea recalls. With On the Romance of Being, he takes this notion of romanticisation and applies it to his own craft. “These are songs for everything in my life – songs about missing my mother, about struggling with a partner, about wanting to be free, about accepting my calling,” he says. “But it all just moves into one body of work, and one long piece of music, and one chain.”
At the core of becoming sangoma is stepping back the ego in the service of something bigger – a process not unlike the deprioritising of the self that must take place in order to fully love someone. Throughout OTROB, Marea is engaged in a conversation between the erotic and the spiritual, and what it means to fully give yourself over to love in every realm. “I wanna see you levitate,” he chants over gently plinking piano keys on opening track “Ezulwini,” welcoming you inside the album. He repeats the five words like a mantra or spiritual command, while crunchy electric guitars and heartbeat-like drums weave in and out. As the record swells and contracts across its eight tracks, we’re offered a sensual meditation on healing and loving refracted through the lens of Marea’s ancestral heritage.
“Spirituality to me is about an awareness of the true essence of things. A good spiritual state transcends and goes beyond the physical body. You begin to see that as a living entity you are so much bigger and connected to so many things,” he expands. “With that kind of awareness, it is inevitable to be empathetic with other people, because you are connected to everything that is being. You can pull from a love that is so deep that you can be able to heal other people.”
That state of transcendence comes through in both the phonic physicality of the music and its lyrical subject matter, voiced in a mix of English and Zulu. OTROB lives in the intersection of the spiritual and the carnal, though these aren’t necessarily two distinct areas as far as Marea is concerned. “The spirit likes to touch itself,” he tells me with a grin, presenting the erotic as a life force beyond traditional reproductive notions. “The body is a site of spirituality. I think the erotic is also an expression of spirituality, and I don’t shy away from that. I’ve always felt like when I’m having sex with someone, or being intimate with them, it’s the touching of two spirits. Two spirits that are quite separate, but in the way that they become one, you feel that we are connected.”
“Be Free,” the first single from the record, is an electric meditation on loving someone who is scared to open themselves up to its power. “Why do you cower in the face of love? / Love with prayer’s conviction / Love me like you’re a believer / Of God’s gifts and splendour,” he admonishes his cold lover in Zulu. The accompanying video is a rich explosion of saturated colours and lurid animal print with stylistic echoes of Baz Luhrmann’s Romeo + Juliet, exploring Black queer love in the hyper-masculine underworld of South Africa’s notorious taxi gangs. On “Mfula” (River), he could be talking to a lover or a higher power when he moans “I get into a frenzy as soon as you command me / To lick you and please you / To drink you and eat you.”
Second single “Rah” is a sprawling nine-minute reverie recorded with South African jazz artist Zoë Modiga. Sung entirely in Zulu with additional soaring vocals from opera singer Ann Masina, the song is the lament of a dying earth through the lens of African spirituality. “Mother is wounded / And the long awaited day will soon come,” Marea cries mournfully.
Of how his work as sangoma informs his role as a musician, Marea is assured that the common ground is in healing. “I heal with music. I heal with the way that I approach the music – retaining the soul of the music, because I feel that is the element that heals people,” he says. “In my healing practice, that soul of the music is something that evokes other souls, and those are the ones who come through me and do the job of healing other people.”
Marea sees his role on this record as a vessel, and it’s under the instruction of his ancestors that he chose to record with a live band “to ensure the music carried the soul.” But healing and transcendence do not come without time spent in the darkness. Sangoma teachings assert that helping and harming spirits can use the human body as a site for their own conflicts, and this push-pull is apparent in the vocals on the album, which oscillate between honeyed crooning and raspy, terrifying screams that evoke demonic possession.
The record ends with “Banzi,” an expansive, chaotic track that opens with quivering strings and bleeds into frenetic horns and South African jazz, overlaid with the distorted voices of zealous Black pastors overcome by the Holy Spirit. “A lot of people will be scared,” Marea tweeted of the album closer. Towards the end of our call, I admit that I am one of those people, and he collapses inside an extended infectious cackle.
“That song, specifically, was one where my ancestors were like, ‘wake up, you’re a healer, you’ve got this gift, there’s no joke about it’. It was a full-on trance,” he says.
In the end, though, there is light. The album concludes with overlapped whispering voices, followed by a final soothing word in Zulu from Marea himself. “I’m saying [to the ancestors] ‘Here are the gifts, accept them’. It’s a positive ending,” he explains. “The whispers translate to ‘do not be scared, do not be afraid; surrender; go there, you will always come back, you will always land and find yourself. But feel free to release and go there.”
On the Romance of Being is out April 7 2023 on Mute Records.
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