The promise contained in the debut ep, Another Day has been kept, and fans of MXO will be thrilled to learn that with the release of his first full-length recording, this rare artist has crafted an album that is nothing short of a musical gift to the South African nation and beyond our borders.
In a musical world dominated by a handful of genres, and most frequently peopled with unadventurous and predictable artists, MXO is a blast of fresh air, blowing stronger than a howling Cape South Easter and leaving in his wake an ever-expanding pool of fans simply smitten with his singular sonic sound.
Sound too much? Then simply hit the play button on Peace Of Mind, MXO’s just-released 16-track album and you’ll too find his musical brew irresistible and intoxicating. Produced by Africa Mkhize, and featuring a dazzling array of musicians including Africa himself on piano and other keyboards, Marcus Wyatt (trumpet), Siya Makuzeni (trombone) and Sindney Mavumdla (saxophone), the album is a landmark recording, signifying a maturing South African music scene that is capable of nurturing and supporting a talent as individual as MXO’s.
Defining MXO’s music is no easy task. The musical bedrock of Peace of Mind is strongly informed by Afro-jazz (the blasting horns speak of the genre over and over again), but there is also a great dollop of soul and funk in the musical mix, along with smatterings of Latino, dub, reggae and, most obvious of all, Afrocentric neo-folk.
“My vision from the start was to move into a more experimental mode – mixing what I know with new flavours to create something special and different,” says MXO (real name Mxolisi Lokwe). “I want people to hear my music and get real peace of mind for the time that they are listening to it and long afterwards too.”
The repertoire on Peace of Mind spans several songwriting years in MXO’s life: “Peace of Mind” was included on Another Day and is a live favourite and there is a spiced-up version of MXO’s big hit, the glorious “Sista Kunjani”. Other songs too have been several years in the creation, including “Delilah” which MXO wrote in 2000 and “Nomalizo” which formed part of MXO’s repertoire when he played with Sliq Angel as part of the innovative duo, Roots 2000.
Peace of Mind is created around three themes, explains MXO. “The first section, from ‘Tonight’ to ‘Nomalizo’ is about the life and the music and it’s uptempo. The second section is called the travelers and it’s all about the language of the world and gaining peace of mind. The final section is all about the other side of MXO – the crazy side.” That MXO conceived Peace of Mind in this way says a great deal about his commitment to crafting words of consciousness, respect and love, and also fun – “I am a 25-year-old living in Johannesburg and you know, I go out and have fun too,” he says, with a smile.
In an album of excellence, there are still a few standouts. “Zandiy’bone”, the first single to radio, is full of rolling grooves and is one of the strongest connections to the music that appeared on Another Day. In typical MXO-style, the song is a nod to “a visionary woman, who is grounded and knows what she wants and because of that, everyone wants her” – along the way, picking up on a familiar theme in the artists’ lyrics about respect for women and self.
But there are plenty of other gems to feast on and “Gotta Go” is one. The track opens with a wash of piano and strings before smoothly moving into a gorgeously produced song that gently joins MXO’s warm vocals, with a soft organ and delicate drums, as well as some of the most inspired backing vocals we’ve heard for the longest while. It’s MXO’s vocal phrasing on the track that adds to its charms – few people can talk about Marvin Gaye and Donnie Hathaway with such joy as he can and it’s hard not to compare him with the great Bob Marley on the hugely evocative song, “Nina”.
“Kumbul’ekhaya” is another gorgeous track – a homage to MXO’s grandmother who raised him in the Port Elizabeth township of Kwa-dwesi. Skillfully weaving a rap courtesy of Snazzy D into the mix, the song is warm and affecting and likely to be played over and over again by those owning the album. “Nomalizo” is another deeply-felt song that again provides the most apt showcase for MXO’s greatest weapon: his voice. Taking centrestage as it does through the majority of Peace of Mind, on “Nomalizo” MXO’s vocals are always deep, full of enough real timbre to be instantly identifiable by those who love his music.
And, as the “Funky Interlude” and the opening moments of “Nina” reveal, MXO is unafraid of veering into experimental territory, or to expound the joys of smoking weed in “Green Leaves” (that said ‘though MXO is committed to living a life of responsibility, eating well, reading, working out and even taking responsibility for his younger brother who has moved up to Johannesburg from Port Elizabeth).
Peace of Mind is also full of surprises. Arno Carstens (Springbok Nude Girls) turns up to provide vocal support on the rock-guitar drenched “Rebel Girl” and there are also guest spots from the likes of Tumi (Tumi and the Volume) and Zenzi Makeba.
MXO describes working with Mkhize as “the greatest experience”. “It was a real discipline for me to work with him. I had to really focus on being the artist and take guidance from Africa which wasn’t easy in the beginning because I’ve always done things my way. I can be very stubborn and single-minded. But I think the music speaks for itself, in how successful this partnership was.” A full month of rehearsals at the Carfax Studios in Gauteng laid the foundation for the easy, organic feel that filters through each of the album’s 12 tracks.
Ask MXO about the response to Peace of Mind and he says the best part is knowing that people of all ages and cultural backgrounds are feeling the music. “I play it to my friends and they say the album is great and that they know their mothers would love it too. To reach that many people is what makes this worthwhile. I’m a man from the past, living in the present. It’s what I’ve always been.”
MXO was born in Kwa-dwesi, Port Elizabeth in 1978. Singing began quite naturally for him as a young child growing up in the township and participating in both school choir and the scout choir. It was the musical legends such as Letta Mbulu, Hugh Masikela, Miriam Makeba as well as the social and political climate of the early 1980’s that influenced the youngster and he was part of two groups – Black Power Crew and Lil Homies – that were in demand throughout Port Elizabeth.
Financial difficulties and plans to pursue a career in music brought MXO to Johannesburg in 1999. After meeting up with numerous artists, he eventually linked up with DJ Blaze and his Unity Recordings and before long was gaining his fame in J-sec by performing at venues like the Bassline, Horror Café, Monday Blues and other underground poetry and Hip-Hop spots including Jungle Connection, the Couch and Coffee, and more.
MXO then performed alongside artists like Blk Sonshine, Brenda Fassie, Moses Molelekwa and more, and during this time, connected with Sliq Angel, another aspiring solo artist. . After they performed together at an open mic session, the formation of Roots 2000 was inevitable and the duo performed at many gigs (Jazz Arts Festival 2000, OppiKoppi) and was featured on many radio and television stations.
But the solo road proved too strong for both MXO and Sliq who parted ways, with MXO releasing his debut ep, Another Day, in 2003, marking the arrival of an artist working outside the boundaries of conventional genres to create an Afrocentric sound that benefits greatly from an acoustic feel and a hip-hop sensibility as well. With lyrics that celebrate life, deal with matters of the heart, are fully respectful of women and address issues like violence against women and the HIV/AIDS pandemic, MXO packs a powerful punch.
Live, MXO’s undeniable sex appeal and naturalness on stage is clear for all to see and together with his band Stone (Sabelo is on the guitar, Msebenzi on Bass, Sifiso on the keyboard, Papi on the Sax and Martin on drums), his shows are a must-see event throughout the country