Feature

Achieving the sound of a small orchestra, amaFranx calls upon some of the most accomplished musicians in SA to help him create a masterful debut album

It only took a 59-second Instagram clip promoting amaFranx’ then upcoming album, amaFranx in the Kingdom of the Aloes, to convince me that whatever the rest of it sounded like, it was worth spotlighting. 

Sitting outside his cottage in a particularly lush corner of the kingdom is the king himself, amaFranx, welcoming me with the friendliest smile, taking me on a virtual tour of his garden, and introducing me to his dog and his bonsai children.

He tells me about growing up in Pretoria, recalling everything from starting his first band to completing his Master’s in Composition at Wits University, and his most successful musical endeavour to date as the bassist for hard-rockers Isochronous, who he went on to tour Germany with.

As it turns out, amaFranx was a by-product of sound-checking before gigs with Isochronous. “I would have the whole venue and PA to myself, singing and playing a bit to test my monitoring, and then I thought to myself, ‘You know what, I actually like this naked, bare combination of bass and vocals. It’s unfamiliar to me, so I decided to create this sound, nurturing it slowly since 2014,” he explains. He’d released a number of works under his amaFranx moniker since 2014, but his latest album was a decision to expand his sound beyond anything he’d ever created before.

amaFranx describes his lockdown and all it sounds like to me is that, in the kingdom, fairy tales come true. He explains how, just as we went into lockdown, he had quit his job in corporate IT so that he could focus on bringing his debut album to life without distractions. With a boot full of home-brewed beer and none of the right documentation, he trekked down to Cape Town, bribing his way across borders with said beer, in pursuit of the person and studio he believed would bring his dream to life: Simon ‘Fuzzy’ Ratcliffe (Lark) of Sound & Motion Studio.

“I was very nervous to contact Fuzzy ‘cause I literally had spoken to him 10 years ago, when Isochronous was recording at Sound & Motion,” he explains, “But Fuzzy was just so cool and easy-going about it, and he understood what I was going through from an emotional perspective, and his experience and his prowess just like jumped at me.”

Whittling 11 demos down to the 7 strongest songs, Fuzzy agreed to take on the project as co-producer, since amaFranx had already fleshed out the ideas in such detail.

Next they approached world-class percussionist Ronan Skillen to be the heartbeat of the album, followed by Matthijs van Dijk, an equally accomplished musician, more specifically a strings arranger and master violinist — and so the four core musical minds behind the creation of the album formed and subsequently brought their respective genius to the compositions, along with a quartet of string players from the Cape Philharmonic Orchestra — although, to become a quintet, amaFranx learnt how to play upright bass with a bow — a trio of horn players, and a drummer.

The beauty of having not only Fuzzy, but the rest of the staff of Sound & Motion involved, is that they specialise in producing for film and series, which gives the album its strong cinematic sound.

The album starts off with its titular track, “Kingdom of the Aloes”, an instrumental composition that paints a vivid picture through sound, of a rich, unspoilt South African landscape. It moves seamlessly into “Apocalypse” and the story amaFranx tells with his bass creates war-like tension, before his vocals drop in and seem to accept the fate of the world. 

“Undying Moments” is where the horns and strings really dance around the composition and it’s the kind of energy that you feel during a coming of age moment on a Disney soundtrack.

“Absent Angel” expands a song that was previously released as amaFranx at his most bare bass-and-vocals combo — it’s my favourite. It’s very soft, very nurturing, while “Madam Debacle” takes on reggae elements through the instrumentation, and tells the typical this-person-is-bad-news story, while carrying an interesting introspective element.

As if the next part to the coming of age story, “In Reaching” creates the feeling of somebody being completely in control, and completely at peace — it feels like the album could end here, comfortably, but amaFranx has other plans.

“Wedergreep”, the only Afrikaans song on the album, combines funk-inspired drums with rolling percussion, thick bass, and Afrikaans spoken word to unpack the troubled mind of an Afrikaner questioning how bad or good he is, and if either, then why? While it’s powerful and vulnerable, and very relevant to the conscientious world we exist in now, it takes a listen to amaFranx’ previous releases to understand the golden thread that Afrikaans creates.

There was no way that that 59-second Instagram clip could’ve prepared me for this album. It’s incredible that 12 players could accomplish such a massive sound. It’s the coming together of big musical minds with even bigger ears, to create something truly original. It’s so intricately detailed, and carefully curated that you’d have to listen to the album 20 times over to hear the same thing twice.