Desire Marea: On the Romance of Being

Desire Marea’s healing powers don’t vanish when he steps off stage, and now he has the credentials to prove it. After the release of his eponymous debut, a record of otherworldly club music suffused with erotic vitality, the queer South African artist underwent training as a traditional Nguni spiritual healer, or sangoma, accepting the call from above to serve his earthly and ancestral communities. His second album, On the Romance of Being, is a collective affair, with Marea stepping out from behind the laptop to front a 13-piece band culled from South Africa’s avant-garde jazz and experimental music scenes. Together, they take a leap from Desire’s digitized churn to swooning orchestral soul, dancing across the divide between flesh and spirit.

Opener “Ezulwini” slowly rolls out the record’s cast of musicians as it conjures a seance. Sibusiso Mashiloane and Sbu Zondi hold down the rhythm section on piano and drums respectively, stirring up a gentle mist of twinkling keys and light cymbal taps before Portia Sibiya and Andrei Van Wyk activate a volcanic eruption of distorted bass and guitar, giving On the Romance of Being its decisive moment of liftoff. Marea explores the full range of his operatic vocals over their triumphant post-rock stomp: “I want to see you levitate,” he repeats, rising from a piercing falsetto to a commanding shout.

The album burns brightest on a pair of songs in which Marea recognizes the limits of his grace in the face of emotionally unavailable lovers. On the bilingual “Be Free,” he sways between mockery in English (“I find it very lame/That you fear yourself”) and generosity in Zulu (“My cup runneth over, yet you are afraid/Why do you cower in the face of love?”). Eventually, his patience runs thin, and the song erupts into a blast of strings and wordless cries as he chooses himself. “Makhukhu” takes a softer approach: Marea’s bitterness toward a partner’s opacity—“It’s oh so quizzical/Perplexing perhaps/All the depth that you lack”—is framed by quivering eighth-note piano chords and a slinky bassline. He sings of mountains piercing clouds and gateways to bliss, but as the band climbs towards a glittering crescendo, hopes for a shared romantic vision crystallize into a lonely mirage.

Given the density of demanding vocal performances and show-stopping instrumental shredding, it’s natural that Marea and his bandmates would want to catch their breath. While “Skhathi”’s new wave guitar figures and warbled vocals are pleasant enough, its comparatively tame groove feels out of step with the album’s dazzling hairpin turns. But Marea redeems himself immediately with closer “Banzi,” a nine-minute electronic free jazz workout featuring four gloriously grueling minutes of rhythmic shouts and growls. With one final naked cymbal crash, the room clears, leaving Marea alone at the microphone—a vessel for two worlds, eager to be refilled.

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Desire Marea: On the Romance of Being