“Do you like pineapples on your pizza?” That was Buli’s urgent interjection amid my pre-interview niceties. I must have passed the test when I nervously said no. “I know, right? Fruit on pizza?!” He shook his head. The 20-year-old producer, Buli (Shibule Ndhambi) is unapologetic in his youthfulness. As is his music — playful, fragile, and willing to treat ‘lost’ as a place.
In my own listening, Buli’s production has been evocative of suspended time. It’s those Sunday mornings when you take an extra hour in bed and watch as the sun-lit curtain laps the window. It’s that moment when you hold your nose and sink under the bathwater, into that weightless place where sound softens and the world seems to slow down. “A lot of tracks, that’s [also] how I feel”, he told me. “Like I’m floating. It’s a lucid thing. It’s like I’m floating in the sea, going nowhere”. This is what stillness sounds like — a concept that seems initially to resist sound altogether. “My music, the way I make it, I want it to be calm. That’s what I want it to be. It’s just a scene where you imagine yourself, camera fading away from you, and you’re looking at the camera the whole time”.
Buli’s music is unmistakably cinematic. He too, I learned, found it easier to articulate his work through imagery. “Sometimes when I make music, I like to envision myself in a certain scenario. Some tracks I picture myself just walking somewhere in the sunset. Some tracks are romantic and shit, so I’m holding hands with someone. Other tracks are mostly inspired by lust.”
When asked to describe his sound, Buli laughed, saying he had “no fucking idea”. Some, he tells me, describe it as “beat-wave chill-tronica”. It’s serene audio-submersion or “music that gives you a nostalgic feeling”, he said.
Buli grew up in Polokwane but later moved to Pretoria, where he now lives with his two older brothers, while studying IT as an undergraduate. “I started getting into producing music when I was 13”, he told me. “My brother’s friend had Fruity Loops and he was producing on it. I was like, ‘Hey, that’s cool’. So I got a copy from somewhere. I don’t remember. Made a few beats. They sucked! Man, I made shit!” But from the moment he touched Fruity Loops, Buli produced music. “I made beats like every day. Even during exams. It’s natural. It’s a habit. If I don’t wanna study and there’s nothing to watch, make beats. Just the idea of being able to put your ideas into something tangible.”
Buli speaks disparagingly of the music he made during his school years. Hearing Vox Portent and Christian Tiger School constituted a creative awakening, sparking experimentation into the ethereal edges of the electronic genre. “At first, obviously you’re nervous about whether people will like your shit or nah. But I’ve realised: there are so many fucking people in the world. Someone’s bound to like your shit.” And sure enough, the young producer has received growing critical attention, having performed at Churn, Grietfest and Oppikoppi.
Having already produced two EP’s (Inner Space and Delusions), July marked the release of Buli’s first LP, Feels: an affecting sonic cartography of the artist’s inner world. His meditative debut features collaborations with Vox Portent, Leeu, Two Lives Left and Amafleur. It is pioneering in its sound, spinning electronic music to its ambient precipice.
The single, ‘Relationships’, offers the album’s axis: glitchy melodic slippage, finally easing into a light, effervescent groove. “The story behind that track is just longing for a relationship. Not necessarily just a relationship, like you’re dating someone. But relationships you have with your friends, parents, all that shit.” We discussed the ordering of the album and he said: “the way I look at music is if it’s dark or warm — how it feels. If you hear, most of the tracks from ‘Lone’ until before ‘Longing’, those tracks are a bit darker. They’re moody and shit. Then from ‘Longing’, it gets a bit happier and then comes down again. I just wanted to tell a story of emotions”.
At the intimate listening session that marked the official LP launch, a third floor studio on Jeppe Street was lit with candles. Flickering kick drum synched with the stutter of each small flame, accompanied by rich harmonics emanating like smoke-trails and hanging in the air. The audience draped themselves over couches and carpet, many with their eyes closed in pristine silence. On the back wall, a muted anime episode, now set to gentle bass cardiogram and subaquatic synth. It was a rare evening, stitched together by the best of Johannesburg’s beats scene, which Buli acknowledges has often struggled to find its performance space in the city. No venue is particularly suited to what beats artists do: ruminative electronic music, weaved by producers, but not intended for ‘the turn-up’.
Buli’s Feels is accompanied by a digital booklet showcasing artwork -inspired by Buli’s soundscapes – by Seth Pimental. Buli’s production, he tells me, is spun from a reel of visual influences. In addition to anime, he also mentions the television series, Adventure Time. The videogame-inspired show shares many worthy comparisons with Buli’s music, the most obvious of which is their shared dreamlike quality. Both are simultaneously childlike and sophisticated, random yet smart, sparse and textured, bizarre but relatable.
When I asked him about his creative process, Buli said: “I can literally produce anywhere so long as I have my laptop. I don’t really have a set environment I like to work in. Sometimes I like making beats when Adventure Time or another Regular Show is on. Sometimes I’ll make a beat outside in the wind.” Creating music had become inculcated into his habitual practice, like brushing one’s teeth, or daily journaling. But more than that, like all the best artists, Buli seemed to create out of necessity — he could not not make music. “When I’m just producing shit, I’ll say ‘nah, it’s cool, I’ll take a week off’ [laughs]. Okay, I really can’t take a week off. Like I’ll say I’ll take a week off, but after the third day I’ll make something.”
I asked Buli how he knew when a track was finished. “I don’t like adding too much”, he told me. “If I’m unsure about a track I’ll come back. But most of the time I’m like, ‘this is done’. I don’t wanna overthink shit. I’m very simple with my production. I make it. I fuck off. Simple.”
Unpretentious? Ostentatious? Naïve?
Either way, Buli is uncomplicated about what he likes, and what he doesn’t. He detests some of his past work, but he’s in equal measure celebratory of the music he makes and likes. Buli’s self-awareness, which reverberates through his music, is both deeply introspective and quickly accessible, enrapturing its audience. “Do you listen to your own stuff?” I asked, “recreationally?” “All the fucking time”, he said. “I don’t get people who are like ‘I don’t listen to my shit’. Why man? It’s fucking awesome”.
As part of the crucial visual presence his music is both inspired by and that it inspires, Jono Kay and Steve Hogg have collaborated on a video for the Leeu-featured single, ‘She’s Not Into Horoscopes’, which is an isupposeja-produced cinematic meander with a young couple and a celestial night city, premiering right here, right now.
To celebrate the video release, the full album is also available for free download for only 24 hours via Buli’s Bandcamp. Cop it before you gotta pay again!