Paul Lester 

Petite Noir (No 1,297)

Never mind the grammar, here's a South African artist making music that is genuinely striking and – just possibly – unique
  
  

Hometown: Cape Town, South Africa.

The lineup: Yannick Iluga (vocals, instruments, production).

The background: As soon as we heard the debut single by Petite Noir we were taken aback, and not because of the French grammatical error in the artist's name, with its lack of adjectival agreement – surely it should be either Petit Noir or Petite Noire? – but because we couldn't make sense of the music. What was that sound? And where did it come from?

It comes from Yannick Ilunga, a 21-year-old South African born in Brussels to a Congolese father and Angolan mother who moved the family to Cape Town when he was six. A former member of South African electro-pop band Popskarr with Spoek Mathambo, today he's part of a crew of hipsters called Capital of Cool as well as a producer and multi-instrumentalist who describes his music as "noir wave" or "new wave with an African aesthetic". Ah, that's what that sound was: the sound of Joy Division's Unknown Pleasures meeting Paul Simon in Graceland.

Iluga grew up listening to "mad R&B type stuff", then Blink 182, Sum 41, Nirvana "and a lot of electronic music". He believes "you can appreciate a Britney song as much as you can appreciate a Radiohead one" and these days enjoys Lil B ("I'm obsessed"), A$AP Rocky, Death Grips, the Weeknd, Drake, Clams Casino, Neon Indian and Morrissey. He especially likes what Dev Hynes is doing as Blood Orange, presumably taking heart from the ex-Test Icicles and Lightspeed Champion man's refusal to conform to anyone's ideas about what sort of recordings a young black musician should create.

On his debut single, Iluga puts darkwave indie through a South African filter, or vice versa. Either way, both elements combine to striking effect on Till We Ghosts. The first three words he sings – in a deep voice that is "soulful" but isn't soul (it's actually closer to Phil Oakey of the Human League's lugubrious baritone) – are "Oh my God", which is exactly how we felt when we heard this. The music has the atmosphere you would expect to be conjured by someone who has always felt like an outsider, someone who has witnessed terrible, tragic, violent things in his young life. He appears to be singing about a failed relationship in the song but he uses the medium of edgy electronic pop to express a more universal sense of anguish and trepidation.

The only recent artist we can recall operating in remotely the same area as this is south London's Dave ID, but apart from that this is pretty much sui generis. The other track on the single, Disappear, is also great, dark, compelling, and even though we've played it, and the "A-side", many times already, we still can't work out if the latter is a de- or reconstruction of the former. Over a dub-noir rhythm, Iluga croons about "the demons trying to take my heart" and "killing for love". It's like Bob Marley if he'd lived in Manchester and worked with A Certain Ratio, and frankly it makes us forget all about that silly little grammatical faux pas. Although it should be Petit Noir.

The buzz: "Post-punk/new wave with a hint of African" – Rolling Stone (South African edition).

The truth: His linguistic shortcomings are more than made up for by his musical strengths.

Most likely to: Add his voice to the sound of the crowd.

Least likely to: Teach French.

What to buy: Till We Ghosts is released by Bad Life on 13 August.

File next to: Dave ID, ACR, Dev Hynes, Kwes.

Links: facebook.com/petitenoir1.

Friday's new band: Josephine.