At a Ballantine’s True Music event in Cape Town, AnOther meets the singer-songwriter who’s fast becoming one of South Africa’s most exciting up-and-coming talents
Sio’s life changed in one short phone call. The South African singer was working at a store at the time, where it was her job to make public announcements – a role that she didn’t enjoy. It was shaping up to be just another average day when she received a phone call from Charles Webster, the legendary British music producer and DJ, who said he’d like to work with her.
She nearly lost it.
“I was like, ‘Oh my God, let me absorb what’s going on ’cause I cannot understand what’s going on’,” she recalls in her thick South African accent, her hands clasped to her face. “It was amazing, I was at the desk at the front of the store when he called, trying not to scream, trying to behave like a normal person so I didn’t get fired.”
“I grew up listening to house, I grew up listening to [Webster’s] music,” she continues. “It was strange to be able to work with him, but it was amazing.”
Fast-forward a couple of years and Sio has now worked with some of the biggest names in South African house music, in addition to Webster, and is being touted as one of the country’s most exciting up-and-coming artists. Today, she’s sitting on a balcony in Langa, Cape Town’s oldest township, where she’s performing a set later this afternoon.
Dressed in a robe-like get-up in all-white, her dreadlocks are swept up into a crown-like bun on top of her head, and two streaks of white paint are splashed across her eyes. She looks part musician, part mystic.
Sio’s performance today comes as part of Ballantine’s True Music Series – we’re here for the final leg of a tour which has seen the whisky brand host parties all over the globe, showcasing the work of Argentine-Spanish contemporary artist Felipe Pantone and of local musicians, too. Today, Sio will perform alongside DJ Kid Fonque, as well as an exciting roster of other South African talent including DJs Leighton Moody, Lawrence Dix, and Soul Cresent from We House Sundays, an electronic music and events collective.
Right now though, she’s talking about her approach to music, which focuses on the art of storytelling. “A lot of my stories are personal,” she says. “Some of them are romantic, some are very unamusing, some are rebellious and against the system. I don’t always agree with the system and so I write about it.” As well as her lyricism, it’s her voice that is picking up attention – distinctive and spine-tinglingly beautiful, it simultaneously makes you want to dance and stand stock-still in complete silence so that you don’t miss a note.
Of course, when she does end up singing, some hours later, the 1,000-strong crowd doesn’t stand still; they break out into dance with an exuberance and enthusiasm that isn’t the result of inebriation, like it would be in the UK, but of freedom – and a very authentic sense of joy.
“My stories are for people who like to dance, but also people who would like to listen to music away from a dance space and they have something to listen to,” Sio says. “So I try to draw stories that are cool, maybe like a fantasy to which you can dance to. That’s always the premise when I start to write.”
Tom Elton, head of music at Ballantine’s, was as excited about Sio as anyone in the audience and waxed lyrical about her talent. “A few days ago I was with some South African guys and they were just raving about her voice,” he says. “But not just her voice, her lyrics too. She epitomises real local talent and what South African music is about now, but also what it’s going to look like in the future.”
While Sio’s future looks bright now, life hasn’t always been easy for the singer. Hailing from Ennerdale, Johannesburg, she had a tough time growing up – she comes from a poor family, was bullied as a child and discouraged from pursuing the arts, despite the fact that that was her passion. However, her compulsion to create – and to tell stories – prevailed and it’s paying off. That said, she’s still upfront about the challenges she faces – particularly as a woman operating within a very male-dominated sphere.
“There are not enough women getting the privilege I am getting and that’s not right,” she says. “The culture, the musical landscape, caters to the producer and the DJ more than the vocalist. I remember I had to go to an awards ceremony where I was nominated but I was not acknowledged though I am part of it. We don’t get seen even though we are always featured and if you are featured you hardly hear your name which people speak of the songs. I am honoured to be here, I’m really honoured, but I don’t like that I am the only girl here. It’s about the music to be fair, and I am fortunate enough to have plugged into the right people by the grace of the universe, but there is a problem. It’s challenging. It always is.”
In spite of these challenges though, Sio seems destined for stardom and, while she’s not religious, she does feel aware of a force greater than herself guiding her path – and her music, too. “I don’t think I am a coincidence, I don’t believe in coincidences. I believe that there is a plan, sometimes I am with it and sometimes I am against it. I don’t know how a girl from where I am from – look up Ennerdale – could be associated with the likes of Charles Webster. I don’t think that’s a coincidence. I didn’t make my voice, I didn’t make my ability to make music, I don’t know where the words come from half the time. It’s spiritual.”
Supremely talented and with a voice as beautiful as her soul is deep, Sio is bound for success. And she deserves every bit of it.