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Studio Africa: Yannick Ilunga

Petite Noir is the recording name of South Africa’s Yannick Ilunga who is championing a new musical movement

“It’s like new wave but with an African aesthetic. It’s a cross between both worlds; it’s a worldly thing,” says singer and musician Yannick Ilunga of ‘noirwave’, the name he’s given to the music he makes as Petite Noir. With only a handful of singles under his belt he’s already caught the ear of the international music press, who've called him “Joy Division meets Paul Simon in Graceland... striking and unique”.

“I never really forced the way I sound,” says Yannick. “Before I even listened to Joy Division or anything like that people used to say I sounded like Depeche Mode. I was like, maybe I should listen to those bands.” While he was born in Belgium his family moved to Cape Town when he was three. His dad is Congolese, his mother is Angolan and his family speak French at home hence the stage name he chose. Of its unusual spelling he says: “Petite is the female form of petit - I found ‘petit’ kind of boring so I called it petite. And noir usually has an ‘e’ at the end but I took that out.” So it’s like the masculine and feminine together? “Exactly,” says Yannick with a smile. “It keeps people taking.”

He has always been into music. “People probably expected me to like rap when I was younger. But I was never into that. I hated pop. I was into metal and rock,” he says with a sparkle in his eye. “It was Blink 182 and Sum 41 and stuff at first. And then the deeper I got into it the harder I got, y’know. I started listening to a lot of post-hardcore type stuff.” He learned how to play guitar around that time and believes it really helped him because “obviously the metal stuff is a bit more technical. I’m really thankful for those years because it’s taught me so much about making music that some other people will never see.”

As he got older his music taste naturally broadened: “I sort of learned to keep my mind open whereas before I was always fighting it. Now it’s like my mind has exploded.” With that openness in mind he started Petite Noir as a solo project after a spell in a band called Popskarr with a friend. “I think one thing that I am good at is blending,” he says. “At the end of ‘Disappear’ I have a guitar harmony which I learned from playing the metal stuff and I have a bit of a new wave-y bassline with the African shuffle with the new rave-y type of synths and the R&B-ish type of voice. It’s a whole mixture. Same as ‘Till We Ghosts’. The structure is a pop structure but it’s all types of things put together.”

With an album and tour plans in the works, Yannick has his eyes fixed on the future - not just for himself but for a whole generation. “I want a lot of things to progress. I want music to progress. That’s why I started this noirwave thing. I want things to move forward. Some things in Africa a lot of people think are unreachable. What I’m trying to do is set a new standard. Today I woke up and checked my Twitter and a French radio station had called Petite Noir the savior of South African music. I was like, if this is really what people are thinking then I’m obviously on the right track. All I really want is for a whole generation of people to progress with me.”