There is something about the sights and sounds of South Africa that acts as a muse for artists, from the Graceland album by Paul Simon to the latest work by Idris Elba. The impact of South African culture was no different for Nicolay, of the SoulBounce-certified collective The Foreign Exchange, who used it as the creative spark for his latest solo project, City Lights Vol. 3: Soweto. As with City Lights Vol. 2: Shibuya, which contains his musical reflections on Tokyo, Soweto is Nicolay’s vessel to articulate the richness of his South African experience. While some people show you travel photos after their journeys, Nicolay shares stories with beautiful instrumentals.
City Lights Vol. 3: Soweto is grounded in a combination of soulful house and electronic sounds, along with Nicolay’s distinctive interpretation of South African percussive sounds. The album fluctuates between a vibrant house music experience to much more subdued mid- to downtempo cuts that at certain points almost take on ambient vibes. The more vibrant side is found on tracks like “Tomorrow,” “It’s in the Way You Smile” and the sonically fluid and rich “Day Dreams,” which is reminiscent of the music of Roy Ayers.
“Aurora” and “The Chase” reflect the more chilled out tracks on the album, the former bringing a more synthesizer-based approach and the latter housing rhythms that take us back to the early days of The Foreign Exchange’s first release, Connected.
The South African influence is sprinkled throughout with interludes spoken in Zulu dialect. However, it is most prominently felt on the track “Sun Rings/Uprising.” Nicolay’s ability to honor South African musical tradition on this track without just copying its style gives this and the record as a whole a much appreciated sense of authenticity.
The best part of the album, though, are the collaborations with +FE crew members Phonte Coleman, Carmen Rodgers and Tamisha Waden, of course. While their vocals are sparse on the album, when they do come in, they’re a treat for the eardrums. This holds particularly true with Phonte’s contributions on the “Brightest Star,” an infectious and lively soulful house track, and “The Secret,” a dance track dripping with electronic funk.
City Lights Vol. 3: Soweto is a dynamic instrumental album. In fact, it’s the type of album a DJ would play as a restaurant or lounge transitions into a club venue. It’s also the perfect precursor to the highly anticipated Tales From The Land of Milk and Honey, with the whole FE crew, coming out next month.