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In her native South Africa, 29-year-old folk-rock singer Karma-Ann Swanepoel was a smashing success. At age 21, she soared to the top of her country's charts with her band Henry Ate, winning numerous awards, giving concerts to crowds of 45,000, and touring with other South African pop stars like Johnny Clegg. But when she moved to Fort Lauderdale in late 2003 in search of international success with her newly formed group Karma, she went back to square one.
A few weeks ago at Miami's Luna Star Café, Swanepoel sang her heart out to about 21 people -- including herself, her backup guitarist, and the bartenders. Perched atop a barstool, the pixie-like blond swung her spindly legs and flopped her Converse-clad feet like a shy kid. But when she sang, she blossomed into a mature rock diva, delicately balancing the vulnerable lyrics of a romantic troubadour with her hard-driving acoustic guitar playing.
"I like to think music that offers the audience emotional direction is making a comeback," Swanepoel said at the show.
Much of the music she was reviving that night came from Henry Ate, who she says sounded like the Cranberries but took more creative risks. She explained to the audience that these songs were not the result of her coming of age in her early 20s but rather in preparation for it.
"I used to write songs about situations I could imagine being in, but sometimes when the day arrived, I wasn't too happy about it," she said before launching into "Honestly Honest," a song about a painful breakup. The experience clearly still smarted. She fixed her gaze on the back wall of the café as she struggled to steady her sweet, clear voice.
After the performance, Swanepoel, who began playing guitar at age 6, explains that it is her emotional vulnerability that first captured the hearts of her "relentlessly honest and passionate" South African compatriots back in 1996, when she and Henry Ate released their debut album, Slap in the Face. At the time, she was a timid but headstrong artist with an incessant need to express her ideas. She was in her second year of philosophy studies when music producers discovered her performing in a coffeehouse.
While she was in Europe celebrating her college graduation, her first album became an overnight success, and she returned home to be bombarded with autograph requests. Soon afterward, her face was plastered across magazine covers nationwide and she was winning numerous honors, including 1998 Pop Album of the Year at the South African Music Awards for her solo debut as Karma, One Day Soon.
"In my little world, that was huge," Swanepoel says. Still, sometime around last year, she realized she needed larger markets to grow as an artist. So she relocated to South Florida, joining several South African friends who had moved here. "I thought, 'You can sit here and live this good life, but you can't get bigger because South Africa has a very low glass ceiling,'" she says.
Swanepoel says that being signed with EMI South Africa hasn't helped much, since record companies tend to work independently of one another in each country. Last year, she left the conglomerate to form her own label, Ate Music Productions (AMP), and released Seven Songs independently. Although her South Florida audience is much smaller than the one she left, she appreciates that a handful of locals have come to relate to her music. "Being here is a wonderful lesson in making me aware of the passion that I actually have for singing," she says.
Meanwhile, Swanepoel has formed a backing band that continues her quest for "open-ended musical experimentation." She stole compatriot Cristiaan Wood, 25, from South Africa's John Philip Band because she couldn't find a local guitarist who fit her style. He moved here this summer. Then she picked up Zambian-American bass player Stephen Calderalo, 21, and Cuban-American drummer Daniel de la Fe, 31, both native to Miami. Together, they are testing out a mix of African-influenced folk rock and Latin and Caribbean rhythms.
"We're all extremes," Swanepoel says, "but that makes it exciting."
Wood agrees, adding, "We come from a country which is the coming-together point of so many cultures, so you have to learn to like people for what they are."
For Swanepoel and Wood, members of a generation of South Africans who witnessed the abolition of apartheid, embracing cultural diversity is now second nature. Although Swanepoel sings of poverty and injustice, gives money to children's charities, and runs a nonprofit "development school" through AMP that gives music industry training to six singer/songwriters a year, she's from an era that is more focused on building personal relationships than joining a political campaign.
"I don't have an agenda," she says. "I simply write about feelings, which are something that unites all of us." Therefore, she is not the least surprised that her followers in South Africa are a cross section of blacks, whites, and Asians. And they're still keenly interested in her. During most of her week, Swanepoel pounds the pavement looking for concert venues. But Fridays are for answering mail from fans back home. "I answer every letter personally, even if it takes me until Saturday morning to finish," she says.
Swanepoel hopes this strategy can help her conquer the U.S. market. After all, she heard that another South African transplant, Dave Matthews, had about a million people on his mailing list before he negotiated a major-label record deal.