Neo was born in Soweto, Johannesburg, into a family of musicians and makers of the Mozambican Timbila (precursor to the marimba). He studied the Italian Madrigal tradition with choral maestro, Piero Poclen, in Trieste, Italy.
His knowledge of African musical forms, combined with his studies of the western classical tradition, have resulted in a range of compositions fusing those traditions and placing him at the forefront of the South African avant garde.
In the mid 90’s he co-founded the acoustic pop duo, BLK Sonshine with Masauko Chipembere, garnering a following throughout Southern Africa and internationally. He continues to tour widely both as a solo performer and in various band guises.
Neo co-curates the Pan African Space Station, which he co-founded in 2008 with Chimurenga’s publishing editor, Ntone Edjabe. The Station is a continually evolving host of cutting-edge pan African music and sound art, on the internet and across stages in Cape Town and other parts of the globe.
Neo was also a member of the curatorial team for the Cape Town World Design Capital 2014 campaign, a fellow of the Aspen global leadership initiative and a research fellow at the Centre for Humanities Research at the Univerity of the Western Cape.
He recently completed a six-month writing fellowship from Wiser-Duke University, for a creative artist who usually works outside a university environment.
His innovative operetta The Flower of Shembe is a landmark piece, his cantata profana based on a poem by Antjie Krog radical and moving, and his recent collaboration with William Kentridge exhibits what poet Ingrid de Kock describes as a “unique combination of Dada disruptive energy, lyrical depth and sweetness”.
Neo’s most recent research involved the key symbolic text “Nkosi sikele’ iAfrika” as well as other liberation songs. He also composed an opera on Nelson Mandela, the story of which spans a few ‘missing’ hours on the day of his final release from prison, between walking through the prison gates outside the town of Paarl, and appearing on the balcony of the Cape Town City Hall.
Neo’s work is infused with the quest to understand the relation of aesthetics to political life and the life of the citizen, to the vexed issue of African “identity” and to fascinating technical and philosophical questions – for instance about the relation between language, song, dance and image.
With thanks to Ingrid de Kok. (Updated, March 2016)