Thandi and the reinve
After being well received at last year’s Standard Bank National Jazz Festival in Grahamstown, composs Cape Town International Jazz Festival. Over coffee, she chatted to about her career, which is on the
want to talk about South African jazz and the patriarchy,” I tell Thandi Ntuli, sitting across from her in a coffee shop in Norwood, Johannesburg, last week. Ntuli smiles and then laughs. “Sips tea,” she says as she raises her cup to her lips. But it’s just a pretence at avoiding the subject. “I do think that women are being seen more as instrumentalists and bandleaders now,” she says. “They are not just being seen as singers.”
On April 2, Ntuli will take to the stage at the Cape Town International Jazz Festival as a bandleader, performing her own compositions from her gorgeous album, The Offering, which was released in 2014.
“There is definitely still a lot of [sexism],” she says. “‘You play so well for a girl,’ or ‘You should meet Thandi, she is the best female pianist in the country.’ I mean really, did they have to go there?”
We chat about Siya Makuzeni being recognised as the Standard Bank Young Jazz Artist for 2016, although that recognition is “long overdue”.
We also discuss the fact that in South African jazz, there are still only a handful of progressive bandleaders who give opportunities to women.
Bandleaders such as Feya Faku, Carlo Mombelli and Marcus Wyatt, and the younger generation represented by Nduduzo Makhathini and Tumi Mogorosi, are the exceptions rather than the rule.
Ntuli moved to Johannesburg in 2013, a few years after she finished her four years of studying jazz piano at the University of Cape Town.
In 2008, she was offered a scholarship to study at the Berklee College of Music in Boston in the US, but chose to stay in South Africa and complete her studies.
She says Berklee is a massive school and she felt she might find that she was not getting as much attention as she needed.
Ultimately, Ntuli does not regret her decision, as she thinks it is all about the “environment that you are cultivated in”.
In 2013, Thandiswa Mazwai announced that she was forming an all-female band. Ntuli auditioned and was selected.
“That’s what brought me up to Joburg,” she says. “I haven’t looked back.”
She played with Mazwai between 2013 and 2015, during which she learnt a lot and grew into her career, but she was also making her own moves at the same time.
Ntuli wanted to get into the studio and record her own compositions.
She had a band of musicians lined up, which included guitarist Keenan Ahrends, bassist Benjamin Jephta, drummer Sphelelo Mazibuko, vocalist Spha Mdlalose, trumpeter Marcus Wyatt and saxophonists Sisonke Xonti and Mthunzi Mvubu.
“Benjamin and I met at university,” says Ntuli. “When I first started playing live, it was with a trio, with Benjamin on bass and a drummer called Ruben.
“We had a musical chemistry,” she says. “He always brought a lot to the table and is a fantastic bass player.”
Another varsity friend is Xonti, a saxophonist Ntuli has played with often.
Speaking about drummer Mazibuko, Ntuli says: “I saw him at a gig. I thought he was a fantastic drummer, but he didn’t live in Johannesburg. When he moved to Johannesburg, I was like, ‘Hallelujah!’”
“With Marcus Wyatt, I played in his youth band in 2013 at Grahamstown. I revered him, but then I met him and realised he was chilled and interested in working with younger musicians.
“Mthunzi Mvubu has a distinct sound and he is always trying to grow and get better.” With the band lined up, she hit the studio. “I went into the studio without the money,” says Ntuli. “I had agreed with everyone what they were getting paid and that they were happy to be paid later.
“I applied for a lot of funding, but I didn’t get any of it. Time was passing and I didn’t have
Jazz musician Thandi Ntuli plays piano with gusto
SHAKING UP THE STATUS QUO Thandi Ntuli says female band leaders are still in short supply