Ention of SA jazz
Ser,s artist and pianist Thandi Ntuli will return to the stage during April’s e up and up, her album, her band, her brand of jazz, and patriarchy in the industry
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Ntuli’s journey with music, however, began at a young age and is down to her mother’s influence.
“I don’t know if it’s my first musical memory, but one of the early ones was when I was young and playing piano in competitions. I was always afraid to go on stage,” she says. “I started playing piano at the age of four, but these memories are from when I was six or seven.”
She used to hold on to her mother’s dress tightly, she says. “I can’t remember what she used to say, but somehow she would coax me to go on stage.
“My mom loves the piano, so she tried to get all three of my older siblings to play, but she started quite late with them.
“I was the last born and someone told her you have to start young – so she decided that this one ... this one is going to do it.
“I hated most of it, but I eventually started enjoying it,” she says. “It was a chore. My mom used to threaten me – that if I didn’t practise she would stop sending me to lessons. And then I would practise, so I guess I loved it the whole time. I just didn’t like the chore.
“In high school, I was starting to lose track when practising; I would end up on a tangent, trying to make up my own songs,” she says. “So I realised that I had an interest in writing music and that I could make a career out of it.”
When I ask her how she got into jazz, she laughs.
“Jazz was a mistake,” she says. “I had a gap year after school and I went to the UK, where I met a self-taught pianist and I couldn’t understand how he was playing such beautiful music when he couldn’t read music.
“He told me that he was improvising and, if I wanted to learn how to do that, jazz was a great place to learn,” she says. “So I thought: I am studying that. Improvisation made it seem possible to compose.”
Coming back to the present, Ntuli feels that it is a “really exciting time” for jazz in Johannesburg.
“A lot of it has to do with having a live jazz venue in Johannesburg in the form of The Orbit,” she says.
“Before The Orbit, there was only Nicki’s Oasis and the Afrikan Freedom Station.”
The Afrikan Freedom Station has played an important role in nurturing a generation of young bandleaders and composers who can now step on to a new stage at The Orbit. Ntuli is quick to acknowledge this. “The thing with the Freedom Station is it allows you to be as crazy as you want,” she says. “There are certain spaces that allow the artist to be completely themselves.”
The album artwork for The Offering is by artist Mzwandile Buthelezi.
He has also contributed artwork to albums by Benjamin Jephta and The Amandla Freedom Ensemble (an institution at the African Freedom Station), as well as for the recent Born to be Black event at The Orbit, featuring Andile Yenana and Louis Moholo.
“I actually approached Bra Steve Kwena from African Freedom Station to do my album art and he said, ‘I know exactly the guy,’” recalls Ntuli. “So he put me in touch, and Mzwandile said he had always wanted to do album art.
“He said he learnt to draw while looking at his dad’s jazz records. In some way, I think it was destined for him.”
I ask her about the importance of his work in creating a singular visual identity around a new young generation of jazz composers and bandleaders.
“It was an organic thing,” she says. “They say when people are thinking the same things, they get drawn to each other.”
Ntuli finds herself at the centre of a fascinating time of reinvention and rediscovery in South African jazz, drawing inspiration from the talented young musicians surrounding her.
We watch her with bated breath, for her star is rising, and it is rising fast.
Catch Ntuli at the Cape Town International Jazz Festival on the Moses Molelekwa Stage on
Saturday April 2 at 9.15pm
SWV NDUDUZO MAKHATHINI’S LISTENING
GROUND EDDIE PARKER
DEDICATED Thandi Ntuli will be performing at the upcoming Cape Town International Jazz festival