Thandi Ntuli: On Exile

Thandi Ntuli: On Exile

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We are a very anxious generation, because on one hand there are so many opportunities and possibilities, but on the other hand, there's so much chaos and unresolved, underlying tension.
—Thandi Ntuli
South African pianist, composer, and vocalist Thandi Ntuli entered 2018 not with a bang, but with a thermonuclear blast. At the close of 2017, she had been selected as the recipient of the 2018 Standard Bank Young Artist Award in Jazz, anointing her as the latest figure in an incredible lineage of South African Jazz artists to receive the honor. For any artist, that award alone would serve as a marker for a banner year. However, Ntuli also opened 2018 with the release of her second album Exiled, an ambitious, genre-melding treasure. Highlighting her prodigious keyboard work as well as her incredibly compelling compositional skills, Exiled also offered listeners a deeper look into Ntuli's superb vocal work, and even gave hints of highly charismatic pop sensibilities in her work.

All About Jazz: You grew up in a musical household and studied classically, and you have mentioned in other interviews that Jazz came later for you. How did you get introduced to it?

Thandi Ntuli: My study of Jazz actually began because after I finished high school. I took a break and went for a gap year. I used to practice my classical pieces, and then I'd feel bored and try to write songs. So my interest was actually in writing songs, but I just didn't have the tools. I didn't know how to go about it, I didn't know how someone got to a full composition. So, when I met someone on my gap year who was playing the piano and improvising, having come from a classical background and being used to seeing music in front of me, that was odd for me. I asked, "How are you making this music up on the spot?" He said, "Well, I'm improvising." I was alarmed by this: he was improvising, but it sounded like a well-written and thought-out composition! He said I should have a look at Jazz music, and that's when Jazz actually started solidifying as an idea for me to consider.

By the time I got to UCT [University of Cape Town]—having applied for university but deferring my entrance to the year after—I actually told them that I wasn't sure how to go about it, but I couldn't do a BMus General—which would focus on classical music—and that I needed to study Jazz. They gave me a chance. The head of the department at the time, Andrew Lilley, gave me a few songs to listen to, and write a sort of review, so to speak. That was my "audition," because I told them I couldn't play Jazz, I didn't know what improvising was, I couldn't play any standards, so I couldn't do a normal audition. But based on that, they let me into the Jazz course.

AAJ: There would have been an intensive catch-up period for you, then. How did you approach it?

TN: I came from a classical background; in terms of the discipline of practicing, that was not foreign to me. What was difficult was actually being told all the time that you have to choose what your taste is. And that was really difficult for me to kind of solidify how I'm supposed to go about practicing and what I'm supposed to practice, because it was very different from what I was used to.

But I was taught that transcribing music and studying the transcriptions would probably be the easiest way for me. I related to that because it was something that was tangible: you listen to a record that you like, you listen to a solo, then you transcribe the solo. You try and emulate what has been done, and you learn from that. I would say transcribing was my way of catching up, and I actually think for me it's probably one of the fastest ways to learn, because you're applying all faculties of the actual music. You're listening to music, you are internalizing the harmony, you're internalizing the melodies and the feel of the music, all in one. So I think that's what accelerated my catching up.

AAJ: Who were you transcribing at that point?

TN: Definitely McCoy Tyner. I was drawn to him. I was drawn to Keith Jarrett too, but I didn't transcribe him really, because my piano teacher at the time was also trying to guide my transcriptions to go further back into the earlier parts of the tradition. So with McCoy Tyner, he was also introducing me to Thelonious Monk and Bud Powell. Those were the early introductions.

AAJ: You ultimately were offered a scholarship to attend the Berklee College of Music, but opted not to take it. Can you talk about the decision to remain in South Africa to continue your work?

TN: The decision was basically because of a few factors. The scholarship itself was not a full scholarship, and also there was no guarantee on where I'd be placed, the syllabus being so different at Berklee. Because of that, as well as the financial strain it would take to go to Berklee, I decided to stay in South Africa. My piano teacher advised me, saying that with music, it's not necessarily where you study as much as it is about the energy or the vibe of what's happening musically in those places. At the time, Cape Town was really buzzing with incredible pianists. In college, the guys who were my seniors were Bokani Dyer and Kyle Shepherd, and Cape Town had some great musicians in general as a city. Cape Town's got amazing musicians! It was just weighing the pros and cons of leaving a place that's quite vibrant to go somewhere where I wouldn't know if I'd be starting over again.

AAJ: So as we start to move forward into the 2010s, obviously we have a wonderful moment when you released your debut album The Offering. Can you talk about that album?

TN: The Offering was a collection of songs that I had written over time, as I was in the university, while I was practicing, again coming back to the fact that I was really drawn to learning how to compose. I was starting to make up my own melodies, having gotten a bit of information on Jazz harmony and on writing songs along the way. I had been postponing recording before I finally decided to go into studio, because I had never felt ready. Finally, someone just said, "Look, a CD is literally like a business card, a documentation of a certain period in your life or a certain period in your artistic journey. Don't overthink it too much, if you've got the music, record this period in time and continue growing."

I called it The Offering, because I felt that with all the stuff that goes on in my head about not being ready to record yet, ultimately I did have something that I could offer. That was what that was what really pushed me to record, just to give what I have and carry on with my growth.

AAJ: To that end, you frame The Offering in the liner notes with Mark 12:41-44: ..."then a poor widow came along and dropped in two little copper coins, worth about a penny...I tell you that this poor widow put more in the offering box than all the others. For the others put in what they had to spare of their riches, but she, poor as she is, put in all she had."

TN: I love that quote because it's not so much about how much you actually have to give and eventually give, but how much you sacrifice in your giving and therefore how much love is at the essence of your giving that ultimately makes what you offer so special. So I think that's what I love about that quote, and that was the essence of The Offering.

AAJ: In terms of the music on the album, the two-track piece "Uz'ubuye" seems to serve as a centerpiece. It opens with your beautiful piano introduction, before bringing in the full band. Can you talk about that piece, and that decision to split it into two tracks?

TN: I was with someone at the time, and he was traveling a lot. "Uz'ubuye" means "until you come back" in Zulu. So the first part of it really was just the lament of missing someone. That second part is when it becomes joyful when the person returns, and so I split it because of that. But I also wanted to have an actual solo piano piece on the album. What I found very interesting with playing Jazz—having come from a classical background where everything was dependent on me playing the piano—the songs I wrote now didn't create the same space for me to be the pianist that I was used to being. Playing with an ensemble requires a sensibility to others that is not there in solo playing. So I did want to include that characteristic of the instrument, which I so love as well.

AAJ: One of the other tracks that really leaps out is "Sangare." It was intriguing, in part due to its reference to Oumou Sangaré, but also in the way you incorporate wordless vocals into the piece. I know you explore that quite a bit more on Exiled, but it's an interesting preview that's happening here. Can you talk about that song, and the decision to reference Oumou Sangare?

TN: Well, it was actually a celebration of Oumou Sangare, because I got my first introduction to her music when I was at university. I had grown up knowing a bit about Salif Keita and had been introduced to Malian music, but there was something about her music that really struck a chord with me. I think I really connected to her music. I went through a serious period of overplaying her music, honestly! The funny thing is that I also noticed how amazing it was for me to connect so deeply to the music, even though I don't understand lyrically what she's saying. I didn't know what it meant, but it didn't really matter to me.

Another artist that also introduced the concept of wordless singing for me is Bheki Mseleku. He did that a lot, and I think it adds a very beautiful quality to the music. The voice can say so much, even when there are no words. That's what I wanted to explore. It's also strange for me. I notice how different my voice sounds when there are words versus when there are no words. The quality of my voice is very different in both setups and I kind of like the one with no words!

AAJ: One artist who spoke at length about Oumou Sangare was Zim Ngqawana. He'd liken her to John Coltrane.

TN: Oh man, she's incredible. There's just so much rhythm in her, in her music. There are times when I've listened to the music, and I'm hearing a different key signature because I'm focusing on the bass, and then there are times that I'm hearing a different key signature because I'm focused on what she's doing with her voice.

I actually think rhythm is probably my favorite aspect of music, or at least the one I'm most drawn to. I love melodies, I love harmony, but I'm just such a huge fan of rhythm. I've said many times, that I wish I were a drummer. It's amazing, because it flows so much. It doesn't sound like it's doing that much movement, but there's so much movement and flow in her music.

AAJ: Given your thoughts about rhythm, can we jump to your new album Exiled, and specifically your collaboration with percussionist Tlale Makhene on the tracks "Abyssinia"?

TN: They were inspired by my first trip to Ethiopia in 2015, and also my introduction to Ethiopian music. It had a sort of magnetism similar to what I experienced with Malian music upon my first introduction. What I enjoy in Ethiopian music—mainly reflected in "Abyssinia (Intro)"—is how the music will have a few bars in one meter and then a random one with a different meter. Then it goes back and forth, and maintains a symmetry to it. I love the complexity of it, yet somehow it doesn't sound like it's that complex.

I think Tlale Makhene is such a under-celebrated artist in South Africa, and it meant a lot for me to have worked with him. He's worked with a lot of my personal heroes. I've played with him on different gigs, and he's taught me a lot. He has such an in-depth knowledge of African history, African music, and different rhythms. What he added to the music was the kind of thing that I'm attracted to in all those styles of music: the many layers of rhythms that are simple, but when they come together are very complex.

AAJ: Within the album as a whole, can you talk about how you approach this idea of "exile"? On the record, you cover a wide number of themes, and address them through a mixture of instrumentals, spoken word, wordless vocals, and sung lyrics. The liner notes also incorporate text selections that comment on the music. There's an integrated quality to all of it. How did you decide upon doing it that way?

TN: I think with Exiled, it was a very intuitively created piece of work. A lot of things were happening in my personal life, but a lot of things were happening around me too that greatly influenced my writing and thinking. One of the songs on the album, "Rainbow (Skit)," I wrote at the end of 2015 during the Fees Must Fall movement. It was the night before we went to the Union Buildings for the march, and I was asking myself, "What is this march going to do?" I had this sense of feeling helpless and questioning the effectiveness of the very response I had chosen for something I believed in. I still went to the march, but I guess it was me asking myself questions about whether this would really help, if we were speaking to an audience that's listening.

What I realized is that Exiled a very layered album, triggered by personal experiences, many things happening in the country, and my processing it. There's been a lot of tension and anxiety in our country, but I think it's a global phenomenon too. Women are speaking out a lot more about issues of sexual harassment and rape. There have just been so many stories of killings of women in South Africa. In South Africa the highest cause of unnatural death for women is at the hands of a lover, or ex-lover. That still blows my mind. Women are going missing, and it's almost like these stories are falling on deaf ears, because it doesn't seem like anything is being done.

So coming back to the title, there are so many things that we experience in our current South Africa that are tied into some of the traumas that have been experienced in the past, traumas we have not healed from, traumas that play themselves out in our interpersonal relationships, that play themselves out in our relationship with ourselves. All this leaves us feeling displaced and "exiled." I think these essentially speak to the fact that as a nation, there's still a lot of spiritual angst that is experienced in our day-to-day lives. That's my way of thinking about it, layered. It's ultimately why I feel "Exiled" as a title deeply resonated with me.

AAJ: Let's look at ways you address that in the music. If we look at a piece like "The Void," which splits into two tracks that bookend the first CD, we have in the first track your spoken word, and in the concluding track Lebo Mashile's spoken word. They seem to serve as complementary texts to one another. Can you talk about how that came together?

TN: The intro was actually was supposed to be for the song "The Void," but I wasn't happy with it. I'm not a poet; I write things, but I'm not a poet. By that I mean that my strength is not in the way I deliver spoken word, though I appreciate that as a craft. I decided to seek out a few people who I think are great poets, to contribute to that. One person who I did seek out—and I did quote him in the liner notes—was Dr. Wally Serote. He was speaking at an event that I went to, as he had received a prize. One of the things that he said in passing was that the story of black men still needs to be properly told in South Africa. I was very intrigued by that. I wanted to pick his brain on that, and I hunted him down with the help of a few synchronistic events!

Eventually I managed to get coffee with him and told him that I was putting this project together, that I thought the way men and women of color relate to each other in South Africa is very deeply rooted in our past, and that we haven't really addressed that. We just sort of deal with it as though it is a waking issue. I told him that and I told him what I'm working on, and asked him for his views. He gave me full two hours of his views, different stories, and experiences that sort of confirmed the fact that there really is a systematic violence on black men, on black women, and ultimately on the black family and community. He didn't, however, want to write a poem for the track because the stories he shared were too personal. Instead, he said he would help me with artistic guidance where needed.

I eventually came across a talk of Lebo Mashile's on YouTube, a TEDTalk that she gave called "Memory Matters." After watching it, I knew she was the one to collaborate with! She had an incredible way of articulating things that I struggled to articulate myself. So I contacted her. I reached out on Facebook and asked her if she'd be open to this. She agreed to meet up to chat more in depth about this, and thereafter I sent her the original that I wrote (and later made into the Intro for the album). I told her that I'd love her to do whatever she wants that would speak to the essence of "The Void." She told me that she actually had something that she'd written that would complement the essence of the song. That's how it came about.

AAJ: Another wonderful—though very different—moment on the album that stands out is "It's Complicated," featuring a duet between Vuyo Sotashe and yourself. Can you talk about that?

TN: Firstly, I included this piece thinking, "Look, this album is heavy, so I could add something lighter feeling!" I think it was also more directly related to the experiences that I was going through personally. Vuyo and I went to UCT together, and I remember when we were in UCT, we used to just hang out in the practice rooms and sing together. I told him that I'd love for him to record a track with me. He's based in New York right now, so I sent him files. He went into a studio that side, and he sent me back a lot of stems that I did a lot of editing on this side. It really worked out, which I was really happy about because I had been anxious about that. It was great for us. Spha Mdlalose also does backing vocals on that song as well, and she used to sing with us too. I mean, we're not all in the same room, but it's like we're singing together again. So it was like coming full circle.

AAJ: A striking aspect about Exiled is the degree to which your singing voice is placed front and center. Can you talk about that?

TN: I felt that the experiences were so close to me that I needed to be the one to sing them. There were parts of this album that were very much approached like a pop album. Moments where I just wanted to write a song with a message, and that's it. "New Way" was one of those songs, and I thought that being the one to sing these songs would probably bring out the emotions and the feelings that I was hoping to bring across.

AAJ:There were was hints of this in The Offering, but Exiled really highlights your ability to take many genres of music and weave them together into a unified vision. Can you talk about that decision to adopt this very broad look into the Diaspora of the music?

TN: It's just who I am. I'm influenced by a lot of different types of music. Like I said, Jazz really only became a very conscious part of my life in 2007. So there are many influences that I have. Even if I'm writing a song that's influenced by Mali, I always want the music to sound influenced by it, but not like I'm trying to emulate it or copy it. I always want it to sound like it's my song, but allow for people to be able to pick up the influences. I think the reason lots of genres filter through is because I listen to a lot of different music, not just Jazz, and that's naturally who I am.

AAJ: If I'm not mistaken, you've served as producer on some House projects. What was that experience like?

TN: I was actually a co-producer. Sir LSG is a great House DJ and producer. He approached me, and asked if I would be keen to work with him. I had met him before, and we had worked with people in the same circle, not necessarily with each other. He liked the work that I had done, I liked stuff of his that I had heard, and that's how it came together. It took quite a long time to put together, because he's a perfectionist. There were some songs that had a few versions and I'd be like, "This is great," and he'd be unhappy with it, would come up with a different version of the song, and we'd start again. But he put a lot into that project, which was really great to be a part of it.

AAJ: Returning to Exiled, can we talk about the closing track, "Cosmic Light"? In terms of closing out this album, it's tackling a lot of different issues. There's an interesting set of images that you're using in the piece: the line "release your peace and take us homeward" contrasts with the line "I can taste your freedom, though I'm never free." That might create an ambiguous, layered ending. Was that a deliberate choice to conclude that way?

TN: It was a deliberate choice to end with that song, because I felt like it completed the entire picture of Exiled. I don't think my aim was to solve any of the problems or issues that I brought up. It really is me just working through things and expressing the fact that there is this unsettledness I'd been feeling. I feel that most of it is something that goes back to being spiritually destabilized, and maybe those are some of the effects of oppression, even in terms of things that we've inherited indirectly from the experiences of our parents. I think it speaks to what I've noticed about our current generation. We are a very anxious generation, because on one hand there are so many opportunities and possibilities, but on the other hand, there's so much chaos and unresolved, underlying tension. A lot of things are very unsure now. It's something that I have come across with many people I've spoken to. Our generation just feels so unsettled and uneasy.

AAJ: Prior to the album's release, you had the exciting news of receiving the Standard Bank Young Artists Award.

TN: It's great! It came by surprise. You know those days when you're dipping, thinking, "Why am I doing this?" The announcement came after one of those days, and I was just so taken aback because I was just not expecting it. I was really humbled by it, and it's been a great ride. It sounds weird, but it's nice to have the attention of a bigger audience. I mean that in terms of the fact that people now somehow take you a little bit more seriously, or a larger audience has an interest in "what you do" now that you have the Standard Bank Award behind you. I'm honored to think that I'm part of the many artists that have received this award, especially pianists. There have been incredible pianists who've received this award.

AAJ: Where are you envisioning your next steps going?

TN: I would like to do some projects that maybe move into the chamber direction musically. I've got ideas of things that I still think are a little bit far away because of the research I'd still like to do for those projects, but I'm hoping to do some collaborative projects in the coming year or so.

One thing I would like to do is on Exiled, the song "Rainbow (Skit)," which ended up being a skit. But if you were to see on my Garage Band files, I've got about six versions of that song because I could never decide how I wanted it to evolve! So I think I might expand on that song as well, and actually recorded as a proper song with a live band...at some point.

Selected Discography:
Thandi Ntuli, The Offering, (Self Released, 2014)
Lex Futshane, Innocent Victms & Perpetrators, (Lexido Productions, 2014)
Thandi Ntuli, Exiled, (Self Released, 2018)

Photo Credit: Siphiwe Mhlambi

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