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Thandi Ntuli: On Exile

Thandi Ntuli: On Exile
Seton Hawkins By

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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.
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