SBYA Thandi Ntuli: messenger of cosmic light

Waves of cosmic light are likely to be beaming across Grahamstown next year after the selection of pianist, composer and vocalist Thandi Ntuli as the 2018 Standard Bank Young Artist for jazz. Cosmic Light is, of course, the title of the breakout single recently released by Ntuli (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ikoR9LecR5M ; https://store.cdbaby.com/cd/thandintuli2 ) as a teaser for her upcoming second album, Exiled. Cosmic Light signals movement from her 2014 debut, The Offering. There, the arrangements (based on compositions from her time at UCT studying for a B. Mus in jazz composition) were horn-led, with spaces for jazz piano solos that were recognisably ‘in the tradition’. Now, Ntuli is working more with the Fender keyboard, and using her voice more – not only, she has pointed out, in the classic sense of jazz singing – although there are lyrics – but “playing around with using the voice” (https://www.1africa.tv/interview/thandi-ntuli-interview/ ) as an additional sonic texture.

THandi

When I first reviewed The Offering, I described it as announcing “a very distinctive vision. If there is a point of reference, it has to be the late Bheki Mseleku in the way it employs minimal, almost meditative themes that spiral outwards, gaining ever more lush and ornate harmonic underpinnings as they progress. There’s a lyrical joy in the development of the arrangements (for example, on Love Remembers) that Mseleku would also have recognized and appreciated. Ntuli’s music, like his – and with the root reference point for both, traditional African music – swirls around richly-textured repeating motifs.” (Business Day, 12/11/2014; now pay-walled)

The memory of Mseleku is still hovering over Ntuli on Cosmic Light – not, now, so much in musical echoes as in spiritual ones. The lyric runs as follows: “Oh Cosmic Light, You shine so brightly, Yet your night is darker than these eyes can see/ Release your peace, and bring us Homeward, I can taste your freedom though I’m never free” – and that’s a set of sentiments that the pan-religious vision of Mseleku (like that of Coltrane before him) would certainly have appreciated. And, like Ntuli, he too believed that musician were vessels for larger cosmic forces.

Ntuli puts it like this: “[I was] put on this earth to be an expression of God’s excellence…[I try to stay] out of the way of the music, and allow it to do what it came to do through me.”

That calling came early. Born into a musical family – her uncle was Selby Ntuli of Harari/The Beaters; her parents were deeply involved in choral music, as well as making sure that family prayers at home always involved a lot of singing – Ntuli started piano lessons at four, with classical teacher Ada Lefkowitz. By 16, she had decided that music was her future, and began “losing track” while practising to write her own songs. But it was when she discovered jazz impro, at UCT, that her own compositional impulses were fully liberated: “improvising made it seem possible to compose.”

In 2008, Ntuli turned down the offer of a scholarship to Berklee, preferring the more personally connected learning environment of South Africa. After graduating, in 2013, she came to Johannesburg, worked for a time in Thandiswa Mazwai’s all-female ensemble and started building her own outfits, repertoire and projects.

Ntuli has described her composing as a highly variable activity: sometimes a song comes complete; sometimes it takes a long time to gel. Meditation and prayer often guide the process. She has told interviewer and fellow musician Spha Mdlalose (http://www.transafricaradio.net/index.php/2017/06/13/sa-jazz-sensation-thandi-ntuli-talks-international-jazz-extravaganza-jazzsession/ ) that when there are lyrics, she likes them to be oblique and multilayered, so that although the music on Exiled will be united by a theme of ‘love’, that love might be read as personal, socio-political, or (as on The Offering) familial. Ntuli has never shied away from issues, as those who saw her work at this year’s Orbit Marikana Concert will have noted. Now “I’ve been asking myself what my voice is on social issues…I’d like to incorporate that going forward.”(https://mbewumovement.com/2017/06/14/podcast-thandi-ntuli/)

Given the limited – and often deeply gendered – attention paid to female instrumentalists in this country, it’s inevitable that gender has become one of the issues she is regularly asked about. Ntuli concedes that there “are a lot of limiting beliefs” about the abilities of female instrumentalists, and has been scathing about the comment that “ ‘You play so well for a girl’ – perhaps if people thought about saying ‘You play so well for a black person’, they’d realise what the problem is, even if they intend it as a compliment.”

Yet she also finds the – albeit sympathetic – focus on her gender, limiting. “I have had quite a bit of write-ups done on me but not necessarily on the music I make. I can probably count a handful of articles over the past 3 years since the release of my album that have actually spoken about my album or artistic contribution. Ironically, as much as being female has attracted a very welcomed interest in what I do, it has also somehow silenced me on the art.

“It is not sufficient to constantly ask an artist: ‘What made you decide to become a musician?’ or ‘What is it like to be a woman in a male-dominated industry?’ but for writers to really display an interest in what they write about on a deeper level than just the artist’s personality and general background. Such questions are not unimportant, but … some questions have already been asked.”

Like all good musicians, Ntuli is also still seeking those questions that have not already been asked in her music. Her journey from The Offering to Exiled and beyond is being shaped by many inputs. The first voice that really caught her ears was Malian Oumou Sangare (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Xq9shQQJXdQ ), not as a model, but “for the rhythms”. Recently, she says (https://mg.co.za/article/2017-06-30-00-reaching-for-the-light ) she’s been listening to Sun Ra, and the Herbie Hancock fusion exploration Mwandishi (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=lkwluLsP364 ). But she’s also been collaborating with DJ Kenzhero on the Rebirth of Cool project, and co-producing a house album with Sit LSG.

So the music on Exiled, and what we will hear in Grahamstown and beyond, is not easily predictable. Those diverse ingredients, melded with and transformed by Ntuli’s own unique vision, could take her sound in multiple directions. Her time as SBYA award-winner is welcome, and richly deserved – but above all, it’s likely to create a very interesting SB jazz year indeed.

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