NOMFUNDO XALUVA is a jazz vocalist hailing from Port Elizabeth and now based in Cape Town, South Africa where she performs, records for Universal Music, and teaches at the University of Cape Town. A two-time recipient of the Metro FM Music Award for Best Urban Jazz Album, Xaluva has performed at the Cape Town International Jazz Festival and the Johannesburg Joy of Jazz Festival. Nicky Schrire chatted to her about South African identity in jazz and the balance between honouring the old and celebrating the new.
LondonJazz News: You are South African, and you are a jazz musician. Do you see yourself as a “South African Jazz” artist? How important is that label to you, versus other more general labels, when you think about and describe your work as a musician and singer?
Nomfundo Xaluva: Yes, I do see myself as such because no words in that definition ring untrue. I try not to over complicate titles. I’m a jazz musician from South Africa. I trust in the meaning of that.
LJN: You released two gorgeous albums for Universal Music, Kusile and From.Now.On. You definitely flex your writing and arranging muscles more on the second album. How important is it to you to be writing and arranging your own material?
NX: It’s important to me because it gives my music an intimate identity. However, having said that, I also look up to many great musicians who only sing and don’t write or arrange. It’s really more about what touches the soul and what resonates with me. Writing my own music is something that came to me quite late in my music education. It’s still hit and miss at times so I try not force it.
LJN: The second album focuses on the balance between moving forward while still preserving and honouring the musical past. You reimagined music by Busi Mhlongo and Miriam Makeba while documenting your own music and that of your longtime collaborator Mandisi Dyantyis. How do you tread this line, especially given that South African jazz really needs to be both documented and contemporized?
NX: I believe jazz to be two things: a tradition and a language. In expressing those elements, I recognise the tradition as set out by the legends that came before me whilst communicating and articulating my artistry through the language of jazz. Because jazz is so rooted in identity, there’s a thread that’s inherent in my music that harks of an older era – the era of Miriam Makeba and the Skylarks, etc. It’s about the sound and sentiment of my music. It’s very natural. I’d say Mandisi also has a very similar understanding and approach hence why we work so well together. We write from a common sense of identity.
LJN: You are an advocate for jazz education and a lecturer at the University of Cape Town. How would you describe the role you play in the development of your students? What, ideally, would you like them to take away from their time with you?
NX: My role is to enhance what the student already has vocally. In terms of jazz, I teach the language. I’m very clear from the onset that I teach jazz. I teach my tool of the trade. If a student is looking for something else, I’m honest about being unable to provide it. I teach what I know. It’s up to the student to use the skills I impart in any way that they want. Ideally, I hope they are inspired by me. That sounds a bit narcissistic but what I mean is that I want them to see me work hard, sing hard, study hard and believe hard and be inspired by that. I am also a student so I learn from them too. One thing I’m uncompromising about is discipline. Without discipline, there’s no point. Second to that would be patience. Jazz is old. Jazz is vast. It will reward us according to how much time we spend familiarizing ourselves with it. That’s respect.
LJN: You have over a decade of experience as a working musician in South Africa. What do you feel people from other countries should know about South African jazz as a genre or community?
NX: South African jazz has such a strong, distinctive identity that you simply cannot miss it. It’s rich in melody and harmony. The rhythms are so indigenous. It is imperfect music, which makes it exceptional. Its complexity lies in its simplicity.
LJN: Lastly, do you feel empowered being a woman in the jazz/music industry? Does this ever factor into your choices and effect how you navigate this community?
NX: Yes, I do feel empowered but that’s thanks to my outlook and not the industry. I own my womanhood and I flaunt it with pride. Jazz is very patriarchal. I don’t fight that. My work does. I never try to match up or equalize with men because it’s a waste of time that I could use doing something else more valuable. What I will say is that I don’t work with people who don’t value my worth. I don’t occupy spaces where I’m not seen or respected. I don’t take myself too seriously and I respect my fellow musicians, most of whom are my friends. I control what I can and that doesn’t include the behaviours and prejudices of others. That’s not my battle.