Thandi Ntuli (‘Indaba Is’ – new South African music on the Brownswood label)

Nicky Schrire, for LondonJazz News, reconnected with Thandi Ntuli (the two overlapped while jazz students at the University of Cape Town) to ask her about the new compilation of South African music she has co-curated, Indaba Is:

Indaba Is, a compilation of current South African improvised music and jazz, was released in January 2021 on Gilles Peterson’s London-based label Brownswood Recordings. The project sees a collaboration between South African musicians, directed and curated by pianist/ composer Thandi Ntuli and The Brother Moves On’s Siyabonga Mthembu.

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Thandi Ntuli. Photo: Ndumiso Sibanda

Ntuli studied at the University of Cape Town before, in what felt like a mass exodus of previously Cape Town- based jazz musicians, relocating to Johannesburg. Since her move, I’ve watched with fascination and excitement as her work has slowly but surely been recognised internationally, with performances at Jazz at Lincoln Centre in New York and tours throughout Switzerland. Along with many recent Johannesburgers, including pianist Bokani Dyer and trumpeter Lwanda Gogwana, Ntuli’s reputation continues to grow while she stays very much connected to the South African music community, contributing meaningfully to a bustling, jazz scene in Jozi and beyond.

LondonJazz News: Thandi, hi! Congratulations on the new release and collaborative album. It’s so vibrant and there are such beautiful musical offerings from all involved. How did this project come your way?

Thandi Ntuli: Thank you Nicky ! It really felt like such a labour of love to work on this project as the artists involved are friends and colleagues I have admired for years. The project is the brainchild of Siya Mthembu really. While on tour with Shabaka and The Ancestors, Siya had a chat with Emily Moxon of Brownswood Recordings at one of the post-performance dinners, and he asked if Brownswood had ever considered doing a Johannesburg version of London’s We Out Here compilation which featured many young jazz musicians in the London scene. They asked if he would facilitate the project and upon agreeing he pitched some ideas to them, along with putting forward my name as a co-curator/ facilitator for this project. So that’s how it came my way.
LJN: Had you worked with Siya and/or The Brother Moves On before this collaboration? How did your joint leadership for this project evolve?

TN: I have worked with Siya with The Brother Moves On. I’ve guested on a few performances with them and in fact the song they did on this album, Umthandazo Wamagenge, stems out of some of those performances. We had a great working synergy. There was no need to figure out things through a formal discussion in the beginning. We somehow found a working rhythm quite seamlessly. I also so enjoyed the spirit of how we worked with everyone! I believe it created an environment that allowed the music to shine with ease. I’m grateful for that.
LJN: Did you set any parameters for the tracks each musician offered up (instrumentation or style) and did you think about how to achieve a musically cohesive sound across the album?

TN: We didn’t set any parameters for the tracks. We did, however, deliberately find a way to include as many people on the album as possible who we felt could have contributed their own works had we space for more than eight tracks. An example of this is how Bokani Dyer, who performs a lot with his trio, recorded his track for quintet. We had not really heard him in this context. In this way, we hope that someone who looks through the credits will see Ndabo Zulu and take an interest in his work. The same goes for Sisonke Xonti as both composer and sideman, or Amaeshi Ikechi and Simphiwe Tshabalala.

LJN: Can you tell us about your track Dikeledi? It covers a lot of ground in terms of different grooves, and you sing in different languages. Is that a bowed bass or another bowed instrument in the intro?

TN: The intro makes use of a bowed bass line which draws inspiration from Nguni bow playing in the Southern part of Africa. It poses an opening question in Shona meaning: “Do you know who you are?” The song then moves into the ‘response’ – or expansion, rather – of the initial question. I used many languages because they felt good in the music… it wasn’t really premeditated except for the Shona part because I don’t speak Shona but I wanted to ask the question in a language that I don’t speak. Musically, the different grooves are straddling the lines between my different realities or experiences of the world. So this all came about naturally.

Thandi Ntuli and Siyabonga Mthembu. Photo: Andile Buka

LJN: What are your thoughts on how South African jazz is perceived by non-South African jazz communities? Do you feel there’s a growing interest in the sub-genre? Are there any misconceptions about what “South African Jazz” is?
TN: I don’t know for sure how it is perceived in general. I think that is hard to say. But I do think that many people tend to associate South Africa with its history and, therefore, the artists that came before, such as Hugh Masekela and Miriam Makeba. The interest in South African jazz hasn’t necessarily waned and then returned due to this album though. Artists like Bheki Mseleuku, Zim Ngqawana, Feya Faku, Carlo Mombelli and others have received a lot of love in Europe over the years. I  think we live in an era where everybody’s movements are more visible because of social media. So maybe it seems that the interest is growing somewhat.

LJN: How has your move to Johannesburg affected your career and relationship with jazz? What are your thoughts on the Jozi jazz scene? Did you have any apprehension about moving to Johannesburg?

TN: Johannesburg is really where the various scenes collide. So the move to Joburg really gave me a broader sense of the possibilities in music due to being exposed to a lot more original music bands than I was in Cape Town, as well as being in a vibrant city of culture lovers who then become avid followers and supporters of our work. I did have apprehension about moving to Johannesburg because of its pace in general. It’s like a milder New York, but buzzing all the same. That is still one of my least favourite things about it…. well, at least before Covid.
LJN: What were your favourite parts of the process of creating Indaba Is, from conception through to production and post-production?

TN: I experienced this album from the perspective of both a composer/contributor and a curator, and in both ways I enjoyed the constant letting go that I had to do. It required a real presence because of the circumstances we found ourselves in. So I feel like the project itself had to lead the way. I enjoyed finding comfort in not being sure in a way that I’m not used to. And I enjoyed seeing everyone and the overall spirit of the project. It really had a “WE” thing to it. I love that!
LJN: What are your hopes for this album, in terms of reaching listeners or expanding upon South African jazz output?

TN: The main hope is that the music will do what the music came to do… for whomever needs to hear it. There are some powerful messages in the art of the artists who contributed songs. I hope that those messages are truly felt and heard, beyond the album to the wider community and our lineage. One of the biggest challenges Siya and I had was trying to tell the story of what is currently happening in the Jo’burg scene with eight tracks, and eight artists only. What we ended up doing was suggesting configurations that could have more people who would be present in the credits as supporting artists, who are great composers too. Then a listener who decides to dig deeper is bound to discover so many gems from our generation and ones before us.

LINKS: Thandi Ntuli’s website

LJN’s review of Indaba Is

Buy Indaba Is here


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