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» An Interview With Thandi Ntuli: On Success, Afro-Jazz & Soothing Lonely Hearts

February 1, 2016

An Interview With Thandi Ntuli: On Success, Afro-Jazz & Soothing Lonely Hearts

The glitz and the glamour of the music industry often fools the public into thinking that everything comes easy for young and talented artists. We hardly ever see the diligence, tenacity, resilience and sheer hustle that all comes with the territory when perfecting the studio recordings, expressing both power and vulnerability on stage, and creatively visualizing songs into music videos. In fact, artistic recognition does not come easy. As a friend and fan of jazz musician Thandi Ntuli, I have had the joy of watching her evolve musically- from performing during lunchtime recitals at the UCT’s Music College, to sharing the stage with Thandiswa Mazwai and, most recently, being recognized for her debut album “The Offering” with a number of coveted awards and nominations under her belt. But although I know her well, I wanted to interview Thandi because I believe she offers interesting philosophies on crafting, achieving and managing a successful career that young professionals across any industry or background could learn from.


MM: We’re friends and we’ve known each other personally for almost a decade. I would personally describe you as extrovert and outspoken yet humble, intuitive and curious. How do you continue to exude your authentic qualities in an industry which is perceived to be, on the one hand, all about the glitz and glam, and on the other, notoriously cut throat and scandalous?

TN: Firstly, I never buy into my own hype because it’s so easy to lose your perspective on what’s real and get caught up in some of the distractions in the music industry. Secondly, I’m fortunate that the jazz industry isn’t necessarily linked with as much glamour / controversy as some other music genres like house, hip hop and pop. But being recognized in the industry does come with a public life and I think you just have to remind yourself that at the end of the day you’ll go home to your family and still get sent to wash the dishes [laughs], regardless of who you are to the public.

MM: And what about having reached this level of success, fame and recognition at such a young age with your debut album “The Offering”? I think there’s something to be said about how young professionals cope with success and continue to accelerate their careers across various industries. I’d love to hear your thoughts on how you manage the pressure of having built a strong name for yourself in the industry and still have the drive to achieve more?

TN: The main challenge for me is that I always think about what’s next, and that’s the kind of pressure that I put myself under. Doing well is an amazing feeling but you can also get comfortable and forget about the importance of having longevity- Michael Jackson didn’t record one album and then chill out. Also, a lot of my peers challenge themselves and have achieved a lot more than me, and this keeps me in check because I realise there are other things that I still need to strive for, like taking my music overseas and exposing my music to new markets, which broadens my perspective on what I could still do next. That’s why they say that when you want to get better at something you have to surround yourself with people who are better than you at it.



MM: So I was really impressed with your debut album “The Offering” and if I were to describe it in one word, I’d say it is elegant. One of the interesting things I noticed was that you have some songs on the album dedicated to your family, particularly your parents and your grandmother. Did you deliberately do this because “The Offering” was your first album, a special milestone in your career, and this was a way to honour the role your family played in helping you get to this point? Or do you foresee your family as being a constant source of inspiration in your music?

TN: I believe my family groomed me to be who I am before anyone else in the world did, so it was important for me to acknowledge them upon reaching this milestone. I may not have intentionally thought to dedicate the songs to my family while I was writing the songs but because of the creative space I was in while I was writing those songs, it made sense to dedicate my work to my family. More recently, I’ve actually been asking myself what my voice is on social issues because I’d like to incorporate this into my music going forward. So my sources of inspiration are growing and dedicating my music solely to my family might not be something I carry on forever. But, I think there will always be an element of wanting to dedicate some aspects of my creativity to my family.

MM: I know you recently traveled to Ethiopia on holiday and you’ve traveled to various parts of the continent both professionally and for leisure. During your travels do you pick up any musical influences or styles that inspired your music or are your travels purely pleasure?

TN: I don’t think it’s ever purely pleasure when you’re an artist, because every [travelling] experience affects you somehow, even when you’re not intentionally seeking inspiration. In terms of African influences in particular, I have a very strong connection to Malian music although I’ve actually never been to Mali. On my album I have a song titled “Sangare” which is dedicated to Oumou Sangare because when I heard her music for the first time I was like “Hallelujah!” [Laughs]

I also think we have yet to really fully explore how much African music could influence us as South African jazz artists; it’s still very much untapped. Similarly, there isn’t much of an exchange of South African jazz music influencing the rest of the continents artists, so it’s like we’re passing each other. The most I’ve personally seen is a significant following and respect for Jimmy Dludlu in Nigeria. I think our unfortunate difficulty is that we don’t have a common medium of distributing our music to other countries and this means we become disconnected with what’s happening in the jazz scene in the rest of the continent. I believe this fundamentally needs to change.


MM: Are there any collaborations in the pipeline for you, or perhaps on your wish list?

TN: Locally, I’d love to work with Keke from The Muffinz in the near future- he has a beautiful voice. And more generally, I’m quite open to enriching my sound, so working with international artists is definitely on my wish list too.

MM: And what about collaborations outside of the jazz world? I was fortunate enough to see you and DJ Kenzhero perform at The Orbit together, which was a really funky blend of jazz and hip hop. Can we expect to see you branching out of the jazz genre more?

TN: I don’t have anything planned as yet, although I am looking at continuing the project that DJ Kenzhero and I partnered on again this year. I would actually like to write songs for some of the great new voices we have in South Africa, like Ayanda Jiya, I’d love to write for her. I’ve also been working with a house producer called Sit LSG, co-producing his house album, which has been hard work and great learning curve.

 Kick ass


MM: You were also selected to play in Thandiswa Mazwai’s all-woman band and I’m curious about what this experience taught you about the music industry?

TN: I’ve never believed that women are less talented than men, but unfortunately there is this still a popular perception in the industry and so many women musicians carry that self-doubt in the back of our minds without even knowing it. So it was really empowering for me to play in an all women band, because it wasn’t just about us all being girls and looking great on stage, I was also playing with really high caliber musicians and we kicked ass. But I think there’s still more to be done to shift the negative perception about female talent because there are young up-and-coming female instrumentalists who need to be encouraged to pursue their dreams and make their mark in the industry.

MM: In your Kaya FM Jazzuary interview you pointed out that South African jazz music in particular has been very successful at putting South African music on the map internationally. Is it in your plans to develop an international presence?

TN: I don’t think I’ll ever feel I’ve succeeded until I’ve exported my music internationally. I also think what the likes of Mariam Makeba and Hugh Masekela did with sharing South African culture, music, society and politics with the world, was really special. That was during the golden time of South African music, and there was no shortage of huge international South African names. But what we need to do now is be more aggressive with distributing our own music. In Ethiopia, there wasn’t a single radio station that played anything other than Ethiopian music, which is commendable. Because, I think if there’s a dominant culture present in a society, it will always water down the weaker culture. And in our case our heritage is the weaker heritage so in the years to come our music will sound more and more like American music. Whereas in the golden years, we had our own sound and people recognized that we were special people with something special to offer the world. It’s no accident that Ladysmith Black Mambazo have had so much international success and that artists like Paul Simon were strongly influenced by South African sound and music.



MM: What has been some of the best career advice you’ve received?

TN: Jimmy Dludlu’s advice to me was “keep practicing and believe in your talent no matter what”. I’ll always remember this advice because in this industry you don’t know when you’ll have your big break or whether your talent will ever be recognized. But nonetheless, you have stay focused on your work.

Another pearl of wisdom I received was last year when I played at a SAMRO event, and met Mam’ Dorothy Masuka and Mam’ Abigail Kubeka. They told us that “we are in a very special industry and this job is so beautiful because you give people joy and healing and there will be many blessings for sharing your gift with people. You may never really know what impact you have on people’s lives by just doing what you do… Always keep a clean heart and have the right intentions with what you do.”

MM: That’s a very interesting perspective- that music gives joy and healing. When you think about it as general consumer of music, after a stressful week at work you might play your favourite album to calm you down or lift your spirit, you may have a special album you like to meditate to or an album that perfectly sets the mood for a dinner party. Have you ever experienced the impact that your music has had on someone’s life?

TN: A friend of mine sent me a long message which read that she had gone through depression, and through that difficult and dark time Lonely Heart was HER song and she would just listen to it all the time. She thanked me for the song and told me to keep doing what I do. I don’t expect that kind of reaction but when I get it, it’s incredibly rewarding and special.

Serendipitously, as I started my car to drive home from this interview a song titled “In-Between Spaces” from Thandi’s album immediately came on the radio. And as I drove home I reflected on the inspiring afternoon I spent with a trail blazing young South African. Her approach to achieving and managing career success as a young professional is clearly grounded on self-mastery and a deep passion for her craft. In fact, this interview with Thandi reminded me of Oprah Winfrey’s career-life philosophy “align your personality with your purpose, and nobody can touch you”.

Article by: Magcino Radebe | Mbewu Movement Founding Member

Magcino Radebe holds a Master of Philosophy in Politics, Philosophy and Economics (University of Cape Town). She is an Executive Assistant in Financial Services.