Playing instruments with siblings is something Nokwanda Nkala did from an early childhood. Her family went to the Salvation Army. “I have a sister that played euphonium, another that played electric bass, and another that played tuba. My brother played the French horn”, she tells Jazz It Out. From her father she learned the all-important entrepreneurial skills. “My dad would buy and sell chips and sweets where he would rope us in those operations”, she added.
At high school, she would do well in subjects like Business Studies, Economics and Accounting. She also played tennis and hockey. Nokwanda is a last born of six siblings, born and bred in Umlazi, South of Durban. “I started school at the age of 5 and matriculated when I was 15”, recalling her early childhood. “I was a well-grounded child, with interests in books, athletics, art and music”. Despite her busy schedule, she makes tile to have a chat with Jazz It Out.
Many people simply know Nokwanda as a saxophone player. But she is more than that. She is passionate about music, arts and culture, graphic design, photography, lover of books and history, and a businesswoman. Her company Ubizo Artist Travel Agency makes booking for artists throughout the African continent and hopes to expand into other creative spaces. She also manages a few musicians.
Music was her extramural activity at high school and would attend Siyakhula Community Music Centre and Durban Music School. After completing matric, Nkala went to enroll for a diploma at University of KwaZulu-Natal’s School of Music. “I have been priviledged to be a protégé of saxophonist and academic Salim Washington for the past 4 years”, she adds. It was also at UKZN where she learned the difference from playing with friends to being a music student.
“As music students, we often found ourselves having to play what the lecturers expect of us. There was very little practical exposure at the beginning”, she recalls. But she learned to be always prepared for opportunities. “As a performer, I am learning the importance of knowing and being myself, because that is where my authenticity comes from”, she tells Jazz It Out.
There are not many female saxophonists and Nkala is often on the receiving end of some sexist remarks attributed to her choice of instrument. “Sexist remarks, sexual harassment, sexual objectification. You will be shocked at some of the things that have been said to me”, she says. “Female musicians are often undermined starting at rehearsal going all the way to a live performance. They make these remarks without even realizing they are sexist”, sharing her experiences of what she has observed over the years.
Despite the observations she has made about female musicians not taken seriously compared to their male counterparts, Nkala has had some good experiences as a musician. Her best performance to date was in 2016 when she performed with drummer Louis Moholo. In the performance that was held in Cape Town, Moholo told fellow band members to be themselves. As Nkala recalls, “I became my true self, had lots of fun and grew as a performer”.
One of her challenges is making time for both her music career and business. “I feel that my music career is taking a bit of a knock because of the business. Is she planning to record an album or has she been a part of studio recording already? Not anytime soon. “I am part of Black Crystals who are planning to record an album soon, probably this year”, she says. Nkala also believes that if more jazz music is available, that will lead to more airplay of the music genre.
She is also aware that some if not most musicians are struggling to make money from the career they chose. Her firm opinion is that artists are too obsessed with perfecting their craft. “They must take their music to wider audiences. As artists we need to expose our music and take it to the next level”, she tells Jazz It Out. As creative artists, musicians must come up with innovative ways if themselves relevant.
But she also has some sympathy for fellow artists as well. The first problem is that artists lack financial management and proper representation. And then, there are the promoters, venues, distributors that exploit artists. Also, unlike with the philharmonic orchestra, there is not much financial support for jazz artists. “With that being said, I think it is at every artist’s best interest to equip themselves with the best representation. This can be done through self-taught knowledge about the business of music or through a reputable manager”, she added.
Nkala is also concerned that jazz venues are also in need of financial support. There should be more spaces available so that artists can host regular performances. She believes this will be instrumental in making jazz “easily and widely accessible”. When asked if there is a good relationship between fashion and jazz, she said because of the way she dresses, she said she often gets asked if she is an artist. “Creatives are easy to spot, be it a musician, visual artist, dancer or designer”, she said.
“I believe fashion is an extension of our creativity, of our need to self-expression, our way of experimenting within colours, fabrics, patterns, and a way to be original and unique. You can’t put people in one box”, concluding her conversation with Jazz It Out. She is also active on social media. She is Nokwanda Nkala on Facebook and @zulu_hymn on Instagram.