“When Linda Tshabalala was growing up, she was a tomboy who was always surrounded by her three brothers and their male friends. She loved motor mechanics and even considered studying towards a qualification in mechanical engineering. Her parents were somewhat surprised that she chose to enroll for music instead.”
The Daveyton born and raised saxophonist, flautist, composer, is the only girl of the four children to Noni and Richard Tshabalala who are retired teachers. She is also mother to a 3-year-old girl Kuhle. She describes her daughter as someone who “has added colour to my life”. Despite the initial shock and surprise at their daughter’s decision, they gave her all the support good parents could provide. “Without their love and support, I would have given up and opted for a career I didn’t like”, she told Jazz It Out.
She describes her Benoni household in the East Rand as that which was into music. Her brothers would play kwaito, hip-hop, and some R&B on Monday to Friday. On Saturday her mom would play her soul music while doing her chores and Sunday would be a jazz day where dad would play his vinyl records while reading the Sunday newspapers, which is something he still does to this day. Her daughter is also being raised in that same environment.
Because of her exposure to many singers who were performing mainly soul and R&B, she thought she was also going to be a vocalist. After matriculating she joined the Music Academy of Gauteng under the tutelage of Bra Johny Mekoa. Within the first year, she assumed a position in the Academy’s big band and subsequently toured Holland and Sweden. In 2004 she was part of the big band that was invited to perform at the then International Association of Jazz Educators in New York.
Having attained performance experience, she obtained a 7 – month stay in South Korea as part of a trio which included a pianist and a bassist between 2006 and 2007. In her stay in Korea she learnt a few lessons with “independence” being the most important. There was also no Bra Johny to guard and guide her while she was in the Asian country. They would perform from Monday to Saturday and only have Sunday as a day off.
It was the discipline that Mekoa instilled on his students that made Linda survive in South Korea. “Bra Johny was a very strict and disciplined man and we would always avoid him catching us loafing around when we were supposed to be practicing”, she recalls. One of Mekoa’s favourite phrases was: “Nothing beats hard work, because talent alone cannot take one very far”. This phrase would always inspire Linda and her fellow students at the academy.
Artists that she has had a privilege of performing with include Kevin Mahogany, Everett Green, Hugh Masekela, Barney Rachabane, Nomvula Ndlazilwane, Frank Biyong, Pat Matshikiza and Thandiswa Mazwai. While a student at the academy, she opened for Wynton Marsalis. She is also a former member of Young Lions, an ensemble initiated by pianist Nduduzo Makhathini in 2011.
Through her interactions with different musicians, she also took a few lessons from them. From Hugh Masekela she learnt to always take care of herself and look her best especially when you know you are being watched. Humility in the truest sense is what she learnt from Nomvula Ndlazilwane and from Miriam Makeba she learnt the art of being humane to other people, despite one’s success. Always be a person among people.
Linda possesses a diploma in jazz performance from the University of Cape Town and a B Tech Honours Degree from the Tshwane University of Technology. An avid coordinator, as a student she was part of an organization called R.Y.T.H.M. (Reaching Youth Through Music) and JFCI (Jazz Camp for Female Instrumentalists) now known as INFI (International Network of Female Instrumentalists). She is now a full -time teacher at Gauteng Music Academy, an institution that honed her skill as a saxophonist.
Tshabalala just finished a nationwide tour which was funded by Concerts SA’s Mobility Fund with her gender balanced band made up of vocalist Lesego Mokgatle, guitarist Vuyo Vamisa, percussionist Mpumi Nhlapo, bassist Gally Ngoveni, drummer Nozipho Mnguni and pianist Mvuzo Dimba. Despite the numerous compliments she receives for striking a gender balance in her band’s composition, this was not how she planned it. “In the formation of the band I was looking for people who have easy going attitudes, beautiful spirits and most importantly amazing musicians”, she told Jazz It Out.
She found the tour an amazing experience where she learned and grew in just about everything. The reception has been overwhelmingly warm and positive, the audiences also loved their energy onstage. Linda added that: “I don’t limit myself to just playing the instrument. I also compose music, manage myself, manage the band, do my own admin and I’m my own finance person”. Her firm belief is that as a creative artist she must be in touch with every department of the business.
What does she like most about performing live? “It’s an adrenalin rush like no other and I love the feeling of conquering that mountain and the fulfilment that comes across with that, because after that I can go anywhere with the music”, she said. And then the audience is another beautiful factor. That she really loves depending on the energy they give off based on how they receive the performance. The audience are the immediate adjudicators of the performance they see on stage.
Linda is also very outspoken about sexism in the industry. “Oh gosh will it ever stop”, she asked. But she is very quick to say there are male musicians who are supportive and encouraging, warm and embrace all musicians regardless of their gender. Such men are secure with themselves enough to know they don’t need to bring a woman down to feel superior. She mentioned 5 of those men that fit that description. They are Steven Mabona, Lawrence October, Dumisani Nxumalo, Xolani Zuma and Thana Mohlaka.
Performing her own composition entitled Ngiyabonga featuring Lesego Mokgatle on vocals. Video by Nokwanda Nkala
A change of mindset will help those men who undermine women to accept them as their peers instead of people inferior to them. “There’s no place you can go in the world where you won’t find a woman that can do what is a man is capable of. And that is not because we are competing it’s just we know we are what we are …. amazing”, she added. Linda also believes the future of South African jazz is very bright. Jazz lovers are loving the sound, the stories and they can’t get enough and want more. “I met some internationals in the audiences during my tour and they are eager to hear more of South African jazz and are impressed with the level of musicianship.
She is affiliated with a few bands and also a member of Brass Cartel, a brass band based in Johannesburg which fuses pop and Hip Hop. Her future plans include a lot of travelling which is something she thoroughly enjoys. Linda’s advice to young and upcoming female jazz instrumentalists is: “Be strong and prepared emotionally and spiritually when you finally know this is what you want for your life”. Her Facebook account is Linda M Tshabalala and @lindamtshabalala on Instagram.