“I am currently enjoying the music of my Malian sister and singer Oumou Sangaré.  I learn about rhythmic subdivision through playing with accomplished drummer Frank Paco.  The future of jazz looks very bright in South Africa.  Musicians are doing incredible things.  The more venues we have to access the music, the better 

This is the opinion of Gugulethu – born pianist, vocalist, teacher, composer and bandleader Thembelihle Dunjana. She recently completed a tour which saw her performing in Maputo, Matola and Tofo Beach in Mozambique, as well as Johannesburg and Pretoria in Gauteng.  Thembi as she is popularly known used the tour to determine how the Mozambican and Gauteng jazz audiences respond to her music.

She has already performed at festivals such as Grahamstown Festival, Cape Town Fringe Festival, Oslo Jazz Festival, and Cape Town International Festival where she was part of the Delft Big Band.  Thembi finds the experience of performing for different audiences and in different spaces quite fulfilling. The immediate positive feedback she receives through her live performances is something that always give her encouragement since she is working on becoming her own person as a musician.

“Currently, I teach at Bergvliet High School in Cape Town.  I am fortunate to teach jazz piano.  But I also see myself as a mentor to my learners”, she told Jazz It Out.  For her the job is more than just teach music theory but also help the learners to realize their own voices.  She also wants to reshape some of the negative stereotypes and change the narrative around love, race and identity.

Pianist and vocalist Thembelihle Dunjana. Picture by Onele Liwani

Thembi grew up staying with her mother and grandparents, in what she describes as “loving and free environment”.  She spent most of her childhood indoors where she would read a lot and play the keyboard her mother bought her from a school she worked as a teacher in Khayelitsha. “I was a shy girl, and part of that still exists”, she said.  Her strict mother also did her very best to avoid her daughter mixing with the wrong crowd.

Music was very big in her household.  “My father is a jazz guitarist and was very active in the Gugulethu jazz scene.  My mother was also into choral, contemporary, and pop music and choir conductor at Ntwasahlobo Primary School in Khayelitsha where she taught for many years”, she added.  It was mainly through her father that Thembi got introduced to jazz music. As a young learner, she was classically trained and enjoyed the music of Claude Debussy and Sergei Rachmaninoff.

Her love for the piano started when she was 11 years old.  The love for the instrument would be a permanent thing.  “Since I had been studying music in primary and high school, it only made sense for me to enroll for a music qualification at tertiary level”, with a smile.  Thembi enrolled for a Bachelor of Music Degree at the University of Cape Town with her interest firmly on improvisation and jazz.

She acknowledged that the South African College of Music had some of the best jazz musicians in the country, the likes of Zoë Modiga, Langa Mavuso and Ndumiso Manana who were three years ahead of her in their studies.  “But within a year, I was part of a very cool group of musicians who are basically playing in every band in the city of Cape Town at the moment”, she said.

On song. Picture by Taybah Foedorovna

Thembi has been to a very large extent been inspired by her friends and mates from UCT to stick to the career she loves.  “I am really grateful to have met my peers who have grown to become such incredible musicians.  They are people whom I have toured with and have brought my music to life, and with whom I play on a regular basis”, she told Jazz It Out.

Since jazz involves a lot of improvisation, Thembi believes that the beautiful thing about improvisation is “our voices set us apart as artists”.  She is following her own voice and not being too influenced by external factors.  What she thinks is special about her is that she is a fast learner which makes it even more interesting to find her own style and rhythm.

“I am a Gemini and take pride in investing my creativity in lots of different ways and it shows in my variant compositions”, saying with lots of confidence.  The people she interacts with in the industry always tell her they never anticipate her next move, which is something she likes. “I always keep it fresh, and I cringe when I have to listen to old recordings of myself sometimes because my mind, at that point, has already moved to something new”, she added.

Her favourite instrument from age 11. Picture by Laura McCullagh

One of the things she always tells her learners is to be themselves first.  They must not loose themselves too much.  Also, it is important for them to use their intuition and not be afraid to ask for help, and also not be intimidated by this industry which is male dominated.  Thembi is hoping to release an album but did not divulge further details until everything has been finalized.

Her biggest wish is to see more funds channeled into the arts industry.  “Artists have been struggling for years.  They pay for their travelling and accommodation which does not come cheap with our current state of economy”, she told Jazz It Out in a tone of a concerned arts practitioner. Many corporate firms have reduced their sponsorship budget in recent years making life extremely difficult for musicians.

For the next two to three years, Thembi wants to see herself doing more of what gives her satisfaction, inspire younger musicians through her own experiences as an artist and teacher.  “I see myself on bigger stages, creating more music and I see myself practicing harder and taking longer improvised solos”, she concluded.  She also hopes to give motivational talks and masterclasses. If you are in Cape Town this weekend, catch her performance at Jazz Native Yards this Sunday.  See our gig guide for more details. Her Facebook Page is Thembi Dunjana and her Instagram account is @bottlegreen_hlubikazi.