“As a shy young learner, Ndumiso Nxele reluctantly joined the debating team at this school and soon discovered he was good at researching the topics that needed to be debated.  He would also go to his township main hall to watch Umlazi Comtech Jazz Ensemble rehearse under the tutelage of Xolani Hlongwa during his school lunch break”

The 23-year-old drummer, composer, sound engineer and University of Cape Town (UCT) music student was born Ndumiso Thabiso Nxele in Umlazi, south of Durban. He is the last born of five children to a preacher father and a mom who is a nurse.  Ndumiso’s siblings include three sisters and a brother.  “I grew up in church which became an integral part of my early childhood”, he told Jazz It Out.

At 11-years-old, he developed an interest in the piano.  Seeing this, his father encouraged him to play the instrument so that he would later play for church congregants. The young Ndumiso was also exposed to the sound of the keyboard playing almost daily at services that took place in marquees which was and still is something common in many townships.

He soon realized that keyboard lessons clashed with soccer practice which led him to miss important soccer matches.  This brought an abrupt end to the piano lessons.  “Little did I know I will need piano lessons later in my career”, he said reflecting on those early choices.  Nxele would reconnect with music which is his prime focus and a career he has chosen.

Ndumiso is extremely proud in stating that Xolani Hlongwa was the first music teacher who introduced him to quavers, semi-breve and crotchets.  It was also at school that he met Sanele Phakathi who was a bass player at the time, pianist Sambulo Sibisi, and drummer Ndumiso Madonsela who were his seniors.  He also met Dalisu Ndlazi, a brilliant bass player who became a brother and a friend.  Hlongwa was also responsible for the formation of Umlazi Comtech Jazz Ensemble.

Drummer Ndumiso Nxele

His love for drums was largely influenced after meeting Thato Motsepe whose family had just relocated to Durban.  The Nxeles and Motsepes attended the same church and Thato was already a music student at University of KwaZulu-Natal (UKZN) majoring in drum kit.  “It was Thato’s performances that made me decide I want to be a drummer”, he told Jazz It Out.  Ndumiso was about 14 years old at the time. “Thato taught me a lot of things before going overseas”, he added.

Despite his parents expressing a wish for Ndumiso to become an economist, they were surprised to learn that he went for auditions to enroll for a music qualification. They decided not to stand in his way.  “I guess they realized I wanted to have a career as a musician and they saw the determination I had in making the choice”, he recalls that decision making process with fond memories.

After finishing matric, Nxele headed to UKZN where he studied music.  Unfortunately, he did not complete his studies due to financial reasons.  Still determined to be an artist, he enrolled at the popular Durban Music School where he studied a drum syllabus by Trinity College in London which was offered at the Durban institution.  Under the tutelage of Bruce Baker, Ndumiso obtained Grade 6 drum kit level with merit. He also obtained Grade 4 in Music Theory with The Associated Board of the Royal Schools of Music (ABRSM) also through Durban Music School.

The different styles of playing drums and technical language that Bruce Baker exposed the young Ndumiso played a meaningful contribution to the drummer he is today. “I must say he is one of the best drum teachers I’ve come across”, he told Jazz It Out.  Baker also instilled confidence in Nxele that saw him chosen as part of Kwa-Zulu Natal Wing Band that went to compete at the New York Wind Band Festival at the Carnegie Hall in the Big Apple where they came first and brought a gold crown.

Ndumiso with childhood friend and bass player Dalisu Ndlazi

His participation at Carnegie Hall taught him discipline in classical music and punctuality.  “I was grateful for the ability to read music.  The festival was very tough to participate in. Also, time management was of essence”, he recalls.  He attributes the success of the KZN outfit to team work and thorough preparation they had to make.  “It was a huge honour and our young band showed it can be done. A lot of energy went into those preparations”, he added

Ndumiso has also participated in Edinburgh Jazz and Blues Festival in Scotland which was his first international gig outside the African continent.  He has been part of the Standard Bank National Youth Jazz Festival in Makhanda.  The drummer who describes himself as a simple guy that loves seeing people around him happy has participated at festivals such as Durban Jazz Festival, Imbokodo Jazz Festival and award ceremonies as a sound engineer.

US born saxophonist and academic Salim Washington is another person Ndumiso has identified as one of the people that had a positive influence in his jazz career through his mentoring including music listening sessions.  “He would host us around his Glenwood house where we learnt to play tunes over and over again”, he said.  Washington also shared stories that motivated young musicians like Nxele and encouraged them to read more books that would inspire them to excel in what they do.

In 2019, Ndumiso moved to Cape Town where he enrolled for a degree in Jazz Performance at South African College of Music in UCT, a decision he took to challenge himself mentally and musically.  Having been born and raised in Durban, he does admit the weather in the Mother City is terrible compared to the warm Durban weather.  “In one day, you can have all four seasons”, with a chuckle. Cape Town also has a culture different compared to the one he grew up accustomed to.

The man behind Nomkhubulwane Experience and Umhlangano Wezithunywa

He leads his own combo ensembles called “Nomkhubulwane Experience” and “Umhlangano Wezithunywa”(Gathering of Angels), where he spends most of his time composing and arranging music for the ensembles. Nomkhubulwane is Mother Earth and Goddess of rain.  The project is dedicated to his late sister Janet who passed away in car accident in 2004 when Ndumiso was only 8 years old.  “I was very young but remember everything like it was yesterday”, he told Jazz It Out.

The concept that saw the creation of “Nomkhubulwane Experience” is to honour Mother Earth for all the blessings that she has given us and more that are coming.  His sister Janet has multiplied and he refers to her as Nomkhubulwane “because of her presence in our lives”.  An evidence of that is it always rains when they perform Nomkhubulwane.  “In our African culture, rain is a sign of blessings”, he added.  That rain is a sign that the ensemble is a good idea from the cultural point of view with the approval of the ancestors.

When Angels are gathered, miracles always happen.  “Umhlangano Wezithunywa”, his second ensemble, brings that miracle live through melodies and harmony.  “In this case we refer to us musicians as angels because we are entrusted with the message through the use of our artistic gift”, he elaborated.  The aim is to send the message of hope, love, unity, trust and solidarity.  “The songs I create carry this message. They may probably don’t make sense of it now but in the coming decade they will”, he said.

Lulu Gontsana, Ayanda Sikade, Siphiwe Shiburi, Lungile Kunene, Bonolo Nkoane, Tshiamo Nkoane, Kabelo “Boy” Mokhatla, Elvin Jones, Jeff Tain Watts and Eric Harland are some of his favourite drummers.  “Every time I see Ayanda Sikade playing, I feel like I am attending a drum masterclass.  He is one of the best drummers of our time.  South Africa is blessed with amazing drummers”, he told Jazz It Out. 

Thinking about the challenges that lie ahead

Ndumiso predicts a very bright future for jazz as more young people are attracted to the genre.  His long-term wish is to compose and arrange for an orchestra. “Strings in classical music always strike the right chord in me”, with a chuckle.  Maskandi is also one of his favourite genres.  Gospel is the music he grew up listening to which has a special place in his heart where his first love for the piano begun.

His advice to future musicians still at high school is to have “an open-minded approach and don’t box yourself in one set of teachings”.  Ndumiso has already noticed that good musicians are also good listeners.  It also takes an enormous amount of patience for artists to get to where they want to be.  “Understanding the behavior in human beings is one of the things I like to do.  I also like to research just about everything happening in the world we live in”, he concluded.

Connect with him on LinkedIn, subscribe to his YouTube channel where he goes by the name Ndumiso Nxele.  Follow him on Twitter @nxele_ndumiso and @iamndumisonxele on Instagram. His Facebook account is Ndumiso Nxele.