Music is something he has been exposed to since early childhood.  His father plays a variety of music genres like jazz, isicathamiya, maskandi, gospel and church hymns.  Trumpet was the first instrument he played, followed by euphonium. Listening to ‘Flowers of the Nation’ by Jonas Gwangwa made him love the trombone and an artist he today. This was his first time to hear a South African artist playing the instrument that way”

Siyalo Siyadumisa Sethulo Zulu is a 21-year-old B Music student at the University of KwaZulu-Natal (UKZN). He is the son of uMntwana Gwinyamathe ka Mkodelwa ka Kwaqinzalo ka Khambi ka Hamu ka Nzube no Mpande ka Senzangakhona ka Jama ka Mageba ka Zulu ka Malandela and Makhosazane Zulu.  The young izinyane was born and raised in Pietermaritzburg, the provincial capital of KZN and has a sister Sinethemba Nandi Zulu who is three years younger than him.

He describes his father as a mentor, an exceptional role model and a man who has demystified the myth that fathers and sons cannot be comfortable with discussing certain topics.  “We always talk about everything regarding any subject”, he told Jazz It Out.  His mother is a very caring, inquisitive but strict.  “She doesn’t like lazy people” he said with a chuckle.  Siyalo also has a very good relationship with his younger sister. “She is humble, talkative and has a bubbly personality which I love”, he added.

As a learner at Prestbury Primary School, Siyalo was an enthusiastic and energetic sportsman.  He once dreamt of becoming a professional soccer player.  Other sports that he enjoyed were cricket, athletics and swimming.  Soon he realized he was a better athlete than a soccer player after winning medals in the 80 and 100 metres sprinting at the national athletic games that were held in Polokwane in 2009. A year earlier he had started taking musical lessons from his father who was a Corps Bandleader at Imbali Corps church. At the age of 9, he started playing the trumpet as he was too small for the trombone.

Trombonist Siyalo Zulu. Picture by Yola Ndzabe

Siyalo proved to be a quick learner.  After a year of practicing he started playing with other youngsters in the junior band at Imbali Corps.  When he got to Alexander High School, he played more basketball and switched to the trumpet at The Salvation Army.  Still at church, he wrote a Music Theory Exam with the Associated Board of the Royal School of Music where he obtained 98% pass rate in Grade 01.  The music they performed which was mainly Christmas Carols was appreciated by shoppers at the malls around Pietermaritzburg.

One day while browsing through his father’s CD cabinet, he saw a double DVD, the first disc was a biography of Dizzy Gillespie’s life and music, and the second was that of the United Nations Jazz Orchestra Gillespie founded.  Siyalo was fascinated with the manner in which cats like Dizzy Gillespie grew up, the challenges they faced, the greatest cats like Charlie Parker, John Coltrane, Miles Davis, Thelonious Monk and Curtis Fuller and the amount of dedication and influence they had to the music that is very popular throughout the world today.  “I then realized there was a whole bigger picture to this music genre”, he said.

The DVD taught him a lot about jazz history and culture from a first and second hand perspective.  It made Siyalo curious and wanted to learn more about the music and culture which he began to enjoy despite what most of peers were listening to.  He drew similarities between political oppression and racial segregation in the US and what South Africa went through.  “This I could relate to since South Africa had experienced apartheid which affected my parents and grandparents”, he told Jazz It Out.

Emulating some of the jazz greats. Picture by Simanga Konstant Zondo

From the trumpet he went to play the euphonium which is normally played in classical music settings like orchestras and brass bands.  It is very demanding technically since it is designed to play fast beautiful harmonic lines and gestures accompanying the melody or in some instances leads in the melody. “It opened me up to chordal playing, and different scales I hadn’t come across”, he said.  This is while he was still trying figuring out all the differences before studying music formally.

Since his father was a self-taught musician, he decided to send his highly ambitious son for musical theory at the Siyakhula Music School.  Siyalo did a lot of travelling on weekends from Pietermaritzburg to Umlazi where Siyakhula is located.  Under the tutelage of the late Dr Brian Thusi and Khulekani Bhengu, he learnt a lot of musical discipline and hard work.  He also met another young trumpeter Thabo Sikhakhane who was already a faculty teacher at the school.  In 2014 Thabo convinced Siyalo to audition for the KwaZulu Natal Youth Wing Band where he was accepted.

He describes Thabo as a friend music gave him because they would practice together, share technical studies and have lots of fun.  “Although he was more inclined to the jazz world and playing, he didn’t keep information to himself.  Thabo is a friend I would keep and have by my side at any given day”, he told Jazz It Out. By this time Siyalo was listening to more jazz than classical music and getting small gigs in his hometown which exposed him to more jazz as time went on.  The lessons from Siyakhula Music School had already taught him the detailed fragments of brass articulation, breathing, flexibility and intonation.

Enjoys performing live. Picture by Simanga Konstant Zondo

A lifechanging experience occurred when he listened to the album “Flowers of the Nation” by legendary trombonist Jonas Gwangwa.  Siyalo firmly believes the “bone” as the instrument is often referred to is the closest sounding instrument to the human voice.  “The way he would reach for those high notes, his tone, articulation, and the way he would go playing the instrument with so much poise and class.  I just fell in love with the horn”, he recalls.  For Zulu, it was the first time to hear a South African play the trombone that way.  His tune titled “Diphororo” was the deal breaker for the youngster.  “I just knew I wanted to be a trombonist”, he added.

In 2018 Siyalo was accepted at UKZN where he is doing the third year of a Bachelor of Music degree under the tutelage of Salim Washington, Demi Fernandez, Neil Gonsalves and Debbie Marie.  He is also a jazz and classical student at the Durban Music School under the tutelage of Sibusiso “Mash” Mashiloane and Christopher Spies.  He describes his music journey as amazing so far, meeting up with different and interesting people. “The music side of everything is just too exhilarating, informative and innovative.  I foresee a very bright future for South Africa’s younger cats making an impact on the jazz scene”, he said.

One of his most memorable experiences was playing the music of Bheki Mseleku with the Afrika Mkhize Big Band at The Chairman, a popular jazz club in Durban.  “This was my first legit kind of big gig”, with fond memories.  Siyalo has recorded on “Diary of an Author”, an album by Israel Mkhize and has participated as a session musician in singles by various artists.  He describes jazz as ‘self-affirmation journey into the known and unknown sounds of the free world’.  Zulu is also a trombonist for the outfit Black Crystals made up of current and former UKZN students.

Amigos – Siyalo Zulu Quintet

He is also the bandleader of the Siyalo Zulu Quintet which he has been thinking of increasing it to a sextet due to some preferences.  The group is made of us his friend and trumpeter Thabo Sikhakhane, pianist Nhlakanipho Zulu, drummer Kabelo “Boy” Mokhatla and bassist Dalisu Ndlazi who is also a close friend of his.  “I would like to add a guitarist for a certain sound I am looking for”, he said.  Siyalo is happy to see more people of his age attending jazz gigs citing a gig he performed at the Durban’s Jazzy Rainbow where most of his friends who were in attendance as an example.  He has noticed a huge interest among the youth towards jazz in high schools and tertiary institutions.

As a way of making jazz popular, Siyalo believes jazz should be taken to the people than the other way around. “We need more jazz venues to start with and get more and more people interested in the music.  Event organizers must stop adverting jazz festivals when in actual fact they are more music festivals, I mean it’s a matter of respecting the culture”, not mincing his words.  He also thinks the South African jazz scene could do with a TV channel or programme like “Downtown Jazz” that was aired on DSTV Mzansi Magic Channel 161.

Siyalo’s favourite trombonists are Jonas Gwangwa, Malcom Jiyane, Senzo Ngcobo, Kyle Dupree, Elliot Mason, Bob McChesney, Michael Dease, Corey Wilcox, Bill Watrous, Carl Fontana, Slide Hampton, JJ Johnson and Curtis Fuller.  His hobbies are reading, playing basketball, attending concerts of any kind, working on new music, arranging for combo bands and hanging out with his peers.  His Facebook account is Siyalo Zulu. Follow him on Instagram @siyalo_zulu and subscribe to his YouTube channel Siyalo Zulu.