“As a young girl, she was a tomboy and would gravitate towards more of what was considered boy instruments.  This self-taught pianist received Casio keyboard from her mom on her 10th birthday. At school she dabbled in other brass instruments like trumpet and euphonium but when she picked up the trombone, it made a lot of sense by producing the sound she fell in love with instantly” 

Tenor and bass trombonist, composer and arranger Siya Charles is a self-confessed nomad.  She was born in Johannesburg 29 years ago and her family moved to East London when she was 4.  After that, they settled in Cape Town for a while, then moved to the Eastern Cape again when she was 8.  They spent 2 years in Queenstown, then eventually planting their roots in Port Elizabeth.  “My father was a civil engineer so we moved around when he worked on different projects.  You could say that’s where my love for being nomadic came from”, she told Jazz It Out.

She was very observant and talkative as a young child which often got her in trouble.  “I would speak before I think”, with a chuckle.  As she grew a bit older, she became an introvert, quite shy, reserved, but very respectful.  Her late mother is the primary influence to Siya becoming a jazz musician.  “She loved jazz and would often play Frank Sinatra in our home”, she remembers.  They grew up listening to the music of Barry White, Maze featuring Frankie Beverly, the O’Jays, and a lot of Motown music.  “I gravitated to this music as it was filled with lush harmonies and beautiful orchestral arrangements”, she added.

This is when she fell in love with harmony which is what drew her to jazz.  Her maternal side has a lot of self-taught musicians.  Siya’s late maternal grandfather was a jazz musician who played trumpet and saxophone.  She has no doubt this is where her love for jazz comes from.  At primary and high school, she was a nerd who excelled in her academics but was also very much into the arts. At her mother’s stern request, she and her sister sang in choirs and were trained in theatre arts for about 10 years during primary and high school, which made Siya consider a career in theatre for a while.  Besides the arts, she enjoyed playing netball, soccer and cricket.

Trombonist Siya Charles. Picture by Diana Leigh Neille

As a young child, Siya was always interested in music that had complex, yet beautiful harmonies.  “I loved harmony as a child.  It’s the love of harmony that inspired me to listen to more jazz”, with fond memories.  Although she didn’t have the theoretical knowledge to understand the chord progressions she heard, she would try to hum and then spell the notes that stuck out for her on the small Casio keyboard she received as a 10th birthday present from her mom.  She would do this for hours, and this is incidentally how she acquired perfect pitch.  The young self-taught pianist would spend hours playing her keyboard.

She describes Graham Beyer, who introduced her to jazz in high school as an amazing trombone teacher. Beyer would often play gigs with Winston Mankunku Ngozi and would send Siya recordings of his songs.  “As a teen, I also fell in love with the music of Bheki Mseleku, Australian trombonist James Morrison, Jimmy Dludlu, Moses Moses Molelekwa, Shannon Mowday and Hugh Masekela, to name a few”, she told Jazz It Out. It was also at high school that she dabbled in other instruments like trumpet and euphonium.  “I was in the Marimba group.  We were quite good”, she added.

The young Siya was always a bit of a tomboy who would gravitate towards more of what was considered boys instruments.  “I wanted to play an instrument that not many girls were playing at the time, such as flute and clarinet”, she recalls.  Her teacher had a few instruments lined up for learners to try if they wanted to be in the school band.  “I tried out the French horn and the trumpet.  When I picked up the trombone, it just made sense and produced a sound almost instantly”.  Despite her excitement, she remembers that the ‘bone’ looked a bit intimidating and complex “but it was a welcomed challenge for me”.

Some of the challenges of being a young and inexperienced trombonist was when it came to playing fast passages alongside her trumpet and saxophone counterparts.  “I always felt like the big kid who finished last during the 100m sprint”, remembering those early encounters of playing the instrument.  She had to learn how to practice playing difficult passages slowly, once they were in her muscle memory, she would learn to play them faster.  Despite these challenges, not even once did Siya consider quitting the trombone or changing to another instrument.  Unlike other brass instruments, the ‘bone’ does not have keys or valves to press.  The person playing the instrument has to concentrate more on intonation.

Showcasing her skill and talent. Picture by Gregory Franz

Siya told Jazz It Out she uses different energy when approaching the tenor and bass trombones. “With the tenor trombone, I have to concentrate on relaxing the face and air stream a bit more when playing notes in the higher register”.  She always tries to achieve a warm, almost ‘dry’ tone when playing jazz trombone on tenor. Not too brassy, unless the music requires it.  “With the bass trombone, I have to do more breathing exercises to practice breathing deeper and relaxing the throat, in order to produce a big open sound”, she added.

When playing with the big band, she does more of an edge and growl to the sound, so that the lower end can cut through the top and middle voices in the ensemble.  With orchestral bass trombone playing, she strives to produce more of a “Belgian chocolate” sound, full and rich.  “I definitely feel a bit more confident and more ballsy when playing the bass trombone.  It’s my favourite of the two”, with a smile.  For her to continue playing her favourite instrument as a profession, certain decisions had to be made which involved meeting and selling this idea to her parents.

Siya’s mother came from a very musical family and was always supportive of having daughters that were passionate about the arts.  She attended every theatre play, choir performance, wind orchestra and jazz performance she possibly could.  Being a civil engineer, her father was more academically inclined, and with Siya’s history of being an academic, he envisioned his daughter studying medicine at Stellenbosch University.  At the end of her matric year at Stellenberg High School, Siya passed with an A-aggregate and expressed her desire to study jazz at the University of Cape Town (UCT).  While her father did not hide his disappointment, it was her mother who encouraged her to follow her passion and calling.

If it was not for music, she would have studied anything that has to so with learning more about the human behavior or the human body such as medicine (specializing in neurology), clinical psychology or ethnography.  She enrolled for a Bachelor of Music degree in Jazz Trombone Performance at UCT which she completed in 2012 and completed a Bachelor of Music (Honours) degree in Jazz Trombone Performance cum laude also at UCT the following year.  While studying at the tertiary institution, she would often play in bands and horn sections with saxophonist Sisonke Xonti, trumpeter Lwanda Gogwana and pianist Bokani Dyer.  It was Lwanda who booked Siya for her first gig at the Cape Town International Jazz Festival in 2011 while Bokani recommended her as a trombonist for guitarist Jimmy Dludlu. Siya also became close friends with some classical musicians that she played with at the UCT symphony orchestra and wind band, whom she is still close with to this day.

She has learned to master the trombone. Picture by Gregory Franz

The music theory she learned at UCT helped Siya to understand the things her ears were hearing.  “I always knew what a G aug 7 chord sounded like, but I didn’t know what the voicing was called until I learned jazz theory.  Learning music theory helped me a lot with expanding my songwriting and arranging skills”, she told Jazz It Out. She also learned how to sight-read music which was not her strength prior to enrolling at UCT.  “Learning music has opened the door to playing in a wider range of music styles for me, which I really appreciate”, she added.

With her time playing in symphony orchestras and wind ensembles, she had learned the art of blending her sound with her section as well as with the ensemble as a whole, exposing her versality as an artist.  “I also learned the importance of breathing together as a section, so that when the note speaks on the instrument, we play it together”, reflecting on the experience she has gained.  This creates unity in the sound.  She has also learned to always be attentive to what is going around when performing.  “I would throw an ear to the double basses as they often had the same phrases as me or listen to the harmony in the upper strings and see where my voice would fit”, which has helped her become a more attentive trombonist.

In 2018, she won a very prestigious award and an amount of R20 000 which went towards her Master’s Degree in Jazz Performance at UCT.  Siya was honoured to have been part of this country’s brightest stars in jazz such as Kyle Shepherd, Darren English, Vuyo Sotashe and Justin Bellairs, to name a few.  As a trombonist, she has worked with the likes of Hugh Masekela, Jimmy Dludlu, Lwanda Gogwana, Lira, Simphiwe Dana, Freshly Ground, Amanda Tiffin, Melanie Scholtz, Marcus Wyatt’s ZAR Orchestra, Andile Yenana, Feya Faku, and Ndabo Zulu.  She thinks trumpeter Mandla Mlangeni is a brilliant composer and arranger.  “His music has a poignant message”, she added.

Even though she is yet to release her debut album, her first official single “Kwa Langa” has been released with Universal Music SA which was produced by virtuoso pianist Nduduzo Makhathini.  Working with Nduduzo in the recording of the single taught Siya the art of music production.  “He has a very good understanding of harmony and arranging”, she said.  “I really enjoy the magic of creating something new in real time, as well as the unity of sharing music with people who truly love and understand the art.  I love the communion of playing together in an ensemble.  It’s a beautiful synergy”, she added.

All the things you are – Siya Charles

Siya is a supporter of the livestreaming concerts.  “These performances help us artists to keep being creative and keep our axes sharpened so to speak”, she told Jazz It Out.  She does however confess that livestream concerts are nothing compared to the energy to perform with a live audience.  “Live performances are, to me, the nucleus of the jazz industry.  It would be to the detriment of the jazz community if they were to discontinue”, she added.  On a wider scale, the auxiliary workers in industries such as musical theatres (namely sound and lighting technicians, riggers and stage management) would be without employment.  Live entertainment is part of a bigger network of careers and she believes it would bring a major loss in the entertainment industry.

The trombonist acknowledges that jazz has always been more of an exclusive, elitist kind of music post-swing era and is an acquired taste.  To make the genre more popular, she suggests that collaborating with more mainstream artists may help, without having to water down the beauty of its complexity.  “I also think that more South African jazz rotation in radio airplay would help”, she added.  Her other wish is to see more female trombonists.  She does not think brass playing is restricted to a specific gender. “Enjoy every moment when playing your instrument.  Your talent and gift are greater than the boundaries formed due to social constructs.  Practice smart, dedicate yourself fully to the craft, and have a good personality.  The right doors will open for you”, she emphasized.

She also acknowledges a number of challenges women face in South Africa, the greatest of these being gender based violence.  Her message to women this Women’s Month is: “May we always be courageous, despite the adversities that us women face in society.  May you always believe that you are worthy, you are valuable, and that you are able to achieve anything you set your mind to.  May we use our abilities, talents and giftings to bring a positive change in the world”.  When asked to define jazz in a sentence or a phrase she quoted Bill Evans who said “jazz has always been a place where anything is possible”.

Her firm belief is that Jonas Gwangwa encapsulates the South African jazz trombone sound so beautifully.  “He really knows how to wait on the horn, and his compositions and arrangements are sublime”, she said.  Her other favourite trombonists are J J Johnson, James Morrison, Carl Fontana, John Fedchock, Steve Davis, Conrad Herwig and Steve Turre.  She has performed at the Cape Town International Jazz Festival, Standard Bank Joy of Jazz Festival, Grahamstown Jazz Festival, Arcevia Jazz Feast (Italy), Stockholm Jazz Festival (Sweden), Kongsberg Jazz Festival (Norway), Calabar Jazz Festival (Nigeria), Montreux Jazz Festival (Switzerland) and the Jazz is Black Festival (Croatia).

Siya’s hobbies include reading, doing crossword puzzles, hiking, boat rides, travelling and learning new languages.  Her Facebook Page is Siya Charles.  Follow her on Twitter @SiyaCharles , @jazzmatic.charles on Instagram and Jazzmatic Charles on SoundCloud.