“At high school, she was already composing and performing her own songs.  She has received several accolades for her recordings and is very focused.  Her determination is evident in the improvisation through her compositions.  For this pianist, performing live is a self-expression like no other”

Even though she started playing the piano at the age of 4, it was only in high school that multi-award-winning young jazz pianist and vocalist Thandi Ntuli developed a real desire to become a professional musician. Now 32 years old, the pianist has already recorded and shared the stage with some of her icons.  The last born of 5 siblings is named after her aunt Thandi Ntuli who was an amazing singer and friends with legendary vocalist Sibongile Khumalo.  The tradition of music comes very heavily from her father’s side.

Founding member of the popular group that was formed by young students from Soweto called The Beaters, which was later renamed Harari, Selby Ntuli, was her uncle. The two other original members of Harari were Sipho “Hotstix” Mabuse and Alec “Om” Khaoli.  “Uncle Selby was my father’s younger brother”, she told Jazz It Out.  Unfortunately, Thandi never got to meet her multi-instrumentalist, front man and uncle of the famous afro pop group because he transitioned unexpectedly 9 years before she was born. “All I know of him is from stories I’ve had from my father, aunt and mother”, she added.

Thandi’s own father plays a bit of piano, guitar and sings.  He also had a love for choral music as a hobby, lead a choir at a centre for the blind in Garankuwa called “Itereleng”.  Her grandfather wrote many beautiful songs, some that he taught to the students at the school where he was principal and others were a bit more complex, but songs that were sung and worshipped in their family home in Sophiatown and Soweto.  But her mother is probably the primary reason she is the pianist the jazz fraternity have come to know.  “My mom who loves music, and more specifically the piano, is the reason I play today”, she acknowledged.

Pianist and vocalist Thandi Ntuli. Picture by Victor Dlamini

She recalls growing up in Block AA, Soshanguve, which was one of the first phases of the township.  “Even the pictures we have at home from when we were younger show an area that was still very underdeveloped.  My home was a crazy place with siblings and cousins growing up in one house”, she remembers. These early childhood experiences taught the young Thandi some important values she still upholds to this day such as ‘Ubuntu – Humanity’. Even her immediate neighbours were like extended members of her family.  This is why she responded by saying “Ngingumuntu – I am a human being” when asked who she is.  She added: “Humanity and an inherent awareness of my divine nature which brings me closer to understanding the core of my essence or at least what I am aspiring to resemble more fully”.

As a young child, Thandi was friendly and observant.  Taking recommendation from a friend who said it’s easier to get a child sticking with an instrument when you start them off younger, her mom dedicated many of her hours to take her last-born child to piano lessons.  She also kept her in check when she lost focus and discipline.  “I consider myself very fortunate for this background as a foundation.  Despite being the youngest, I am the only one who made a career out of music”, expressing her profound appreciation.  There is a great affinity for good music in her family and various siblings play different instruments, most notably her elder sister who still maintains her flute practice.

By the time she was doing Grade 10, she had no doubts about the career she was going to pursue after finishing school.  “I was in a practice room at school preparing for my exam and I had started doodling with ideas of songs because I used to get bored with my pieces and fantasize about writing my own songs”, she told Jazz It Out. This was not because she didn’t like her set pieces but in hindsight it’s because she was attracted more to creating songs and expressing herself and ideas through music. At an inter school music competition, she performed a song she had written with piano and djembe to the applause of the audience, which motivated her to write more songs.

Her debut album tiled “The Offering”

One of the songs she composed was for a friend on her birthday and another which she performed in Grade 11 for the matric farewell.  It was after that first performance that her choir teacher planted the seed of studying music further.  Outside of the formal music lessons, she was enjoying the music of Lauren Hill, Tracy Chapman, Oskido, Thandiswa Mazwai and Bongo Muffin, Coldplay, Eagle Eye Cherry, Massive Attack.  “I was really into South African Hip Hop too.  I cried when I heard that Aaliyah, who I loved so much had passed away”.  From her father’s collection she like the O’Jays, Stevie Wonder and Donny Hathaway.

After matriculating, Thandi enrolled for a B Music in Jazz Performance at the University of Cape Town (UCT) where she graduated in 2010.  Before enrolling at the tertiary institution, she didn’t have much knowledge of jazz.  What drew her to studying jazz was after stumbling across a pianist who was playing a beautiful song without sheet music.  “I was curious about the song he was playing and he said he was improvising and that I should check out some jazz if I want to learn”.  From that encounter she wanted to be a composer so this “improvising skill” he was playing that gave music was really how her interest in jazz specifically was piqued.  The qualification has since helped her with skills that assist in the process of composing.  “The theory itself is also somewhat a mechanism.  Once you know your options, becoming selective in a way that is true to you is what gives rise to a new creation”, with a strong emphasis.

Some of the artists she worked with include Neo Muyanga, Thandiswa Mazwai, Selaelo Selota and Lex Futshane.  Thandi worked with Steve Dyer in recording of the two albums, “Confluence” and “Genesis”. She describes the recording of “Confluence” with the saxophonist as a real masterclass. “I found myself surrounded by some of the great musicians like Andile Yenana whose music I have loved for years.  It was both nerve wracking and incredibly inspiring”, remembering those early days as professional pianist.  With the recording of “Genesis”, she felt that the two were a bit closer and Dyer was able to share his ideas behind the music more openly.  As an instrumentalist, she likes to know what composers are thinking, with the intention of bringing the same interpretation on her part of the work.  “Artists like Miles Davis and Wayne Shorter did that as band leaders”, she added.

Her second album titled “Exiled”

Her debut album titled “The Offering” was released in 2014 where she displayed strength as a band leader.  The recording features artists like Sisonke Xonti, Mthunzi Mvubu, Keenan Ahrends, Sphelelo Mazibuko, Benjamin Jephta, Marcus Wyatt and Spha Mdlalose.  “The Offering” received a nomination for the Metro FM Award in 2015 and won the Arts & Culture Trust Impact Award in 2016.  The music that was in the album was written over a few years when Thandi was still a student at UCT. She was grateful for the immense support she received from her family, and her partner at the time.  She used the recording as a fund-raising project and remembers how Mzwandile Buthelezi designed the album cover as if he was paid millions when in fact he rendered his services at no charge.

In 2018 she received the coveted Standard Bank Young Artist for Jazz award.  “This was a huge honour for me.  A lot of people I have looked up to have received this award and it was wonderful to be recognized in that caliber of artists”, she told Jazz It Out.  Some of the benefits that came with the award include publicity for her through the intensive PR which gave her the mileage she needed.  The award coincided with the release of her sophomore album “Exiled” whose acclaim went beyond the country and the continent. “Exiled” received a nomination in the “Best Jazz Category” at the South African Music Awards (SAMA’s) in 2019.

The success of her second album can be attributed to the consultations she did with several people prior to recording the project.  One of the conversations she had while forming ideas around the album was with Dr Mongane Wally Serote. In his acceptance speech he made when he received a Lifetime Achievement Award at the Arts and Culture Awards, Serote said: “The story of Black men in South Africa still needs to be told”. Those words stuck with Thandi for a long time and she decided to hunt the veteran politician and poet where she finally arranged a coffee meetup because she wanted to hear from him, an elder about his views on Black love and healing the Black family.  She remembers that “it was incredibly affirming for me to chat with him and hear the wisdom he had to share on this particular topic”. That conversation with Serote led to the composition of the tune “The Void” featuring poet Lebo Mashile.

Her third album titled “Live at Jazzwerkstatt”

True to Thandi’s eclectic musical influences, the music in “Exiled” goes beyond the confines of genre with preferences from Mali and Ethiopia and earned her a spotlight by Apple Music as one of the artists to watch for 2018.  Some jazz enthusiasts were also surprised to discover how much of a good vocalist she is.  One of the critics went to the extent of saying: “Her lyrics – on subjects of love, fellowship and postcolonial reckoning – spring from a similar insistence of inquiry”.  The second release was also an affirmation of a more experienced pianist and vocalist who wanted not shy to express her level of improvisation.

She agrees with those critics who believe the album has a very strong political message.  Thandi gives a very interesting explanation: “I was not just trying to express a political message but more of an integrated view of our lives.  And perhaps it seems strongly political because every aspect of our lives has been affected by politics, even how we heal, who and how we love”.  The pianist who once considered studying economics as an option to music felt deeply spiritual and addressed the spiritual effects of ‘our histories as individuals’ or history as a collective. “I believe with all my heart that everything we see that troubles us in the world is a magnified version of the disturbed nature of many souls.  And my hope is that as we continue to reach for the healed external world, we do it without ignoring the work that we need to do on ourselves every day”, she added.

Despite the hard work she put in preparation for the recording, she was equally surprised by the way her second project was received.  “Man, Exiled was so scary for me.  It was so personal and often with some of the messages we share, people may feel attacked by the things you may have to say”, insisting that she wanted the recording to bring a form of healing and has no regrets.  The entire experience made her realize that it is okay to express issues that some people may feel uncomfortable with through music, because they get help in the process.  During the time of the recording, Thandi was repeatedly listening to an essay by James Baldwin titled “The Struggle for Integrity”.  This reminded her that: “As an artist, your pain has a very powerful purpose for humanity because the art you create can serve as a guiding light for someone who is moved by it”.

Her performance with Jazz at the Lincoln Centre orchestra alongside virtuoso trumpeter Wynton Marsalis last year which was in the Big Apple moved her South African fans to tears of joy.  However, it was only when Marsalis came to perform at the Standard Joy of Jazz in Sandton that she got to speak to him.  “He said quite a bit, but in a nutshell, he encouraged me to keep working on my craft and techniques because there was real value in the things I was saying through my music”, a conversation she won’t forget for as a long as she lives.  Thandi has also done some film scoring for a number of movies locally and abroad.  Most notable of these is the remake of Spike Lee’s “She’s Got To Have” on Netflix.

New Way – Thandi Ntuli (Live at Jazzwerkstatt)

Still in 2019, she was invited to headline at an artist curated, artist led festival in the capital city of Switzerland, namely Jazzwerkstatt Bern.  This is a festival known to showcase existing projects but more notably, to feature once-off collaborative projects with artists from around the globe and in Switzerland.  For this performance, Thandi wrote and arranged her music for what she called “The Thandi Ntuli Art Ensemble”.  For this occasion, she rearranged the music of “Exiled”, including in the ensemble a string quartet, a bold first for her.  Included in her ensemble were Shane Cooper, Ricco Baumann, Benedict Reising, Andreas Tschopp and Kasiva Mutua.

That Swiss performance resulted in the recording of a live album, which is her third, titled “Live at Jazzwerkstatt”.  She was grateful to have worked with the incredibly talented musicians in the project.  This release was probably an indication of how far she has travelled as an artist.  She found these musicians, some whom she was working with for the very first time extremely professional and committed to bringing about her intentions in the arrangements.  Thandi believes performing live is a self-expression like no other, still within the context of a conversation be it between the band or with the audience, but with less limitations. “I am often amazed at how no matter how I feel before the performance, I always feel elevated afterwards”.

She has performed at festivals such as Cape Town International Jazz Festival, Standard Joy of Jazz Festival, Calabar Jazz Festival in Nigeria, and Safaricom in Kenya to name but a few.  As we wrap Women’s Month, her opinion is that violence against women is a conversation that men should be having amongst each other because as victims, women cannot be expected to solve the problem.  Her advice to young women who wish to be pianists is they should spend their energy finding out who ‘they’ are and be like that.  “We all have magic to bring to this world and I’m in love with how often I get inspired by younger people who find new ways to do things”, she told Jazz It Out.

Recently she has developed a liking for gardening while working on herself and personal growth.  Some of her favourite pianists include Andile Yenana, McCoy Tyner, Gerald Clayton, Moses Molelekwa, Abdullah Ibrahim and Wynton Kelly.  Her Facebook Page is Thandi Ntuli – Musician/Band.  Follow her on Twitter @ThandiNtuli and @thandi_ntuli on Instagram.  Subscribe to her YouTube channel Thandi Ntuli and visit her website www.thandintuli.com