“She and her elder sister would sing church hymns with their grandfather.  The love for singing at school led to the formation of a chamber choir.  Some of the friends she made while studying music at varsity came together to form an all-female jazz band who debut album was nominated for a SAMA Award. Today marks 10 years since the release of that album”

Like most musicians, vocalist Thulile Zama grew up in an environment where she was always surrounded by lots of music.  The 37-year-old bubbly individual who is a concert co-ordinator at University of KwaZulu-Natal (UKZN) Centre for Jazz and Popular Music (popularly known as the Jazz Centre) recalls that she was always surrounded by music throughout her childhood.  “My parents, uncles and aunt love music.  I grew up being exposed to a lot of soul and RnB, as well as South African legends.  My sister and I used to sing church hymns with Mkhulu (grandfather) at home”, she told Jazz It Out.

She has an older sister from her mother’s side, a baby sister and four brothers on her father’s side.  One of her brothers lives and works in China.  Her father is originally from Emkhambathini and her mom from Hammarsdale.  Thuli as most of her friends and fellow musicians call her has lived in several parts of KwaZulu-Natal (KZN) such as Hammarsdale, Effingham, Mandeni, Pietermaritzburg and now resides in Glenmore.  “When someone asks me where home is, I always choose one of my parents’ homes. I have always mostly been with my mom and sister”, she said.

While living in Effingham, she went to Avoca Primary School and has fond memories of playing with friends after school, getting the occasional treat with her sister on their back to home.  “We used to like crisps called O’Gradys…whatever happened to them I wonder”, with a chuckle.  She also recalls playing a game called Ushumpu with her friends at Tugela Primary School, singing in the choir, writing and learning lyrics after relocating to Mandeni.  “Life was good”, she added.  Her love for singing grew bigger when she went to Stanger High School.  She used to make her friends sing with her which led to the formation of the chamber choir.

Vocalist Thulile Zama. Picture by Lindo Mbhele

Her favourite music was predominantly RnB, the likes of Tamia, Mariah Carey, Whitney Houston, Toni Braxton, Boys II Men, Blackstreet and other acts.  When she went to varsity she fell deeper in love with the music of Regina Belle and Anita Baker whom she grew up listening to.  When she bullied her friends into singing the music of artists such as Bebe & Cece Winans, she did not anticipate a future as a musician.  Thuli’s parents would have preferred that their child studied towards a qualification that would guarantee her work and she had to do a lot of convincing.

“After obtaining matric, I enrolled for a BA in Music at UKZN.  I found the music discipline very warm at the institution which was a unifying space for students”, she told Jazz It Out.  Her bubbly personality made it easy to get along with everyone.  Some of her close friends were Thabani Gapara, Maya Spector and Renae Soobiah.  Renae is a musician, beautician and up and coming interior designer.  She also played in several gigs as a music student.  Together with David Smith (the keyboard player she studied with) were used to musicians that played regularly at Moroccan restaurant Yossies (which used to be in Davenport) and Oscars in Durban North.

They positioned themselves to acquire more wedding and corporate gigs.  They also used those gigs to establish professional relationships which have lasted for a long time.  “As long as the client knows that they will get quality performance, they will keep coming back”, she observed.  Thulile graduated in 2006 and recalls that it was not easy journey, having started formal music at tertiary.  She found the years studying very rewarding and she was hoping to making her parents proud post graduating at the tertiary institution, dismissing the doubts they might have had about her career choice.

She is also a concert co-ordinator. Picture by Mfikination

Heels Over Head in all-female jazz band that Thulile formed in 2008 with friends she met while studying at UKZN.  “It was really God’s divine intervention like most things in my life.  I did not set out to form Heels Over Head, it just fell into place”, looking back to more than a decade ago.  In 2010 they won the Yamaha Young Talent Award.  “We applied, and auditioned in Durban, then we qualified for the next round, which was the national round”, explaining the road they embarked on in the tournament.  The national competition was held at the Carnival City in Gauteng.  When they arrived as participants, they were hoping for the 3rd or 2nd spot.  She still remembers the excitement they felt when they were announced winners of the tightly contested competition.

They ended their good year with a release of their debut album “Could It Be?” which was held at Durban hotel on the 27th of November.  The first single from the album “Girlfriend” received a lot of airplay on radio.  The song warns fellow women about the dangers of relying too much on men for material benefits and gold digging.  Other tunes from the album are “Silent Room”, “All the things”, “Inyandza Leyo” and their own version of the Miriam Makeba classic “Pata Pata”.  “Could It Be?” received nomination for Best Contemporary Jazz Album at the 17th instalment of the MTN SAMA Awards in 2011.  They were so excited with the nomination as this happened six months after winning the Yamaha competition, something they saw as a validation that they were on the right path.

Music recorded and performed by Heels Over Head is an honest expression and interpretation that can be enjoyed in many years to come.  The band is influenced by a whole lot of different genres mainly jazz, neo-soul, gospel, reggae and South African music like mbaqanga.  Pianist Lindi Ngonelo, drummer and vocalist Zoe Masuku (now known as Zoe The Seed), bassist and former Idols S A contestant Sindi Nene, vocalists Nomkhosi Mazibuko and Thulile took part in the recording of “Could It Be?”.  2013 saw the release of their EP “Sondela”.  The album featured trumpeter George Mari.  Bheki Mthembu produced two tunes from it while Nathi Zungu and Skye Wanda contributed a song each.  By this time, Rebekah Doty was the drummer for the group.

SAMA nominated debut album by Heels Over Head titled Could It Be?

Through the relationship Ethekwini Municipality had with Essence Festival in New Orleans (USA), Heels Over Head together with fellow South African acts Afrika Mamas, Hyena Blues, Ithwasa Lekhansela and Afro Soul were chosen to represent South Africa at the New Orleans hosted festival in 2017.  They were in the same bill with Diana Ross, Jill Scott, Indie Aire, Chaka Khan and many others.  This was an experience they will never forget.  Other festivals the all-female band has performed at include SAJE in Cape Town, The Grahamstown (now Makhanda) National Arts Festival, Ugu Jazz Festival and Hazelmere Jazz Festival in KZN.  They hope to be invited to the Standard Bank Joy of Jazz Festival and Cape Town International Jazz Festival one day.

As an individual, the first international trip Thulile embarked on as a musician was when she went to Germany on a cultural exchange in 2010, and was invited back by the Wandsberg Lutheran church to be part of their “Night of the Stars” where they chose to celebrate South African music.  “I worked with the amazing ensemble Happy Gospel Singers and made some amazing lifelong friendships”, she recalls.  The first time she visited Germany, she found herself jamming at a jazz club in Berlin which taught her that music is a universal language.

In 2017 together with Rebekah Doty on drums, Sbusiso Mkhonza on bass, and David Smith on keys, Thulile embarked on a “A Tribute to Mama Africa” honouring the life and music by legendary Miriam Makeba.  Her former lecturer Natalie Rungan booked her for a gig which was billed ‘Thulile Zama sings Miriam Makeba’.  The initial gig did not come off as she was involved in a car accident a day before the event.  The research they embarked on revealed how Makeba’s music still resonated in the current times, which led to the tribute concerts.

Their 2013 EP titled Sondela

The four musicians that are part of Makeba tribute have extended the project to “Tribute to Sophiatown”, which takes the audience through a journey of development in music of Sophiatown and the influence of Black South African women, starting with the marabi sound of the 20’s, via kwela all the way to mbaqanga.  They perform compositions by Miriam Makeba, Dorothy Masuka, Letta Mbulu, Hugh Masekela, Dolly Rathebe, Abigail Kubeka, Thandi Klaasen and many more.  The era of Sophiatown also influenced the formation of groups such as Mango Groove.

During lockdown, she and David Smith have been busy as The Fanatics Duo. “David and I have been working together since our university days performing at weddings and corporate gigs. There is mutual respect and ease that we have never taken for granted”, she told Jazz It Out.  They enjoy collaborating and composing, and hope to record and release the music far and wide post lockdown.  They post regularly and invite people on their musical journey mainly on the Facebook Group ‘Friends of Thulile Zama’ as well as her YouTube channel ‘Thulile Zama’.

Thulile graduated with an Honours Degree in Culture, Communication and Media at UKZN in 2019.  “I did my honours degree in the same department where I was introduced to a communication strategy called Entertainment Education which was a new and exciting for me”, she said.  Her topic was: Exploring the role of soap operas in creating awareness about social ills – A Case of Uzalo.  The study critically explored how South African Soap Opera “Uzalo – Blood is forever” uses entertainment and education to address social ills, and she was looking specifically at the storyline where they were teaching about misfortunes that people living with albinism face.

Joy – Thulile Zama & David Smith

This year (2020), she enrolled for a Master’s Degree in Culture Communication and Media Society.  “My thesis will explore the value of Entertainment Education through concerts in South Africa.  It is qualitative and autoethnographic reflection on my Tribute to Mama Africa project” she said.  The vocalist who is passionate about music has been a Concert Co-Ordinator at the Jazz Centre for the past 9 years.  She is responsible for booking the artists, publicizing the events (including music recitals).  Due to the lockdown imposed as a result of Covid-19, they were forced to do things differently.  In partnership with iSupport Creative Business, they came with the concept “Music Unlocked Sessions” whereby musicians record their mainly solo performances while observing social distancing to prevent the spread of the pandemic.  With the lockdown eased to level 1, they are recording these performances at the Jazz Centre and streaming them live.

As an artist, Thulile’s future plans are composing with her talented friend and pianist David Smith and hope to release an album after the lockdown.  With the easing of the lockdown, the duo has performed live at some venues in Durban recently.  She suggests that jazz lovers should invite friends who know little about the genre to live performances where they would be converted.  In addition to that, jazz can reach more people if it has a platform in the mass media.  Her favourite artists are Feya Faku, Spha Mdlalose, Mimi Mtshali, New Skool Sextet, Mandisi Dyantyis, Herbie Tsoaeli, Lindiwe Maxolo, Rachelle Ferrell, Miles Davis, George Duke, Gregory Porter and Esperanza Spalding.

She describes herself as a chilled person whose hobbies include picnicking at a park with loved ones.  “I like going to the movies, catching up with family and friends over coffee or a meal.  Watching live performances by other musicians is something I thoroughly enjoy.  I guess you cannot keep me away from the music”, she said.  Her Facebook account is Thulile Zama and her FaceBook Group is Friends of Thulile Zama.  Follow her on Twitter @thulilez and @thulilezama on Instagram.  Connect with her on LinkedIn THULILE ZAMA and subscribe to her YouTube channel Thulile Zama.  Like the Facebook Page of her group Heels Over Head (All female Jazz band).  Follow the band on Twitter @isupporthoh and @heelsoverhead on Instagram.  Also, like the Facebook Page Tribute to Sophiatown.