She has fond memories of growing up in a very musical household.  Her house was full of loud music where her mother could have been playing her Hammond organ pieces, her father playing the limited repertoire of piano pieces he loved so much or vinlys blaring anything from La Bohéme, symphonic selections, Frank Sinatra, Louis Prima, Dave Brubeck, The Mills Brothers, Rachmaninoff or Ella Fitzgerald which she and her two siblings could not ignore. 

Vocalist, pianist and lecturer Debbie Mari got exposed to different music genres while still very young.  “I am a creative person, a music practitioner, a wife, a mother of two delightful daughters and someone who believes that kindness is key”, the Port Shepstone born and Amanzimtoti raised Debbie told Jazz It Out.  “My parents who both played the piano encouraged my brother, sister and I to play the piano, sing and dance from an early age”, she added.  Her parents loved all kinds of music.

Throughout her school years she was actively involved in the arts and culture activities.  “I studied Drama as a matric subject, sang in the high school choir and participated in a range of school productions including music reviews, annual musicals and talent shows”, she said.  Even though music was not offered as a matric subject at her high school, the school did have an active arts programme.  She also loved attending annual musicals of neighbouring schools as she enjoyed the Broadway musical theatre repertoire immensely.  In high school, she was a member of the KZN Youth Choir and studied piano and singing for as long as she can remember.

While some of her peers in high school were listening to artists like Madonna, Michael Jackson and U2 (which she also enjoyed), she was silently grooving to other music in her head.  “I loved jazz from an early age but very few of my school friends were into jazz and it wasn’t something we could enjoy together.  I guess I was drawn to the music through my exposure at home”, she remembers.  When her parents realized that she was into jazz they searched for a suitable piano teacher, Mr Simon Kerdachi, who would nurture her love for jazz for many years.  At the time she was enjoying Broadway musicals, vocal jazz, the music of Oscar Peterson and Abdullah Ibrahim.

Debbie Mari

Signs that Debbie was destined to be a musician were beginning to show.  “I always knew that I wanted to pursue a career in the arts but it was until I studied a semester of Drama at Durban University of Technology that I realized Music was my true calling”, she told Jazz It Out.  She was hesitant to audition for Music at the then University of Natal as she thought she would not be accepted without having Music entrance exam grades – there were no accredited jazz grades in those days like the UNISA or ABRSM syllabi available today.  

Enrolling for a Bachelor of Music at UKZN was an eye opener for Debbie.  “Growing up in small, predominantly white town, and never experiencing the diversity that actually existed in our country, gave me renewed perspective as a young South African”, she said.  At that time Darius Brubeck was the Head of the Jazz programme.  Brubeck and his wife Cathy (who was actively involved in the development of the Centre for Jazz and Popular Music) occasionally guided students, through formal debates, music critiques and casual conversations on and off the bandstand about music, people, the industry and politics.

At that time, although they were not yet aware of it, the student body was made up of many young jazz musicians who would later become some of South Africa’s leading jazz artists and educators today.  These included Lex Futshane, Neil Gonsalves, Concord Nkabinde, Nishlyn Ramanna, Feya Faku and Andile Yenana.  What was even more exciting for music students (including Debbie) was the exposure to performing live on and off the campus.  “The jazz programme always had a thriving concert calendar starting with the weekly Wednesdays at Centre for Jazz and Popular Music which are still happening today, about 30 years later”, she said.

The George Mari Band. Picture by Rajesh Jantilal

There was a university big band and many students formed their own bands which played in venues across the city including the Rainbow Restaurant in Pinetown, Jam & Sons on the beachfront and festivals such as Awesome Africa.  She did a lot of singing with Darius Brubeck and played solo piano at Tropicana Hotel for a few years (a gig her former piano teacher Simon Kerdachi gave her when he got a better one).  She was an automatic member of the George Mari Band since she was dating the band leader whom she later married.

The year after graduating with a B Mus in 1995, Debbie married trumpeter George Mari and started working at Berea West Primary School as music teacher.  She continued playing, performing in local live music venues across the city with local musicians including her husband, Philani Ngidi, Bongani Sokhela, Bruce Baker, Gerald Sloane and John Edwards.  “During the 6 years I was a music teacher, I also had two daughters and completed a Masters Degree in Intercultural Music Education at UKZN in 2001”, she told Jazz It Out.

Besides teaching and performing, Debbie is extremely passionate about arts development.  While she was a student she taught in the UKUSA Arts Programme, a community arts project which aimed to create opportunities for arts participation in under-resourced communities throughout the greater Durban area.  “This experience sparked my continued interest in the field of community music and today I run the programme having taken over from the founder Professor Betsy Oehrle”, with a tone of someone who is happy to make a contribution in the development of arts in the province.

It was Prof Oehrle who introduced the option of a specialization, at Masters level, in Intercultural Music Education, which was well suited to the transformation happening in South Africa at the time.  Music Education, the world over, has a long legacy of western art domination and it is important for teachers to be mindful of this as they engage with students, rethink curricular and teaching.  “My Masters investigated three community music projects that were operating in Durban outside of the formal music education setting such as schools or academies.  This is still an area which needs greater investigation and support because music education doesn’t always happen in a formal setting”, she explained.

An instrument she plays and teaches. Picture by Val Adamson

Debbie found school teaching very rewarding and gave everything she could to make sure that learners enjoyed her lessons.  “It is physically exhausting teaching young children music.  You literally sing, dance and move to music all day.  It’s a lot”, she said.  “When a post was advertised for a Concert Manager at my alma mater I grabbed the opportunity for a change of scenery”, she added.  This set her up for a wealth of experience in managing a weekly concert series, programming and learning a new skill set which included writing press releases and funding proposals, developing a rapport with the media and regular audiences, budgeting and financial reporting.  After gaining 7 years experience, she resigned in 2008, initiated a music development project in Cato Manor and taught voice and piano students privately.

The following year UKZN advertised a post for a full-time voice lecturer in the jazz programme.  She took up the position where she was required to teach Music Theory, Music History, Keyboard Technique and vocal and instrumental ensembles.  “I love teaching.  I also know now that I really enjoy teaching young adults – to mentor and make a difference in the lives of younger people who are starting out in their studies, and careers, is something I enjoy”, she said. It is not without its challenges.  “Young people often think they have all the answers.  They forget that we were once young too”, she says with a chuckle.  Her students are also her teachers. “They teach me about technology (I can hear them laughing as they read this).  They bring me up to date with what’s hip and happening in the world of music and they remind me of the importance of perseverance”, she said. 

She also acknowledges that it’s sometimes tough being a student.  The academic pressure is huge especially for students who have not had an adequate basic education so adjusting to university life can be extremely challenging”, some of the observations she has made.  Besides teaching jazz, Debbie spends a considerable amount of time counselling, building trust and just talking.  “Those who know me well will tell you I love to talk. So, my students know there’s always space for a chat or a laugh in our lessons”, she added.  One of the most important non-music lessons she teaches her students is to pitch up, be on time and arrive prepared.  Teaching her students is something she finds quite fulfilling and a priviledge.

The passion for teaching she and her husband George (who also taught at UKZN for several years), have led to the formation of Marigold Music School in 2013.  “George and I have always envisioned growing old together in our music school long after our children have left the nest and after I retire from full time teaching”, she told Jazz It Out.  When the tenants moved out of the cottage of their property, they started the school in their community after receiving a number of requests for piano and voice lessons mostly from their children’s school friends.  They later added other instruments and now have different teachers coming in on different days to teach their respective instruments.  The school is also a great rehearsal space for the Maris as they have a drumkit, bass amps and sound equipment on hand for their own rehearsals too.

Piano Passion recorded live at UKZN

For several seasons, Debbie has been a preliminary judge in shows “SA’s Got Talent”, “The Voice of South Africa” and “SA Idols” which she finds exciting.  She believes South Africa is not short of talent.  “I often watch and listen in awe of the voices but we do lack platforms to nurture and support the talent”, she said.  Not everyone can afford private tutoring or to study at an institution and there is a need for support from government and the private sector, along with more faith in the role of artists as consultants and educators to advise on the way forward.  Working on these shows exposes the talent but often the journey is short.  “We also need to make it known to young people, and big TV shows, that a journey in music is not always about becoming a lucky celebrity.  It is as much about sustaining a suitable career in the arts”, she advised.

She has presented Vocal Jazz workshops for the South African Music Teacher’s Society, UNISA International Jazz School (2012), “Festival In The Hills” (2015), South African National Arts Festival – National Youth Jazz Festival (2015), and sat on the adjudication panels of the UNISA National Vocal Competition (2017) and the SAMRO Overseas Scholarship Competition for Singers (2019).  As a singer, she loves reminding other singers that they too are musicians.  Singers can be band leaders too but they must educate themselves and improve their skills accordingly so that they don’t have to rely on the skills of others to articulate their own musical ideas.  “Add to that the fact that singers are predominantly women and there are important conversations to be had around these points”, she said.

Even though Debbie has done several music collaborations, she is yet to record her own solo voice or piano album.  COVID made her rethink her music and explore some musical avenues which she may not have had a chance to otherwise.  “My trumpeter husband George, and I, have played music together for years and we are thinking about an upcoming album together which we hope will either be totally enjoyable or the end of our marriage”, with a chuckle.  In 2018, she was one of the pianists who took part in the recording of “Piano Passion” which was recorded live at the UKZN Howard College campus.  Other pianists included Neil Gonsalves, Melvin Peters, Andile Yenana, Burton Naidoo, Nishyln Ramanna and Darius Brubeck.

She describes the recording as a diverse collective of professional pianists, composers, arrangers and music educators from across the country.  “Piano Passion celebrates all things piano by presenting public concerts and putting out recordings of our piano music”, she said.  Recently they honoured some younger pianists who are making their mark on the local music scene.  Proceeds from 2018 recording of “Piano Passion” which was a sold-out concert provided a welcome boost to the Ronnie Madonsela Scholarship fund which supports jazz students at UKZN.  Some of the pianists that participated in that recording are themselves recipients of the fund and have had successful careers as band members and as solo pianists.

When I Look To The Sky – Debbie Mari

Jazz It Out sought answers as to what are some of the contributing factors to having so many successful jazz musicians as former UKZN music graduates.   We asked Debbie how do lecturers contribute to producing such talent as the institution’s alumni.  She took a deep sigh and said: “I once heard someone describe Durban, and particularly UKZN, as a kind of incubator for the jazz scene.  Many promising young musicians pass through Durban or stay a little longer to enroll in the UKZN jazz programme before heading off to Cape Town or Johannesburg where the scene is a little more competitive.  Other institutions have thriving jazz programmes too but there is something unique and very special about the Durban jazz sound – it’s hard to articulate but it’s immediately noticeable when Durban jazz musicians play”.

Historically the jazz programme was the first of its kind in the country and the province has a rich tradition of vocal music and gospel music and are never short of talented singers and pianists.  There are also incredible legacy projects such as Siyakhuka Music School founded by the late Brian Thusi who have constantly fed UKZN with excellent horn players.  “The jazz staff at UKZN are also active performers and I think this goes a long way in attracting students who have an interest in jazz”, she said.  Sibusiso “Mash” Mashiloane, Neil Gonsalves, Susan Barry, Salim Washington and Sazi Dlamini are some of those active jazz performers.  Some of challenges Debbie and other music lecturers had as a result of the lockdown that was imposed was teaching online.  “It is extremely difficult to teach music online and any kind of synchronous teaching was problematic”, she confessed.

Debbie has her own definition of the music genre she enjoyed since childhood.  “Jazz is so many things – it’s collective experience.  I guess by definition it’s partly about the swing feel and blue notes but for me it has created opportunities to interact with diverse people through exploring grooves, improvisation and mutual music understanding”, she said.  For jazz to be more popular, she believes exposure is everything.  “The more we create opportunities for people to hear, and understand jazz, the more likely we are to see it flourish”, she added.  Music education also plays an important role – school learners should be encouraged to explore other serious music, and not to be confined to western art music in the curriculum or by way of assessment.  “Jazz has been dying for years, but it’s not dead, it will never die. It just evolves”, she emphasized.

Her list of favourite jazz artists is a bit of an endless one.   She is still hooked on jazz greats such as Sarah Vaughan, Ella Fitzgerald and Marc Murphy.  Debbie feels it’s important to honour the innovators but the exponents must be explored too.  Her favourite South African singers and pianists are Sathima Bea Benjamin, Busi Mhlongo, Tutu Puoane and Abdullah Ibrahim.   “I am very inspired by singer-pianists such as Shirley Horn, Karrin Allyson, Dena DeRose, Diana Krall and locally Amanda Tiffin and Nomfundo Xaluva”, she said.  Debbie’s hobbies include morning walks, gardening, travelling, and when on holiday she loves to crotchet.   Her Facebook Account is Debbie Mari.  Follow her on Instagram @debbiemari.  Like UKUSA, Marigold Music and Piano Passion Project on Facebook.  Follow UKUSA @ukusadurban and Piano Passion Project @pianopassionproject on Instagram