Fridays are usually associated with clubbing, partying and having lots of fun signaling the beginning of the weekend. This trumpeter’s Fridays were quite different. He would listen attentively to the brass band from a church not very far from his home. Curiosity made him attend the bands’ rehearsals. His sister encouraged him to be a full member of the congregation. One day he was asked to fill in for the regular drummer who was not available to perform. The band members were excited to hear his drumming skills. Later he chose the trumpet as his favourite instrument.
Michael Nkuna is a 22-year-old Tembisa born trumpeter who is currently studying at the Tshwane University of Technology (TUT). This introvert believes in constant practice which is earning him recognition from those in the music industry. “I am a person who likes to do things instead of talking about them. I prefer to let the horn speak for me”, he told Jazz It Out. He spends most of his time alone trying to find ways of mastering the trumpet through additional reading and watching videos of his icons in addition to what he studies at TUT.
Trumpeter Michael Nkuna. Picture by Mfundo Dumisa
In addition to the music he played with the church brass band while at high school, he listened to jazz, classical, hip-hop and soul music. Sometimes he would listen to bebop, smooth jazz, modal jazz, swing and Avant Garde. He had an affinity for classical music and its orchestral sound would give him the ultimate satisfaction which made him long to be part of an orchestra one day. It was while at church where he made friends with saxophonist Simon Manana who is currently studying at the Manhattan School of Music in New York whom he describes as a ‘brother’. “By the time I met Simon, he was already well known in the jazz industry”, he said. It is Manana whom he credits for introducing him to jazz.
Most of the music he played was self-taught. “I used to listen to a lot of jazz records especially records of great trumpeters and tried to emulate how they played”, he said. Even at present, he still listens to his old school favourite trumpeters like Clifford Brown, Lee Morgan, Freddie Hubbard, Blue Mitchell, Miles Davis, Roy Hargrove, Wynton Marsalis and others who make him want to practice every day in order to master the trumpet. He wanted to build his vocabulary and have a better understanding of playing jazz as a music genre. All he wanted to do was learn as much as he could about jazz which Manana supported.
It was in 2017 when Michael performed at Khaya Mahlangu’s project called SAJHA (South African Jazz Health and Alliance). He was one of the young musicians who were chosen to be part of this project. “It was a scary and great music experience at the same time”, he recalls. His sight reading and music theory were poor at the time. Despite those doubts he had about himself, it was an eye opener for the young trumpeter who decided to do more practicing and watch jazz documentaries. He acknowledged that becoming a good musician was a journey on its own which required a lot of dedication.
A firm believer in constant practice. Picture by Ofentse Sebola
In 2019, Michael joined the Unisa Wind Ensemble Orchestra where he learned classical music. Joining the orchestra was fun because they were called to audition with classical pieces of their choice. His music lessons had started at Mamelodi High School. “Jaco Van Staden who is the conductor for the Unisa Wind Band taught me classical trumpet”, he said. The tutelage he received from Van Staden played a role in Michael winning the Unisa Competition for Classical Trumpet in the same year. “The way I was so excited I almost cried thinking about how my late mom would have been proud of me. But I was very proud of myself”, recalling those emotions he went through.
Michael is so grateful to be studying under the guidance of Ndabenhle Zulu and Thamie Mahlangu at TUT. “Being taught by a great trumpeter like Ndabo is a huge inspiration”, he said. Zulu is one of best trumpeters in South Africa and the young Michael considers himself fortunate to be a protégé of this multi-award-winning and well-travelled artist. He also enjoys the lessons and interactions with Mahlangu. “Thamie’s playing really touches me. When listening to him playing, I get to hear how he understands music”, he added. He credits his lecturers for helping their students in becoming better musicians.
Saxophonist Ofentse Sebola and Michael were not strangers when they found themselves studying at TUT. They are both from Tembisa and have been good friends for years. When Michael was practicing music at home, Ofentse was at the Music Molelekwa Arts Centre. Michael could not believe his ears when Ofentse invited him to the recording of his debut album “H.O.P.E.” in 2020. “He told me he wanted me and Mbuso Shongwe to play trumpet on his album because he knew us well and was happy with how we played”, he said. Other musicians featured in the recording include vocalist Rorisang Sechele and bassist Nhlanhla Manana.
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This year, Michael was selected as part of the Youth Jazz Band that performed at the National Arts Festival in Makhanda conducted by virtuoso pianist Nduduzo Makhathini. Because of Covid restrictions, they had to do auditions using smart phones. He was so happy with the positive response the ensemble received after performing. It was his first time to play Makhathini’s music. “His music is very spiritual and demands of one to know it well. It forces you to dig deep and find your true self”, he observed. He commends the multi-award-winning Makhathini for his high level of improvisation. Many of the musicians that get chosen as part of the Youth Jazz Band usually end up having good careers and Michael is optimistic of a bright future.
Compo Brass is a philharmonic orchestra that he started this year and its conducted by Edwin Mitas. The reason behind the formation of the orchestra is to give young musicians an opportunity to play with professional musicians, learn more about playing in the orchestra and improve their playing. He hopes to record his own album upon completion of his studies but does not want to put himself under unnecessary pressure. “I also want to enroll for a post graduate qualification.”, he said. He wants to compose a lot of music in the future which he wants to share with jazz audiences.
His favourite trumpeters are Ndabenhle Zulu, Marcus Wyatta, Sthembiso Bhengu, Feya Faku, Clifford Brown, Freddie Hubbard, Roy Hargrove and Wynton Marsalis. “Those professionals have everything I am looking for in a trumpet. They can really make the horn sound great”, he concluded. Besides music, Michael spends a lot of time at the gym because he loves taking care of his body. He also enjoys reading. His Facebook account is Michael Nkuna. Follow him on Instagram @michaelnkuna50