Multi-award-winning musician, singer, pianist, songwriter, producer, educator, and researcher Sy Ntuli puts a lot of commitment in everything he does.  Besides having a good career of his own, he is extremely passionate about nurturing talent which he does as a music educator.  He also teaches beyond the borders of South Africa, having recently started lecturing African Music to students at an American university via Zoom. 

Ntuli was born in a tiny village called KwaDapha, Manguzi in the northern part of KwaZulu-Natal, which he says taught him a lot of things.  “I didn’t realize that my home village was so special and that its nature was going to have an influence on my music at a later stage”, he told Jazz It Out.  His father was a self-taught guitarist who also sang at the Methodist Church in Albert Street, Johannesburg.  “My aunt also sang at the same church and I remember listening to their singing when I was young”, he recalls.  Despite seeing his dad and aunt singing, he never imagined himself as a future musician.

Sy Ntuli. Picture by Caroline Kareli

When his father realized that the young Sy was playing his guitar without his permission, he decided to make him a four-string homemade guitar.  “I would play my guitar just for pleasure because I didn’t think I was going to pursue music as a career”, he said.  The decision to study music came many years later.  At high school, his favourite musicians were Luther Vandross and Lionel Ritchie.  “I was very much into RnB and ballads.  That was my genre at the time”.  He also liked reggae and would listen to Bob Marley, Peter Tosh and Eddy Grant.  Jazz was not really his thing at the time. It’s love only came years later.

After obtaining matric, he headed to the University of Zululand (also known as Ongoye) where he enrolled for a Bachelor of Music.  Initially, he attended a few guitar lessons.  What discouraged him from attending further guitar lessons was the realization that he had to play a six-string guitar unlike the four-string guitar he was used to playing at home.  “I decided to try the piano which turned to be a good choice”, he said.  It was his very first time to lay his hands on the ivory keys.He found it to be a complete instrument which would help him when doing compositions. 

His next step after obtaining the degree in music was to enroll for a teacher’s diploma called University of Education Diploma (UED) which he also did at Ongoye.  When he left home to study, Sy never said a word about studying music.  “I just said to my parents I was doing teaching which I eventually did after enrolling for a teacher’s diploma”, he said.  “I guess they were happy because I did become a teacher after all, a music teacher”, with a chuckle.  Later on, he went to the University of Johannesburg (UJ) where he enrolled for a Marketing Management Diploma.  He is currently a Master’s Degree in Music student at Wits University.

With MJA he received in 2018. Picture by Caroline Kareli

Before recording his own music, he composed for different artists who performed diverse music genres.  He wrote songs for Jabu Hlongwane who is a leading member of the gospel outfit Joyous Celebration.  He also wrote songs for Afro Jazz vocalist Swazi Dlamini who was once a member of Joyous Celebration.  One of the songs he wrote for Swazi is “Yekel’Ukuganga” which he confesses to be one of his favourite songs and another one titled “Malayisha”.  “I introduced myself to the industry as a composer before I was known as a performer years later”, he said. 

His own solo career has been nothing short of amazing.  “Uyivila”, his debut album won a Metro FM Music Award for Best Jazz Artist in 2005.  The message he was sending through the recording was that of condemning laziness.  People who are lazy don’t get things done.  “There’s absolutely no room for laziness.  It doesn’t pay the bills.  It doesn’t help anybody”, Ntuli said.  He was very excited to walk away with the prestigious award at a ceremony that was held in Port Elizabeth (now renamed Gqeberha).  “I was pitted against my idols in that category.  So, to win against the greatest musicians that I was nominated with was never in my dreams. I was just happy to have been nominated”, with vivid memories of that evening.

Ntuli’s sophomore album “Second Coming” was also well received.  “The plan for this project was to come up with a recording that was easy listening, and was very different to my debut album”, he said.  His approach in terms of singing was also very different.  On his debut album, he is using more of an African approach in singing and phrasing but in “Second Coming” one can hear the influence of Will Downing, who is one of his favourite vocalists.  That is even more evident in a song “Uthando Lungumanqoba” which became a big song and made it to the Top 30 at Kaya FM.  The other song in the album “Bea Tshepo Ho Jehova” became number one on the gospel charts at Capricon FM.

His second recording aptly titled Second Coming

“Ibuya” his third album won a Mzantsi Jazz Award for Best Jazz Artist in 2018, something that made him realize how blessed he is, as he was nominated with the best musicians in the game.  He does not see music as something that musicians can compete in because it is not sport.  “I don’t look at it from that perspective of competitiveness.  That’s why I always respect every artist that I am nominated with and winning for me is really a cherry on top.  I always credit God for these achievements. I don’t want to take credit as an individual”, he confessed.  Sy’s music is characterized as a fusion of jazz elements with strong traditional Zulu music influences such as maskandi, mbhaqanga and isicathamiya.

The multi-award-winning artist is the owner of Sy-Zee Music record company, where he releases music independently.  One of the joys he gets from owning a record company is that he can release music at his own pace as and when he wants to. The downside however is that he does not have the big budget major record companies have.  Major record companies always put aside big budgets for marketing and promoting an artist.  His limitations have been eased somewhat since most of the music these days is downloaded and not purchased in hard copies.  “It’s better now that we have moved from physical distribution to digital distribution”, he said. Physical distribution made it impossible to get to as many stores as he wanted to because of budgetary limits. Despite all these challenges, he is grateful that his music gets played on many radio stations.

His third album Ibuya

He has worked with artists Nduduzo Makhathini, Concord Nkabinde, Mandla Mlangeni, Vuyo Manyike, Mthunzi Mvubu, Sizwe Mashinini, Sizwe Mashinini and Nkanyezi Cele.  He has shared the stage with artists Al Jarreau, Miriam Makeba, Hugh Masekela, Jabu Khanyile, Oliver Mtukudzi, Jimmy Dludlu and Ernie Smith. Nduduzo Makhathini plays the piano in the song “Uthando Lungumanqoba”. This creative had a stint as a radio presenter and producer at Link FM and Forte FM.  Ntuli has written a column called “Know Your Music Industry with Sy Ntuli” which has been published on EC Today.

Singing, composing, recording and producing are not the only things he does.  He is also passionate about teaching and lecturing as a way of grooming future musicians.  Some of his protégées include Lebo Mathosa, Jaziel Brothers, Siphokazi, Kwela Tebza, Bucie, Kabomo, Jaziel Brothers and Kwela Tebza.  The workaholic has worked at Central Johannesburg College where he became head of music.  He taught Business and Music Law at Damelin College (Braamfontein Campus).  At the University of Fort Hare, he taught Music Business, Arts Administration and Business Administration where he was also the Director of the Performing Arts Centre. 

Sy Ntuli – Uthando Lungumanqoba

Ntuli want to see artists leaving comfortable lives because they work extremely hard at building their careers.  He appeared as a guest on a jazz slot at Ukhozi FM where he gave advice on way musicians can make money.  “We as artists need to have other sources of income.  We need to try other industries so that we can still be able to survive”, making a plea.  He is known for bringing the business aspect to his learners and students.  “Music is business and that’s how we need to treat it as artists in order to make a living”, he added.  His other major concern is that it may take a while for things to go back to what they used to be before the outbreak of Covid.

His favourite South African musicians are Jabu Khanyile, Themba Mkhize and Bheki Mseleku.  “These for me are artists that have inspired and influenced me”, he said.  “I would not have done justice if I don’t mention Busi Mhlongo”, he added.  From abroad, he still likes Will Downing and Luther Vandross in terms of singing.  Ella Fitzgerald is also one of his favourite female artists.  His music is available CDBaby, iTunes, Spotify, Shazam, Amazon, Deezer, YouTube and all other mega online stores.  Follow him @syntuli on Twitter and Instagram.  Subscribe to his YouTube Channel Sy Ntuli and his Facebook Page is Sy Ntuli Artist Page.