Vocalist Thembalethu Bhengu is family oriented and a God-fearing woman.  The 20 year old was born and raised in Pretoria, but her roots are in Umlazi, South of Durban which she calls home.  Her parents met in a choir that participated in several competitions throughout the country.  “At some point in their lives they were semiprofessional musicians”, she told Jazz It Out.  She and her siblings have sung in choirs at primary and high schools.

At primary school, she was a very reserved child and did not have a lot of friends.  “I would spend my breaks in the library because of my love for books.  I was often by myself and always had my nose in a book”, she recalls.  It was at high school that her social life really sprouted listening to RnB and Neo-Soul.  Some of her favourites were Jorja Smith, Snon Aalegra, Cleo Sol, Jill Scott and Erykah Badu.

The discussion with her parents regarding her career choice was easier than she anticipated.  Thembalethu is a third year B Music student at the University of KwaZulu-Natal (UKZN).  “I was glad to be accepted because prior to entering university, I did not have a lot of musical background outside of choral music”, she said.  This vocalist with huge ambitions has learned a lot about Jazz since her enrolment at the tertiary institution.  “Being surrounded by people who love music has been a priviledge and is continuing to help me grow”, she added.

Thembalethu Bhengu. Picture by UKZN Press

She enjoys music from ‘here at home’ and her biggest influences are women in South African Jazz such as Sibongile Khumalo, Simphiwe Dana and more recently Zoë Modiga.  In what way have these musicians influenced her?  “Being a woman in Jazz.  I am often the only women in the room.  This can be intimidating.  I look up to these women because I can imagine what they may have gone through while building their careers and becoming some of the biggest names in South African Jazz scene”, she explained.

Thembalethu feels like the music of Sibongile Khumalo, Simphiwe Dana and Zoë Modiga speaks directly to her.  She makes a confession: “I love the sound of African Jazz”.  In 2023, she became a recipient of UKZN’s School of Arts Student Excellence Awards.  “I was very excited and surprised when I received the news.  The award I received was a dean’s commendation and it came with a scholarship”, she said.  This award served as a very good motivation to the young musician.

Also in 2023, she had the priviledge to perform with the KZN Philharmonic Orchestra.  “This was probably one of my favourite performances.  I have always been shy on stage but that day I felt myself losen up while performing.  I am not sure why, but it felt great”, with a smile.  She also recalls the number of compliments she received after that performance.  This vocalist has also done a few performances at the UKZN Centre for Jazz and Popular Music with UKZN Pop Ensemble.

Taking centre stage. Picture by Aphiwe Moyo

When she is on stage, Thembalethu is often accompanied by The Art Messengers.  The ensemble comprises of pianist Makgashule Thothela, trumpeter Sifundo Myeza, bassist Zolile Mgqatsa, and drummer Tumisang Mosome.  “This is a band of only instrumentalists but when they need a vocalist, I am often who they call”, she said.  Her most recent performance with The Art Messengers was at the Artfluence Human Rights Festival and Jam in Mzansi Africa Day Celebration in May.

One of her firm beliefs is that Jazz can appeal to all age groups.  “It is an acquired taste which has nothing to do with age”, she asserted.  Knowing that her lecturers have taught and worked with some of the biggest names in the music industry gives her the assurance that she is in good hands.  Her dream is to travel around the world as a musician showcasing South African Jazz and learning from musicians she comes across through her touring.

She has not lost interest in reading.  “I still love to read.  My favourite genre is romance”, she said.  Musically, she is discovering several musicians.  “I’ve recently started listening to Zimbini and she has been on repeat”, she added.  Siphokazi has been her favourite musician for a while.  Internationally, her favourite artists are Tom Misch, Daniel Caesar, Moonchild and Snoh Aalegra.  Her Facebook account is Thembalethu Bhengu.  Follow her on Instagram, Tik Tok and X @themba___._