Durban’s jazz queen

2011-04-09 00:00

NATALIE Rungan’s voice puts me at ease. The woman behind the sunglassed, high-heeled glossy music videos has warm words and a rich Durban accent. Not exactly what you expect from one of South Africa’s foremost jazz divas. But then most of Rungan doesn’t match my perception of jazz divas­. She grew up in Chatsworth, not New York, describes her childhood as lovely, not traumatic and when she finished school her greatest aim to was to be a vet.

“The first time,” Rungan explains, “that I thought I could sing for a living was at a concert. I sang When I Fall in Love and when I saw the response of the audience I thought, ‘I could do this forever’.”

Having taken music as a matric subject, majoring in recorder and voice, Rungan began classical studies at the University of KwaZulu-Natal School of Music in 1997. In her second year she switched to jazz, concentrating on vocals. By 2002 she had completed her Masters degree in jazz performance, composition and arranging. But Rungan claims that her greatest lessons were learnt when she recorded her first album, Love Is …, with producer Ernie Smith. “It was the hardest lesson of my life. We are married to our own ideas as musicians. Then your producer says, ‘But this has to change’, and you say, ‘but you’re chopping my heart out’. At times you have to learn to hand over the reins and at times you have to hold on.”

And Rungan did hold on. For the past year she has been working on her second album, which is due to be released nationwide on April 28 under the KZN Music House label, directed by Mbongeni Ngema. On the album she collaborates with kwaito artist, Mandoza, and world-renowned saxophonist Gerald Albright. “I love the album,” Rungan beams. “When I left university I was a jazz purist. But the hardest lesson that musicians have to learn is that you can play music that you like, but you have to play music that people like. So I’m now taking what I like, jazz, and trying to make it accessible to a larger audience. I want people to know that jazz isn’t just for old people.”

And judging from her wide and varied fan base on FaceBook, YouTube and MySpace, Rungan is succeeding.

I ask whether with this success comes pressure to please her fans, to conform to their expectations? Rungan snorts down the phone in response: “Not at all. People respond to truth. They don’t want another Beyoncé­ wannabe, they just want you. I suppose sometimes you think, ‘I could get further if I sacrificed a bit of who I am.’ But a few years down the line, you’ll look back and you won’t be able to see yourself.”

The only real pressure, Rungan concedes, is from her. She wants to succeed and she wants to excel. Her sights are set on Carnegie Hall and the Hollywood Bowl.

But her heart is still in South Africa. “It’s a helluva challenge as a musician in South Africa. It’s like a new country, with a baby music industry, and you’re figuring things out as you go along. But at the same time if I was born in a different country, like the United States, I probably wouldn’t have had the opportunities that I’ve had here.”

But challenges aside, Rungan is filled with hope; and it fills her songs up as well. When she heard Barack Obama’s inaugural speech she felt as though he was echoing her life goal: to bring hope to people, to restore hope where hope was lost. And while she’s doing that, she says she’s getting paid to have fun. “Someone described how I feel: Find what you really love doing and you’ll never have to work a day again in your life.”

 

• Natalie Rungan is performing with the Bruce Baker Quartet in a jazz concert, on the PMB UKZN campus, on April 23. Bookings through www.ticketbreak.co.za For more information phone Sam at 083 257 9059 or go to www.aboundpmb.wordpress.com

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