Thandi Ntuli Live at Jazzwerkstatt: A revisitation

Thandi Ntuli's live album 'Live at Jazzwerkstatt' is an expansion of her sophomore album 'Exiled'. (Photo by Palma Fiacco. Artwork by Lunga Ntila)
Thandi Ntuli's live album 'Live at Jazzwerkstatt' is an expansion of her sophomore album 'Exiled'. (Photo by Palma Fiacco. Artwork by Lunga Ntila)
Palma Fiacco
  • Thandi Ntuli reworked her sophomore album into a live album following her headline at the 2019 Jazzwerkstatt Festival.
  • The performance saw the pianist and composer collaborating with musicians from across the world to create 14-piece The Thandi Ntuli Art Ensemble.
  • The artist hopes to open the jazz industry up for more mentorship opportunities for women.


Could this be the start of a New Way? Are we going through some type of portal that will bring us back from a state of Exile to one of union? Is this a much needed upgrade in the collective consciousness?
Thandi Ntuli

How, after forgetting, do we stay safe? We don't forget. We cannot afford to. Forgetfulness is too divine a concept to use while existing on this particular plane of pain. It is too reckless for those who carry trauma in their bloodlines, their skin and names. Music reminds us. Revisits are crucial. Remembering is warfare.

When Thandi Ntuli was approached to headline the 2019 leg of the Jazzwerkstatt Festival, she used the opportunity to rework her sophomore album Exiled.

After being in two minds about what to do with the live recording, Live at Jazzwerkstatt was released on 20 March shortly after Bandcamp relinquished its revenue share, to help artists and labels affected by Covid-19, on the same day. Seven days later, South Africa went into lockdown. And as the country ushered in our collective existential crisis, Live at Jazzwerkstatt emerged to enable a quiet, undistracted contemplation. Four months after its release, Ntuli sees both the opportunity to remake her existing music, as well as the decision to release the recording as an album, as an intervention orchestrated by the divine.

Directed by musicians Shane Lee Cooper (South Africa), Marc Stucki (Switzerland) and Bendikt Reising, the artist-led jazz festival is held in Switzerland's capital city, Bern. Taking place once a year over a period of five days, the festival uses collaborative improvisation to foster cross-continental jazz connections between practitioners across the world. 

"I told [Reising] how I always wanted to have a huge band on stage but never had the budget to pull that off. He said we could do it," Ntuli says. After going through footage of musicians that were attending the festival, Ntuli assembled a 14-person multinational orchestra with string, brass and percussion sections. She named them The Thandi Ntuli Art Ensemble.

With the players hailing from South Africa, Kenya, Switzerland, Italy, the Netherlands, Sweden and Slovakia, The Thandi Ntuli Art Ensemble blends various cultures and outlooks on jazz.

"At home our approach to music is very spirited and spiritual. There, the jazz environment is formula based. I wanted to see what would happen if I had both playing my music," laughs Ntuli.

The result is a blazing body of work that leaves the body vibrating quietly, almost as if humming.

Possessing only one new composition, Live at Jazzwerkstatt works at refreshing our collective memory by revisiting pieces of music from Ntuli's 2018 album Exiled. "The message in Exiled doesn't get old, it only grows," Ntuli explains.

In Exiled Ntuli uses the outward (political) to inspect the inward (personal). "Exile was about me. My parents' struggles seemed very external. They could see the thing that they were trying to liberate themselves from. I inherited the traumas and needed to address the psychological and spiritual damage."

In between the two albums, exists a shift in the artist's perception about the music's message. "When I released Exiled, I was approaching it with my personal experiences in mind. Somewhere in the middle, I realised that my experience was a universal archetype for many black women. [Live at] Jazzwerkstatt was a great opportunity for me to expand those ideas and feelings."

By revisiting it, Live at Jazzwerkstatt takes the displacement that was introduced in Exiled and uses it to encapsulate the many ways that trauma affects our chances at (self) love. "Look at the world. This is about the relationships we have with each other and the self," she adds.

The fear sits in the foreground of Setting the Tone for Exile where Nils Berg's flute almost wails in agony while the incessant panting of Rico Baumann's drums instruct the ear to be guarded. But the brass section enters with an empathetic optimism in New Way where Ntuli sings "This could be the start of a new way, you stand by me and say it is okay to let me be broken and hurting, process my healing".

Before the optimism can settle, the narrator withdraws back to the safety of pessimism singing "You demand the same thing, the same as these old folk. You enter my temple then all this love you evoke. You take, then you take, Woah, you take some more". And so Live at Jazzwerkstatt ebbs and flows.

Portal, the spirited new composition, sits in the middle of the album, almost as if offering relief, and as the name suggests, is an opportunity to momentarily escape to safe imaginings.

 

Remaking Exiled into Live at Jazzwerkstatt for a band of 14, saw Ntuli writing and arranging "extended versions of my songs and sent them to the musicians to look at beforehand individually" before rehearsals.

In addition to writing an extensive score, the laborious task posed Ntuli with the challenge of writing for strings for the first time. In response, Ntuli took up the opportunity to embellish her skill set by collaborating with the strings section in writing for the instruments.

"When we're younger, particularly as women, we're made to seem like we have a window and if we don't work within that window the next best thing will replace us," Ntuli laughs. "It's not true. There's so much out there to do and I'm coming to terms with being in process rather than a final product."

After two rehearsals, The Thandi Ntuli Art Ensemble took to the stage for two performances. The second show was recorded and packaged into Live at Jazzwerkstatt.

To this day, Ntuli says she is "still blown away at how satisfied" she is with the project, especially after the "nerve wrecking" experience of leading a 14-piece band for the first time. "What ended up happening is that each section found its own way to communicate independent from my lead. That just speaks to the enthusiasm and empathy of the musicians I was working with," Ntuli says. 

On the other side of having exceptionally pulled off a project of this magnitude, Ntuli takes a step back to touch on mentorship.

"Jazz is such a mentorship-driven art form. But then learning has been a tricky space for women to navigate. When I think of who can mentor me, I first think of people that I would want to learn specific things from.

"Then I have to consider something men don't have to: whether I feel safe in their presence. It's not been the easiest thing to do without inhibitions. I hope there will be more opportunities for safe mentorship for women."