The incredible exploding career of Thandi Ntuli

Johannesburg - You may already know Thandi Ntuli’s name – she recently won the 2018 Standard Bank Young Artist Award for jazz and her sophomore album, Exiled, has been spotlighted by Apple music as one of the musical highlights of the year so far.

What you might not know is that, outside of making open-ended jazz songs to live with, the Soshanguve-born pianist was handpicked by legendary film maker Spike Lee to have two of her compositions featured in his TV series remake of She’s Gotta Have It.

For the uninitiated, the 30-year-old pianist’s explosion to the zenith of the local jazz scene might seem like an overnight success, but Exiled and Ntuli’s phantom-like virtuosity have been 26 years in the making. When I ask her how she still manages to get excited about an instrument she has been playing since she was four, she points out that, for her, it’s bigger than just black and white keys and the order in which to play them.

“I get excited by music and its endless possibilities. Even though I’ve been playing for years, I always find that I’m learning something new. I listen to other musicians and discover new ways of playing and that always keeps it fresh for me.”

When Ntuli is not being a badass sorcerer bandleader in chief, jetting off to exotic locations and adjudicating the jazz electric, she can usually be found sitting at home composing and refining her craft or frequenting music dens to soak up the atmosphere and find inspiration. She hasn’t done much of either since her album was released in late January.

Keeping it subtle
Ntuli is operating in a time when jazz itself has become a kind of ugly word, with artists boastfully stating that they don’t make jazz; they just make music. However, she treats her music as an autobiography. The handmade quality of her work is what makes Exiled a fierce and fearless album.

She has been recording and editing the project since the spring of 2016 and it was supposed to come out last year, but the perfectionist in her had other plans.

The result is a 15-track body of work that’s as daring as it is elusive. In this genre of jazz, indulgence is a cancer. Spectacular compositions can be undercut by excessive solos and an over-presence of different instruments.

Ntuli’s genius is self-editing. Although her influences are as varied as Moroccan rock and Ethiopian bebop, the way these references make their way into the music feels neither forced nor wilful. She treats them with a casual authority that seems far ahead of her age.

“The goal has always been for me to be as honest as possible with my music because I have to live with these songs for the rest of my life,” she says.

As Ntuli points out, there was a deliberate plan to produce Exiled like a pop album, and it shows in the structure of the record and the sequencing of the songs. Some records are short and play like sketches, where the musicians are engaged in hand-to-hand combat and trying to feel each other out, others are more long form as she takes the Rolling Stones’ advice and lets it bleed.

“I wanted this album to sound like a more produced piece of work. I didn’t want to take much away from the actual songs by having too many elements and digressions.”

A sense of displacement
The sheer relentlessness of the music beckons quietness and contemplation, but, make no mistake, this is still a very functional album. Exiled is a record that showcases the very best of Ntuli’s interests, which include conceptions of identity and womanhood, as well as rethinking what it means be alive, here and now. All of this she does with a vulnerability that forces her to make herself the ultimate subject.

“The way I think of exile is more than just physical displacement. It’s also on a spiritual and emotional level. The reason I use that word is because the themes that come across in the album – although they are things that one might experience personally – are caused by our history. They are the repercussions of where we come from. Whether you’re black, Indian or white in South Africa, you feel like you don’t belong, so through my music I wanted to confront my own sense of displacement.”

One of the demons Ntuli had to exorcise on this project was not liking her own voice. She features in the intro, delivering spoken word and through the record on backing vocals, and she repeatedly offers up looping harmonies that elevate Exiled’s ceremonial feel.

Using her voice as an instrument, she says, left her feeling surprisingly exposed.

“I don’t have any vocal training, and so at some point I had to let go and trust that the music was the most important thing. It’s not always about the quality of the voice, but the feeling behind the music.”

One of the standout cuts on Exiled is Umthandazo Womzali, a recomposition of Umthandazo, a song that was featured on Ntuli’s 2014 debut album The Offering. It’s a surprising and luminous joint.

If you’ve seen Siphelelo Mazibuko live, you will notice that when he plays the drums, his elbows are never parallel – instead, they point out like antennas seeking a beautiful noise. He’s the guide who ushers the song from a cosmic darkness to a euphoric light with a kind of loose, edgy playing that can best be described as gliding.

Ntuli also props up the song with ethereal, controlled phrasing.

“I’ve always known that my parents were praying for me, and sometimes I find myself in positions where I think things are happening for me because my parents are praying for me. So I felt this song would work in the context of the album. I also feel like a lot of the social ills we isolate are part of a deeper problem of a lack of spirituality in our society.”

All the way up
Patriarchy and oppression is a recurring point of departure on Exiled, and there’s an intergenerational conversation at play.

Ntuli prefers an electronic keyboard. This album is her way of defragmenting the decades-long quietness of black women who have wanted to make this music on their own but have never been allowed to. She renders her ancestors silent no longer. The music that makes its way through her as a result of this journey, however, is surprisingly joyful.

“I didn’t want this to be an album about anger. I wanted to show that, in small ways every day, we are all hurting and there are ways of coming together and healing, and that’s a good way to move forward.”

South African jazz is going through a golden age of prophets and, mostly, their instrument of choice is the piano. Exiled is a piece of testament. An album of possibilities that showcases what may happen when an artist escapes into an instrument and the two become one. Exiled is voodoo. It is also evidence that Thandi Ntuli’s dial is all the way up.

Photos: Tseliso Monaheng