Thandi Ntuli Balances Her Craft with Increasing Demands

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It’s two hours before showtime.

The staff at the Market Theatre in Johannesburg, South Africa, is making final preparations for the evening’s show. The sound and lighting departments tweak their set-ups, ushers familiarize themselves with seat numbers and the stage manager walks back and forth to inspect every nook and cranny, ensuring that nothing—not even the large, black curtains forming the backdrop to the 450-seat main auditorium—seems out of place.

During the next two nights, pianist and composer Thandi Ntuli is set to perform alongside her septet to sold-out crowds. It’s a big deal.

Born in the administrative capital city of Pretoria, about 40 miles outside of Johannesburg, Thandi started classical piano lessons at an early age. She would, however, get distracted while practicing. Instead of sharpening her chops, she’d wander into other worlds; she’d attempt to compose her own songs or create alternative versions of a score.

Much later, Thandi would see a musician jamming on the piano, with no score in sight. Thandi inquired about what the pianist was playing. “It’s called jazz,” the pianist told her. Thandi made the connection to the sounds she’d hear around the house, and those booming out of neighbors’ sound systems.

The University of Cape Town’s South African College of Music graduate released her debut album The Offering in 2014. Sessions for the follow-up, Exiled (Inpartmaint), started in 2016. Then Thandi was selected as the Standard Bank Young Jazz Artist of the year for 2018. Exiled was released earlier this year, after which Thandi embarked on a mini-tour of Southern Africa, performing in Mozambique and Swaziland. It’s been a memorable time for the bandleader, riddled with many firsts and sharp learning curves.

She spoke with DownBeat after those Market Theatre gigs, but before hosting a private event to celebrate the release of Exiled in Japan.

The following has been edited for length and clarity.

What’s been going on during the past few months?

I could write a book about the past few months. I’ve been traveling quite a bit. I also performed at the [National Arts Festival in Makhanda], performing at the Amersfoort Jazz Festival. Then I also went to Italy with Simphiwe Dana. And then I had a great performance at the Market Theatre’s Jazz In July series, which I hope is going to be a long-standing series, because it’s a really good space to perform our kind of music in. That was amazing as well. And recently, my album launched in Japan.

Our kind of music?

I meant jazz ... improvised music.

And what are your thoughts about that label, “jazz”?

I use it because it’s been given to us. But I think what I meant is that the music that we make as “jazz artists,” we enjoy having audiences that pay attention to what we’re doing. Much of the time, the spaces that we play in don’t necessarily have a 100 percent attention from the audience. So, I felt like the theater space was just great for that, because the whole ambience lends itself to that.

But the label itself? I’m OK with the label of “jazz artists,” only as far as me understanding that it informs the basis of my artistic approach. It doesn’t mean that’s the only music I listen to or play or am interested in. It’s not a label that I’m like “OK, jazz must be like this, so this is what we play.” But I know that most of my composing and approach to my instrument and music comes from what I’ve learned in jazz.

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