The Stunning Legacy of Thandi Ntuli - Bubblegum Club

The Stunning Legacy of Thandi Ntuli

Dubbed by Creative Feel as ‘The Queen of Cool’, the pianist, vocalist, and songwriter, Thandi Ntuli is not only insanely talented but very well respected in the jazz circles of South Africa. She’s collaborated with some of the dopest, most talented people in this country and built a career that is both admirable and burgeoning. I wanted to find out what makes her tick and what she plans to conquer next. We met at La Pergola at 44 Stanley and sat cosily close to the entrance and walkway so that we could feel the breeze, people-watch and chat at the same time. 

Thandi Ntuli, born on September 10, 1987, in Soshanguve, Pretoria, comes from a family with a rich musical heritage. “Growing up, knowing that those are my roots, that’s my dad’s family, and we grew up in a home where music was just a natural part of life. I do think it is a continuation of that legacy, but I also believe it’s something I can carve my own path with. I don’t feel any pressure to emulate them; I learn from the music that exists, but I don’t feel the need to continue exactly what they were doing. Otherwise, why would I be born, you know?

My aunt … I know she was a classical singer, and I’m named after her … She went to school with Mam’ Sibongile Khumalo …. I suppose in my mind. I’m just like, ‘Yo, this is crazy.’ But at the same time, they all lived in the same place …  so they knew each other in that way. … then [they] were duet partners. …  and I remember meeting her one time, and she … would just chuckle when she thought back, about being friends with my aunt because obviously girls being friends, there are many memories you have of your home when you’re like in your twenties. Yeah. And it just, it was beautiful for me to see that warmth in her as well.

Thandi Ntuli
Image courtesy of Creative Feel

… from my uncle’s part is his involvement in Harare … I  didn’t know until, like, you go on the streets of Joburg, because my dad … actually started the band. It was a high school band, and then he went to another school, so they took it over. …  My parents talk about it, but I suppose because of the family’s humility, they’re never like … those people were superstars. … So it’s very interesting and it’s exciting to hear those stories because you kind of feel like they are the people who will be moving with you as you do your stuff. … I definitely don’t think I’ve reached my uncle’s level of superstardom because yo, those stories are crazy. 

Thinking of the male-dominated world of South African jazz, I asked: Speaking of the work and the process, as a femme South African, it’s been really impressive to watch you work. There aren’t many Black femme pianists who are recognised as great. When I see you play, alongside musicians like Keenan Ahrends and Benjamin Jephta, but led by you, it makes such an impact. It makes someone like me believe that such an achievement is possible. Does that come with a level of pressure? 

Ntuli answered, “… to be honest, it was always in my mindset … because when I was a child, I was playing the piano …  So growing up, it felt very normal to be a girl … playing the piano. The girls were the ones playing piano, violin, and clarinet, and then there’d be that one boy who’d get teased by the sports guys. Like, yeah, why don’t you play sports, you’re busy with music, you know what I mean? So, I think in terms of the environment … I didn’t ever think it was strange … to play instruments. It was only when I got to jazz at a later stage, where like, now I’m playing with other musicians, and even then … it’s not really hitting me that, oh, these are all guys. Until people start … reflecting it too, and then you’re like, oh, damn, okay.

Thandi Ntuli

So, I think the pressure is in understanding what it means. … Because those things are systematic, right? So, like, when a woman gets forgotten, it’s not because she didn’t contribute well or a lot. … I think what I’m learning … is to try and speak more about my work because I know that those are some of the ways that we get silenced … it happens all the time. … So … the pressure is on myself and how I show up as a woman because I also know that [as] you said  … there are other women who  start seeing it as normal.”

When I asked why she chose jazz, she playfully responded, “I would say personally, naivety. I didn’t know much about jazz. … I went into it because I was told that if you want to write songs, you need to learn how to improvise. …  I don’t necessarily see myself as a purely jazz musician. And,  at the same time I do.  Simply because of … what jazz is, it’s always been a question … and it’s always been evolving.  So in that sense, I definitely see myself as a jazz musician because I want to be in that space of creative expansion where I’m going to go as far left as I want to, up and down, or middle, or round and round as I want to go.”

As her star continues to rise, there is so much to look forward to with this incredible artist and living in Joburg, there are plenty of opportunities to see her in action. Happening on the 27th and 28th of May, the Africa Rising Music Conference features panels and workshops covering topics like women’s leadership, music rights, digital platforms, and heritage in music. Keynote speakers discuss transformative leadership and authenticity in music culture. It provides valuable networking opportunities for music industry professionals and enthusiasts.



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