After a whirlwind year, Thandi Ntuli is still on the rise

Thandi Ntuli speaks about her momentous double album and what it means to feature on a Spike Lee Joint.

“There is a lot of policing going on in South Africa,” says Thandi Ntuli as she discusses the song New Way from her mesmerising double album titled Exiled, released earlier this year.

“Why can’t we tell the truth about how it feels/ Perhaps we are afraid if we say too much it will become real,” sings Ntuli over a gorgeous tune that treads a delicate balance between mournful and uplifting.

“This could be the start of a new way/ You stand by me and say it is OK/ And let me be broken and hurting/ Process my healing,” sings Ntuli. “But don’t you dare say it’s been a while now/ Move on from the past child.”

When Ntuli, 30, hears a suggestion that the song skilfully explores both personal politics and national politics, she smiles. “I realised as I was making Exiled how many of my own experiences were similar to the themes emerging at a national level and I wanted the lyrics to show that,” she says.

New Way was “very personal” and was triggered when Karabo Mokoena was killed by her boyfriend Sandile Mantsoe last year. Ntuli had a close friend who was killed by her fiancé. “It’s not an unfamiliar story. But Karabo’s murder sparked a lot of conversation,” she says.

It was around this time that the hashtag, #MenAreTrash, started to spread on social media in South Africa. “People were upset and there were people trying to defend themselves in that atmosphere,” says Ntuli.

“I thought that was an atrocious way to respond to someone being burnt by their partner. For me, it was not about agreeing or disagreeing, it was about understanding where it comes from.”

Ntuli says there was policing from men at the time, telling women what to feel and what to say, in much the same way that white people like to police black people when they talk about their pain.

According to her, at the heart of these two examples lies the same behaviour.

This reasoning gives context to some of the lyrics in New Way. “You take/ My land, my diamonds, my gold/ You take/ My kisses, my healing, my love/ You take my soul/ And demand the same thing.”

When New Frame caught up with Ntuli late last month, she was in a reflective mood. “The last month has been nice and quiet for me,” she says.

After the whirlwind of a year Ntuli’s had, she was probably in desperate need of some downtime.

In addition to releasing her momentous double album this year, she’s had two songs on the soundtrack of She’s Gotta Have It, a Netflix series directed by Spike Lee and based on the director’s 1986 film of the same name. As this year’s Standard Bank Young Artist for Jazz, she also headlined the Standard Bank Jazz Festival in Makhanda.

“I think this year will be one of those years I look back on and say a lot of things changed. It’s been a pivotal year for me,” she says, as she explains that many of the compositions on Exiled were the result of a surge of creative energy. In hindsight, she says this stint of songwriting was fuelled by the difficult personal experiences she was going through at the time.

“I wasn’t trying to talk from a place of anger; it was more reflective. The intention was never harsh,” she says.

Herbie Hancock on heavy rotation

Exiled comes off as a gentle album in spite of the difficulties that inspired it. Across its 15 tracks, Ntuli, her band and some well-chosen guests, deliver one of the finest South African albums released this year.

Broadly, the album fits into the jazz category, but it’s no conventional jazz album. The defining aesthetic may be one that recalls the soundscape of 1970s jazz-fusion and cosmic spiritual jazz (Ntuli admits to having Herbie Hancock on heavy rotation during the making of Exiled).

But within this aesthetic lies strains of pop, soul and R&B, and other influences from Malian and Ethiopian music. “I don’t feel there is a genre of music that is me. There are all these genres that have influenced me over time,” says Ntuli of her diversity in musical taste.

Exiled suggests that Ntuli will not limit herself to a single genre. With their fluidity, her songs are reminiscent of Laura Mvula’s fusion of gospel, pop and psychedelia, and Sudan Archives’ fusion of Sudanese violin and R&B.

Examining masculinity 

One song from Exiled that has attracted a lot of attention is The Void (Intro). Ntuli reveals how a single sentence from a speech by South African poet Wally Serote in 2016, at the Arts and Culture Trust Awards, sparked the song without her even knowing.

“The story of black men in South Africa needs to be properly told,” Serote said during his speech.

Ntuli says Serote’s words intrigued and stuck with her to a point where she tracked down the veteran poet and paid him a visit. “All I wanted to do was ask him a question and let him talk,” she says.

The meeting, and Serote’s generosity in sharing words with her, helped her understand South African masculinity in new ways. “It just clarified a lot of things for me,” she says.

The Void (Intro) features poet Lebo Mashile. Addressing masculinity, the poet recites: “What happens to black boys who go missing?/ Do we even call it missing or do we just say he is gone?/ What happens to boys who are unwanted?/ What happens to boys who learn to die inside their skins?/ The day they learn what their fathers have done to their mothers?”

It’s a powerful song.

Ntuli says her need to collaborate with Mashile arose when she watched a TED Talk by Mashile titled Memory Matters. “It just clicked. So I got in touch with her and explained my idea for the song,” she says.

According to Ntuli, often when women talk about masculinity, how toxic it is and how it affects everyone, it is not received well by men. “It’s seen as threatening. I was anxious about the reaction to The Void (Intro), what would people say?”

But the reaction surprised her and Mashile. “Most people who love that song are men and when we performed at The Market theatre in July, there were guys after the show crying,” she says. “That song helped me overcome that thing of being silent in the background; it challenged me.”

Exiled was recorded in two sessions: a day session in 2016 and a night session in 2017.

One of the album’s highlights, says Ntuli, is a song titled Freefall, featuring her and her rhythm section comprising bassist Benjamin Jephta and drummer Sphelelo Mazibuko. The song, which was played last during the final recording session, almost never made it on to the album.

“By the time we got to Freefall, we were exhausted,” she says, laughing. “If I had said after that, ‘OK let’s do another take,’ they would have killed me.”

But it was just that exhaustion that, perhaps, pushed the song to the next level. Ntuli says the impetus to complete the session, and the album, ended up giving Freefall a sense of urgency. It’s another song on the album that has gained popularity.

But what Freefall illustrates is that at the heart of Exiled is a truly great chemistry between Ntuli, Jeptha and Mazibuko. “We’ve played together for a long time. We’ve grown together,” she says.

According to her, “the rhythm section is the foundation” of how she composes.

She says the album’s title track began with a melody, but it was a 2016 reunion gig of the Jazz Epistles, South Africa’s first recorded jazz band, that inspired the arrangement. “After that show, I was obsessed with the combination of flute and trombone. So trombone is new to my arrangements on this album. I wanted that warm, sad feeling,” she says.

While musically the song Rainbow (Skit) acknowledges the sounds of Mali’s Sahel region, creating a beautiful fusion piece that sounds like Herbie Hancock jamming with Oumou Sangare, the lyrics are very pointedly aimed at what some would call South Africa’s “rainbow nation illusion”.

Abyssinia, which features Tlale Makhene, was written as a celebration of Ethiopia after Ntuli’s visit there a few years ago. “I was really inspired by that trip,” she says.

What inspired her was the “sense of pride” Ethiopians carry. “It’s not about being wealthy or anything, when they speak about Ethiopian history or culture, they beam it and I know that it’s something we as South Africans don’t have. I don’t want to call it patriotism; it’s like a pride in your own history and knowing of your own history.”

It seems the secret of Ntuli’s talents have spread beyond South Africa’s borders. “I’m not sure if it’s because I have some songs on a series on Netflix, but I have been getting a lot more traction globally lately,” she says matter-of-factly.

Her album sales show this development – and it’s not confined to Exiled. According to her, there has been a surge of international sales of her debut album The Offering.

Ntuli mentions the series remake of She’s Gotta Have It rather casually. She responded to a call from from Lee on Instagram for independent artists to submit music for the series. “I had nothing to lose,” she says.

The famed Brooklyn filmmaker selected two of her songs, Lonely Heart and Cosmic Light.

When asked how it felt to be selected, she opens up a bit more. “You have to pinch yourself a few times and be like, ‘dude’. I’m a huge fan of Terence Blanchard and he has done a lot of film scoring for Spike Lee, it just feels so far away that your music could ever be in a Spike Lee Joint.”

It’s something she regards as another reminder that she is on the right track.

To add to that, she’s recently signed a distribution deal in Japan, with future touring opportunities on the horizon.

It seems Ntuli is only just beginning to hit her groove.

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