Female jazz instrumentalists are not a new phenomenon. As an African-American art form jazz has given us treasures from the iconic Nina Simone to rock star Cindy Blackman Santana. Locally you find women jazz instrumentalists in their traditional jazz structures and circles and in the underground – from the likes of Shannon Mowday to the up and coming Thunzi McDonald.
However, there’s a strong movement of professional female jazz musicians who are changing the narrative by moving out of the background, taking the lead and etching their place in the mainstream. This mainstreaming brings with it a novelty that comes as a bi-product of recognizing these women in a niche genre dominated by men.
Here are five you should know right now, talking about how things are.
Siya Makuzeni – trombonist and vocalist
Siya Makuzeni has been on the jazz scene for 15 years. Her profile is now elevated by being the 2016 Standard Bank Young Artist Award Winner for Jazz, one of the highest cultural accolades in the country, which thrust her in the spotlight as a solo artist. Before then she had lent her flexible and haunting voice and her trombone to reputable and artistically potent bands and projects such as Carlo Mombelli’s experimental Prisoners of Strange and Marcus Wyatt’s Language 12 albums. She featured in Rudeboy Paul’s Azanian Pulse Vol 2 compilation and Afrotraction’s Soulfully Yours.
She is also the lead singer of her band, Ippyfuze, which plays around with rock, electronic and hip hop. This broad palate sees her seamlessly shape-shifting between genres, making her more than just a jazz musician.
“I’m influenced by everything I hear and I see music as a broad language. It’s thanks to the projects I have been part of which had a space for collaboration that I have an exploratory approach to music,” she says.
But her foundation is in the big band arena where she came up through her inclusion in the National Youth Big Band and the National Youth Jazz Band. She started as a trombone player and discovered vocals later and for her the two hold their space differently. Being a jazz instrumentalist is part of her identity as a musician.
“I have always found myself part of the jazz family and I’m not the only female trombone player I know. There’s a great deal of contribution that has been made by women over the years. The challenges have been breaking the mould and standing on our own as band leaders because jazz is run by men. But, this is changing,” says Siya.
She is the leader of the Siya Makuzeni sextet and she is working on releasing her solo album later in the year.
Catch Siya at the Joy of Jazz in Sandton on September 15 – 17
Thandi Ntuli – pianist and reluctant singer
Thandi is part of the Siya Makuzeni Sextet, Thandiswa Mazwai’s all-female band and leader of her own band. Her soulful and critically acclaimed debut album, The Offering made her the break out young jazz artist of 2014 with critics referencing her work to that of the late Bheki Mseleku.
Other than the jazz community, she appealed to a younger urban crowd in a way that consciously shifted the perception towards jazz musicians and made her accessible. The authenticity in her music – meditative and nuanced, and that she doesn’t believe in her own hype, makes her much more interesting. She is a collaborator who is always singing the praises of her contemporaries.
She says the novelty around professional female instrumentalists gives her the attention that initially annoyed her but that she later got accustomed to.
“The negative is in the condescending air regarding my ability to “do the job” and when I do it’s often under the shadow of how I compare to my male counterparts, i.e. “Wow you play well for a girl” or “Wow you are powerful, you play just like a man” (both of which are comments I have actually heard).
It always amazes me how the utterance of such statements is acceptable and yet if “girl” were replaced with “black person” or “just like a man” replaced with “just like a white person”…? Yeah, fill in the blanks!
It has also been positive in many ways however, and being female has given me an advantage in my marketability. So hey, I’ll take it.
Catch Thandi at Jazz In The Cradle at the Nirox Sculpture Park, Krugersdorp on September 4
Lindi Ngonelo – Pianist
It’s only fair for Durban to lay claim to Lindi Ngonelo because Durban is home; it’s where she studied Jazz and came up through the girls only jazz band, Heels Over Head. Johannesburg however, is where she is establishing herself, where she can be seen working with Tu Nokwe; Swazi Dlamini and Tshepo Mngoma; Brenda Mntambo and Nomsa Mazwai. She owes her versatility to the Jazz genre. Influenced by the likes of Themba Mkhize, Moses Taiwa Molelekwa, Bheki Mseleku to Robert Glasper, George Duke and Gregory Porter, her style is serene with a hint of effervescence.
“There’s an unpleasant stereotype that groups females into the vocal section of being a jazz musician. It’s also not fair that gender has to come into it. I have to work twice as hard as a male to prove myself. To be booked, people need a point of reference first, like who I have worked with. I wish more females were exposed to the possibilities of being an instrumentalist than just a vocalist. You’re more in charge when you have an instrument,” she says.
Nomfundo Xaluva – Pianist and vocalist
Nomfundo’s debut album, Kusile – a winning combo of her pristine vocals, charismatic lyricism and skilled fingers -won her the Metro FM Music Award in the Best Urban Jazz category in 2014. She believes jazz is a tradition that needs to be passed on, so her new offering, From Now On pays tribute to local legends like The Skylarks, Busi Mhlongo and Victor Ndlazilwana, among others.
Of her influences she says, “My music stems from identity. As an African-American art form you can lose your sense of identity in jazz. My music comes from my pride in being black, Xhosa, female, in having something to say and feeling like that is enough.”
A jazz nerd, Nomfundo did her masters dissertation on the music of Miriam Makeba.
“I found her to be a musician’s musician and I was blown away by her unique interpretation of music, especially because she was self taught,” she says.
She believes formal jazz schooling has given rise to female jazz instrumentalists.
“I belong to that new generation of female jazz instrumentalists and the impact is huge for the culture of women in jazz in SA. I noticed how people were fascinated by me singing and playing the piano. But I was naïve to that response and focused on being good at it. And I wish people doing music stick with being good at it and not be distracted by hype or novelty.”
Catch Nomfundo at the following gigs:
Ignite at the Joburg Theatre on September 2 – 3
Standard Bank Joy of Jazz in Sandton on September 15 – 17
Anikki Maswanganyi – Drummer and vocalist
Self taught and the oldest of the lot, Anikki Maswanganyi is a jazz drummer and founder of the Tshwane / Pretoria band, Ladies In Jazz. She makes it her business to give township girls from Tshwane a platform in jazz.
Her band has been around for 18 years. What they bring is a vintage afro vibe that’s undiluted. If you consider that Tshwane townships still support the culture of jazz clubs, then this is not surprising.
For Anikki, ‘Aluta Continua’. “Conditions are still very tough, but we’re fighting for our space. We need to soldier on as women and speak for one another so that our creative juices are displayed,” she says.
About the writer: Kgomotso Moncho-Maripane (formerly Kgomotso Moncho) is an arts and lifestyle writer specialising in theatre, music, urban culture and in-depth features. She has lent her by-line to media ranging from Independent Newspapers, Elle South Africa to Mail and Guardian. She freelances and is curious about most things.