Thandi Ntuli :: The Aquarium Drunkard Interview

Thandi Ntuli didn’t know this was gonna be pretty much a solo record. “In fact, Shabaka [Hutchings] was supposed to add some clarinet because he was in LA at the time,” she tells us over Zoom from her home in Johannesburg. The fact that her new album, Rainbow Revisited, is better off without one of the best players on the planet is a testament to Ntuli’s artistry. Her piano and nearly wordless vocals are so achingly vulnerable it’s hard to imagine them in any other context.

Rainbow Revisited was recorded over the course of two sessions in 2019, between Ntuli’s grand 2018 epic Exiled and last year’s shimmering Blk Elijah & The Children of Meroë. An accomplished bandleader, Ntuli might never have recorded a collection of solo tracks had percussionist/producer/sorcerer Carlos Niño not reached out after seeing a video of her warming up. They jammed together at the Ford Theater in Los Angeles before heading to a cozy little Venice Beach studio on “a zen-like California afternoon.”

Shabaka Hutchings ended up contributing artwork, a vibrant handmade piece full of interlocking colors that captures the album’s moods and modes. On this record, you hear the imprint of African musicians like Abdullah Ibrahim/Dollar Brand, plus the blues, gospel, and new age music. And you’ll hear something more – the sound of Thandi transcending all of it. Below, we talk about all this, her family’s influence on the album, about how music can give us space and feel like home. | j fecile

Aquarium Drunkard: The song “Rainbow Revisited” is a good starting point. You’ve recorded “Rainbow” three times now. What keeps bringing you back?

Thandi Ntuli: I don’t think I’ve ever gotten to a place where I finish compositions, especially if it’s a song I perform often. My songs usually go through rearrangements and “Rainbow” was such a song. When I first recorded it, it was all very electronic and ‘in studio.’ The second recording was a bigger arrangement. I had performed it a few times, so the recording had grown a little bit. So yeah, I guess it’s just one of those things where the song keeps coming, cycling around, and wanting to be reiterated from my end. 

AD: Is there something thematically that you think keeps drawing you back? Rainbow has some significance in South African politics.

Thandi Ntuli: It’s a personal journey, right? Moving from the rainbow being a very tricky symbol in post-apartheid South Africa to actually a place of healing or conclusion or release. It’s less reflective of what’s changed in society and more my personal processing of this idea of the rainbow and the Rainbow Nation. And also just bringing it back to this sense of wonder and awe, you know?

For me personally, it’s also been having to come to terms with my past. My past in terms of my ancestors and the experiences in my lineage. And it has taken a lot of grit and a lot of struggle and all the things that come with really facing yourself and with facing history, facing the past. I’ve seen relationships within family, within society, community, and how they’ve been affected by this inherited disempowerment that has come from history. There are no healing rituals or anything that are put into place to make the past and the present integrate and move forward in a way that makes sense. I want to do something about what I can do something about, and I think it all starts there. I’ve never wanted to stay in a place where I feel disempowered.

You know, there’s this sentiment in South Africa, not all over the place, but in certain places you will come across people saying, “Things were better during apartheid.” And I mean, I was born towards the end of it and I can’t remember it, but that always shocks me. I’m like, “What do you mean things were better? Like, the stories we’ve heard, the things we’ve read about it, how could things have ever been better?” But I think what those people are talking about is this idea that people who were oppressed didn’t have to rely on the government for anything. They relied on each other. They relied on community. And community was the source of strength and hope.

I might be oversimplifying it, obviously, ’cause I didn’t live during that period. Post-apartheid, there’s been an increasing animosity and increasing sense that things didn’t actually change and the wealthy have gotten wealthier. I just feel that it’s important to think about those things and how they can assist with forging a future that is based on a sense of community that’s moving towards the same direction and fighting for the same things.

AD: How does this intention to create community play into your new record?

Thandi Ntuli: The album itself was recorded in a period where I was in the dismantling phase of everything. So everything was dissolving, falling apart. You know, after my album Exiled, which was released in 2018, I was a little bit overwhelmed by everything because that album was really received well. It was just a new level of being received and people hearing what I’m saying and also still trying to articulate what that album was about. Afterward, I needed to step back a little bit and get clearer on my own artistic vision.

In a way, this has been an important part of my sense of community building. There is a need for a complete overhaul of how we organize ourselves as people and what makes us feel like we belong. I think that we’ve really reached a period in history where we can’t be creating community and a sense of belonging based on the color of our skin or our genders or where we come from. It’s gotta be deeper than that because none of it historically is working, you know? 

I think how it’s played into this album is that this was necessary dismantling of some of my ideas. I was really in a place of trying to hear myself. What do I like? What do I want? Rainbow Revisited was out of my comfort zone, it wasn’t something that I would’ve thought up myself, which is why I really insisted on Carlos Nino being included as a collaborator because even if he doesn’t come across in his playing throughout the album, he really is instrumental in the ideation of the whole album.

AD: The music on this record feels particularly moving for its spareness. Especially in the present moment, with everything swirling around us that’s currently swirling around us. I get emotional listening to it in a way that I don’t think I would with a full band record. Why do you think that is?

Thandi Ntuli: I think we need space. We all need space. Since the pandemic, our entire existence is on our phones. If we want to connect with people, it’s through our phones. If we want to connect with the world, it’s through our phones. You scroll past some bad news and then scroll past a recipe for something and then scroll and see something else. Where do you get the space to process anything? Do you know what I mean?

I find it quite interesting that there are few artists that – I’m not saying it’s intentional – but it’s interesting to me that, some years back, Shabaka did a more stripped down album. Ambrose Akinmusire, a trumpet player that I really love, has also just released a solo trumpet album, which is like, wow, solo trumpet! And then André 3000 … It’s what the collective seems like it’s craving and it’s coming through artistically. Space is needed to process everything that is actually happening, that maybe we don’t always have the time or the presence to process.

AD: You deploy and bring together a lot of different musical styles in your solo playing on this record. Can you talk about some of those styles?

Thandi Ntuli: I’ve always had this defiance against African artists having to be into a certain type of music. It’s not necessarily said but, especially when you go on tour, there’s this expectation that only African music is played in Africa. My influences include a lot of American music, classical music, and music from different parts of the world.

AD: I’ve heard you talk in other interviews about your love of the blues. What does the blues mean in a jazz context? 

Thandi Ntuli: I think “blues” is another way of saying the root, the root of the music is the blues. If you wanna be technical, it’s got to do with the kind of scale that you use. But I believe that blues is broader than just America. I think the blues is so evident in so much music around the world. The sound of it, the feeling of it, is so universal for me. It’s more feeling than it is, you know, anything technical.

AD: That’s a great answer. Is there a song on this record that you feel like is particularly bluesy or in that mode?

Thandi Ntuli: I would say “Piano Edit,” in a way. It feels a lot like home and the musicians that I’ve been attracted to from South Africa. A specific one who I just shared with Carlos after the release – I was like, “Oh my gosh, here’s an album that I used to listen to years back, and I just remembered it,” and it feels like this influence has come through – it’s a piano player called Moses Molelekwa. He was one of those genius artists that died quite young. And what I really loved about him was how he really brought a lot of African influences in his own very unique way to jazz. So he’s been one of my big influences along with people like Abdullah Ibrahim, who comes through in the sense of roughness in my playing, that Abdullah-esque grit. I think, in terms of feeling as well, that’s where the blues comes through.

AD: So your grandfather is also an influence on this record. Can you tell me the story behind the song “Nomayoyo”? 

Thandi Ntuli: His name is Levi Godlib Ntuli. He was not a musician, he was a school teacher and most of the things he wrote were either choral music or cute little songs for the students that were at his school. My grandfather passed away the same year that I was born, but I know him through the stories that are always told about him and through the music, because we always sing his music when we come together as a family. So including one of his songs for me was just very anchoring. I’ve always wanted to record his music and make it timeless in the sense that it will outlive any of the family members who were present when we were singing it at family gatherings. 

My aunt has always said, “Your grandfather always wanted us to be busy with music in some kind of way. So he’d be very happy with the fact that you are doing this as a career.” My father explains that they would sit together in the evenings and my grandfather would be like, “Okay, I’ve got a song, you sing the alto part, you sing the soprano part. Let’s try it out.” He was always busy with something and trying to get people to sing. And I think that’s such a special thing that has been passed on in our family. It’s a way of coming together that I really cherish.

You know, we’ve got a very boisterous and loud family, but when we’re making music, it’s really just fun and vibes [laughs]. So I appreciate the larger aspect of what music does in the family context, in communal context, on the bandstand. That’s why I love jazz music. I’m really grateful for the fact that it’s being passed on and I hope it continues.

AD: Are you gonna be getting together with your family this month? For the holidays? 

Thandi Ntuli: Yes, for the holidays. 

AD: Think you’ll be playing and singing? 

Thandi Ntuli: Probably. [laughs]

For heads, by heads. Aquarium Drunkard is powered by its patrons. Keep the servers humming and help us continue doing it by pledging your support via our Patreon page.