Back in the blessed space with Thandi Ntuli

Standard Bank Young Artist for Jazz award winner, Thandi Ntuli, presents the songs of her latest album “Exiled” at the DSG Hall at the Standard Bank Jazz Festival in Grahamstown, Eastern Cape. Photo: Mandisa Mpulo

Thandi Ntuli wants you to know that it’s not alright with her, when you call her people “monkey” or think that “all of my brothers are criminals”. An activist closing statement to a Standard Bank Young Artist Award winner’s victory lap that balanced the moods of gratitude, reflection and activism.

As someone who owns a copy of Ntuli’s debut album The Offering and has been enjoying her latest offering, Exiled, on a variety of digital platforms (the album was released in February of this year, on Bandcamp and multiple streaming sites), I relished the opportunity to experience Exiled in the flesh – a band comprised of a sterling horn section including Mthunzi Mvubu (saxophone and flute), Linda Sikhakhane (saxophone), Marcus Wyatt (trumpet) and Justin Sasman (trombone), alongside guitarist Keenan Ahrends, drummer Sphelelo Mazibuko, percussionist Tlale Makhene and last year’s SBYA award-winner, bassist Benjamin Jephta.

Bringing the spiritual into the performance space, Ntuli opened up with “Umthandazo Womzali” from Exiled. Then she expanded on “Umthandazo” from The Offering, a
blessing from the forebears to prepare the performance space for a musical journey through the multiple forms of love that help to bind our consciousness to our contested bodies, and to the groups that give us grounding when in “Freefall”.

Lending some of the finer notes (heard from the keys on the album version) to the fretboard of guitarist Keenan Ahrends, Ntuli was free to take the audience through some variations on her piano work. Holding the variations together was the ever closed-eye inducing, head-bangingly entrancing drum play of Sphelelo Mazibuko.

Mazibuko meets Ntuli at a crescendo that inspires me to mix metaphors between aerial freefall and the crashing
waves conjured up by the drums – reminiscent of the “flying through turbulent waters” description of political party leadership, shared by the leading democrat.

While some artists freefall in the age of “free thinking” – where slavery is problematised as having been a choice made by the oppressed – Ntuli’s live performance of the album, moved the audience to “Cosmic Light” – ushered in by a solo electric bass meditation by 2017 SBYA award winner Benjamin Jephta. “Oh, I taste your freedom [but] oh, I’m never free,” goes the refrain on a tune that
works as a metaphor to demonstrate the wonder of conceptual freedom and, the distance from experiencing it – when one isn’t equipped with the societal will, and infrastructure to bathe in the warm glow of “Cosmic Light”.

Modulating the mood of the audience – as a good DJ would (Ntuli performs as part of “The Rebirth of Cool” with DJ Kenzhero on 30 June) – the performance moved through more of the tracks on the second disc of her double album Exiled. Playing the track listing in reverse order, Ntuli and the band moved from “Cosmic Light” to “13” – a tune that seems to use its thick bassline as a sturdy stage to showcase the skills of the various talents contributing to it.

Continuing the reverse journey through Exiled, Ntuli suggested a “New Way” of engaging in debate about the social media trend driving issues of the day – race and gender relations. Inspiring us to engage in meaningful conversation about the weighty issues, Ntuli encouraged us to like and retweet her post asking:

“Why can’t we tell the truth about how it feels?
Perhaps we are afraid that if we say too much it might become real.
Yet here we are, trapped by all these insincerities”.

Ending this tune with a refrain of some of the things which Ntuli will no longer accept from society, this “New Way” encourages us to challenge the bounds of superficial civility to have contentious, yet constructive conversations. We are taken on a journey through our experience of (what should be) the familiar places of our emotional and physical homes as spaces of contestation. The audience is then brought back from imagining the vast and untouchable cosmos, to witnessing an impression of a “Rainbow”: a skit on the album expanded into a kaleidoscope of musical colours, painted on the canvas of the percussion of Tlale Makhene.

Returning to acknowledge the forebears that made her latest achievement possible, this year’s SBYA award winner – a former member of the Standard Bank Youth Jazz Band – acknowledged the jazz festival for bringing her the opportunity to play with an artist she had long admired, trumpet player Marcus Wyatt.

Through the act of thanking the pathfinders, we are returned home to the blessed space. We are released from the space of personal reflection with inspiration to close the distance between ourselves and the conceptual freedom we have yet to achieve.

By Mandisa Mpulo