Thandi Ntuli: The Rebirth of Slick

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SBYA award winner Thandi Ntuli (left) on piano and keyboard and, DJ Kenzhero at the DJ decks, present a fusion of genres at the DSG Hall during the Standard Bank Jazz Festival in Grahamstown.

“When did you fall in love with hip-hop?” – the opening interview question of the fictional journalist Sidney “Syd” Shaw in the film Brown Sugar, a love letter to what is now the top-selling music genre in the United States of America. This is sometimes a key question in my mental notebook when deciding whether or not acquaintances will become friends.

My answer, I fell in love with hip-hop and jazz around the same time. I was young, and we watched Zero Hour Zone on SABC 1 (Simunye! We are one!). A black and white music video sealed the deal – Digable Planets’ “Rebirth of Slick”.

It made sense of all that jazz my parents played in the house, by pulling together tributary streams of lyric to guide them into a gushing flow to “where kinky hair goes to unthought-of dimensions”.

This year’s Standard Bank Young Artist for Jazz award winner Thandi Ntuli (rocking some glorious kinky hair) has taken the genre into some popular dimensions – demonstrating the inclusivity and elasticity of the genre once described as “black classical music” by Nina Simone.

Opening the show with Erykah Badu’s “Certainly” (from Badu’s classic debut album Baduism), old hip-hop heads like myself, were assured a good time, thanks to the band comprising Ntuli on keys, a horn section (Sthembiso Bhengu on trumpet, Linda Sikhakhane on saxophone and Senzo Ngcobo on Trombone), Sphelelo Mazibuko on drums and one of my favourite DJs, DJ Kenzhero ensconced between Ntuli and last year’s SBYA award winner, bassist Benjamin Jephta.

With a set that moved from a modern neo-soul classic to including influences of the current “trap” sound – something explored by American trumpet player Christian Scott aTundé Adjuah throughout his 2017 “Centennial Trilogy” album set – the show had something to get a few generations up and dancing (as some did).

“The poobah of the styles like Miles and shit

Like sixties funky worms with waves and perms

Just sendin’ chunky rhythms right down ya block

We be to rap what key be to lock

But

I’m cool like dat

I’m cool, I’m cool“ – Digable Planets “Rebirth Of Slick (Cool Like Dat)”

Drawing inspiration from a citizen of the razor’s edge in music, trumpet player Miles Davis’ 1957 Birth of Cool, the performance reminded me of Davis’ apprehension towards calling his music “jazz”. Davis proposed the term “Social Music” in the 1980s, a description of popular music from which “you take out what you like, and leave what you don’t. You know, like food”.

Taking up the baton from Davis, who recorded Michael Jackson’s “Human Nature” (from the 1982 bestselling album Thriller), and Cyndi Lauper’s “Time After Time”, Ntuli’s “Rebirth” band seems poised to continue the work to bring the “jazz” genre out of its perceived ivory tower residency, and locate it at a more accessible address.

For this old, pseudo-head, it was the nods to my youth spent listening to Badu and Slum Village, that had me bopping my head. The band had me remembering nights spent at Johannesburg’s “Carfax” listening to Mozambique-South Africa based band 340ml’s “Midnight Drive-in”.

It was the short-left from the “Drive-In” (in the Newtown of my memories) to South African Jazz legend Moses “Taiwa” Molelekwa’s “Down Rockey Street” (a few kilometres north of Newtown, in Yeoville) that had me ready to eat the placenta of the cool reborn.

There are many new memories confined to my mental (and cloud) drives. The gallery includes some sensational breaks (creating space for the horns, percussion and bass to display their sub-zero cool) and samples. The palpable enthusiasm of a largely young audience at a “jazz” performance, breaking out into dance in front of the stage is another.

The balance between African American influences and those from our own fertile music ground is another strong one. Another is the challenge laid down by the “fourth industrial revolution”.

For a genre that is populated by artists such as Christian Scott aTundé Adjuah (who released a mobile application to accompany the release of his Stretch Music album) and Esperanza Spalding (who released the album she produced in 77 hours live on Facebook last year, on the “OIID” platform), who embrace the disruption wrought by a music industry, the task at hand may have changed platform, but the challenge remains as always, a dare to play with the changes.

By Mandisa Mpulo

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