Overarchingly personal: The 10-track ‘Rainbow Revisited’ put out by Thandi Ntuli draws inspiration from the track Rainbow, from her album Exile. Photo: Oupa Bopape/Gallo Images
After the full, 14-piece orchestrations of Live at Jazzwerkstatt and the companionable septet improvising of Blk Elijah & the Children of Meroe, Thandi Ntuli’s new album Rainbow Revisited, with Carlos Niño, is almost shockingly stark and intimate.
The 2019, Los Angeles-recorded outing features just Ntuli’s voice, her piano and some percussion and effects. She didn’t, though, find the format at all constraining.
“Music’s very broad,” the 36-year-old musician reflects, “and it’s taken me a while to figure out and articulate where I fit. My real love is composing and arranging and that can come through in any set-up I work in.”
However full or sparse the format, Ntuli says, the goal is “to make the instrumentation serve the song”.
“There are certain times when, to do that, I can’t get enough musicians in the room — but, yes, this one is very personal.”
The timing of both the recording session and the release date, she says, are significant.
“The intense global isolation [of the pandemic] forced so many musicians to shift to smaller formats.
“But it also caused inner shifts and reflections and the intimacy of this album has landed at a good time for where I’m at, and where society’s at.
“Coming together after isolation, we’re all asking: ‘What are we bringing with us into this new world?’
“Nine years after my first album, I’m thinking more critically and intentionally about what I’m releasing, rather than pushing out material.”
That thinking is rarely a solitary process. When Ntuli met the American percussionist, producer and composer Niño during a performance visit to LA, he invited her to record a session with him and recording engineer Andy Kravitz at Studio 4 West.
He was particularly interested in re-visioning the composition Rainbow, from Ntuli’s second album Exiled.
In the end, there were two sessions a few days apart, resulting in 10 tracks, many engaging in some way with Rainbow — either explicitly with its composition, as in the title track, or with the thinking behind it.
“I felt it important that Carlos was credited. Although we don’t think of a producer as being heard, the producer is heard through his conception and ideation.
“I don’t think I’d have gone about it in the same way without his thoughts. If it had just been me, it might have been more compositionally based and melody-driven — but this was much more a spontaneous expression in the moment, guided by him.”
That doesn’t mean melody is absent. The airy, lyrical Sunset in California, for example, sets Ntuli’s voice and keys against a grainy, cymbal-like wash (it could be waves crashing in and pulling back from a sandy strand), but the vocal line stands out pure, melodic and memorable.
One melody is particularly important to her — the album’s lead single Nomayoyo (Ingoma ka Mkhulu), based on a composition by her grandfather, Levy Godlib Ntuli, that’s often sung a cappella at Ntuli family gatherings.
Family music — this time dating as far back as her great-grandfather — also opened the album Blk Elijah, on the track Izibongo. Those re-rememberings form a key strand in Ntuli’s deliberate engagement with identity.
“For me, the importance is related to how our generation has the heavy task of defining identity for ourselves. Nomayoyo was inspired by Carlos asking, ‘Play something from home’ and, initially, I thought about a South African jazz classic.
“But it’s important for me to have my grandfather’s music on record, even though this is not necessarily how he’d have heard it as a choral arrangement.
“There’s such a huge part of our cultural history in that generation of black, christianised intellectuals who were writing music with influences from the church, from classical music, from African tradition and from other sources.”
That historic cosmopolitanism, feels Ntuli, is an important resource for dealing with the question of what “outside classifications such as ‘Zulu’” is the music of our culture?
“How do we know? And I’ve come to understand that culture comes from the movement of people — the people in your bloodline — and the necessities of their lives. That hasn’t always been pinpointed but it moves us towards a much more nuanced understanding of identity.”
Ntuli’s sources of inspiration are diverse and not necessarily predictable. She’s classically and jazz trained, her grandfather was a choral composer, but her uncle was South African pop aristocracy — Selby Ntuli of the Beaters/Harari.
However, what inspired her compositional exploration of her grandfather’s music, alongside family feeling, was something else entirely — the music of Gibson Kente’s 1973 musical How Long? (“The one with the blue cover,” she says, as we both try to recall the album’s name.)
She wondered, “How was this music born?” and that took her back to that now sometimes forgotten, astoundingly cosmopolitan generation.
“People assumed there was no prowess in those earlier generations — but listen to the music of How Long?! Listen to [The Soul Brothers’] Black Moses.”
She’s unstinting with praise for music historians preserving and analysing those musics, such as guitarist Billy Monama’s history of South African guitar styles.
“That was the kind of documentation I craved when I was studying music! The easiest way for genius to die is if we don’t talk about it and document it.”
Nomayoyo offers a straightforward statement of the song with Ntuli singing softly behind. Though her piano sketches some possibilities for embellishment, it’s predominantly an exposition of how cycling through the historic I:IV:V chords of South African music can draw listeners (I nearly said congregants) into an almost hypnotic engagement with a song’s spirituality.
But then the ensuing Piano Edit loops sections of Ntuli’s improvisation to form their own soaring cycles, invoking the broader worlds of music from which Levi Godlib Ntuli drew, and his granddaughter still draws, inspiration.
The notion of cycles has been important to Ntuli — she’s discussed it in interviews and on the Blk Elijah sleeve notes. Repetitive cycles of rhythm (“grooves”), harmony and melody feature in both the most historic music of First Peoples and the most cutting-edge contemporary electronic producer mixes, another challenge to the genre and generational walls that constrain identity.
The album opens with the jagged, compelling Sunrise in California, driven by pieces of Ntuli’s vamping left hand. The cycles here start out rhythmic; over them Ntuli’s voice shapes a melody that pulls everything together in gentle resolution. It could be a very old song, or a startlingly new one.
As Niño encourages Ntuli to experiment (Breath and Synth; Voice and Tongo) we start to see the outlines of more new music — rooted in historical and musical time but simultaneously deconstructing their walls.
It’s notable that Ntuli has never made the same album twice but this one represents a place that might well be worth revisiting.