/ 7 March 2024

Puoane: A woman of her word

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Open arms: Jazz artist Tutu Puoane’s latest project Wrapped in Rhythm is the first of a two-album series – the second promises big-band arrangements from trumpeter Bert Joris.

That Belgium-based South African jazz singer Tutu Puoane cares about words has been apparent from her earliest recordings. Puoane wrote or co-authored many of her own lyrics, in Sepedi and English. 

On her second album, the 2009 Quiet Now, she introduced audiences to Percy Mabandu’s poem Old Man River (Knows My Name)

On the 2015 Ilanga, she surprised listeners with rediscovered lyrics to the familiar standard Body and Soul, noting: “I love it when I find a verse to a very popular standard that no-one sings anymore.” On that same album, she imagined a bass groove to transform poet Lebo Mashile’s work Sisters into song. 

So, there’s a certain inevitability to her latest project Wrapped in Rhythm Volume 1: eight small group arrangements of Mashile’s poetry. This is the first instalment of an envisaged two-album series; the second promises big-band arrangements from longtime collaborator, trumpeter Bert Joris, for a further set of songs with the Metropole Orkest in the Netherlands.

The project has been a decade in the making. Puoane says she was “grabbed” by Mashile’s 2005-published collection In a Ribbon of Rhythm: “I find things about my country so difficult to explain myself … she is able to express things I feel deeply but am not able to express.” 

But, having secured agreement from Mashile back in 2014, the musical development work mostly happened during the Covid lockdown. 

Says Mashile: “[When Tutu] started sharing her experiments online during the pandemic, and when I first heard what she and Ewout (Pierreux, pianist and Puoane’s partner) were doing in their home studio, it felt like multiple timelines were collapsing and converging at once. Across continents, in the isolation of lockdown, on social media, I felt intimately connected to Tutu’s imagination, and seen and affirmed in a way that no artist has ever made me feel before.”

Poems are not usually intended as song lyrics — although Puoane declares that “the beauty and the fascinating thing about these particular poems [is that] there was already so much rhythm and lyricism within them there really wasn’t much stretching or adaptation needed”. 

The integrity of this kind of project depends on empathetic playing that catches the mood of the words, on production that respects their clarity, as well as on the expressive diction of the singer.

Puoane’s core quartet — Pierreux, Dré Pallemaerts on drums and bassist Clemens van der Feen — and guests Joris, pedal steel, guitar player Tim Finhoulst and organist Larry Goldings certainly provide the first and producer Larry Klein has shaped a recorded sound that is warmly intimate without being cloying. And then it’s down to Puoane.

The singer, opera-trained at the University of Cape Town, and with the late Sibongile Khumalo as one important mentor, has always understood that words matter. 

She recalls veteran chanteuse Deborah Brown stressing at a workshop how important it was to be understood if your goal was to tell a story through song. 

“And another workshop with Dianne Reeves — who was, and still is, I guess, my biggest influence. She talked about how two different singers can sing the same word differently — a simple word like ‘begins’ [can be] ‘begiiiiiiiiiins’ or ‘beginnnnnns’. 

“Paying attention to things like that helped me figure out how I wanted to do it, choosing what made sense to me and to a particular melody.”

Mashile doesn’t lean on high-flown vocabulary but her lyrics are tightly clever, playing on the connotations of a word to stretch and weave into further, unexpected ideas, as in From the Outside In: “Home is a foreign land/ That hurls the might of its confusion around the world/ Strangers believe they know my bruises/ The smallness of boxes they call eyes/ And woo them into a false comfort …” 

Puoane and Pierreux’s lyrical melody and the singer’s interpretation — every word sharply etched — brings into focus the work’s reflection on difference, origins and finding home. It’s profoundly prescient for our times when xenophobia is an easy, brutal tool for vote-catching. 

That’s why Mashile calls her re-hearing on the album of words she crafted 20 years ago “a strange, wonderful, time-travelling experience. 

Cover Album Tutu Puoane

“I feel compassion for my bravery as a young woman and artist at the time and I can hear this amplified through Tutu’s voice. Tutu has pulled on chords of GBV, identity, alienation and hope in my poems […] Sometimes the zeitgeist has to shift for people to hear what you’ve been saying all along.”

Given the devastation the pandemic wreaked on live music, it’s remarkable how many inspired projects, including Wrapped in Rhythm, came out of Covid isolation, here and elsewhere. But anybody believing that live music’s recovery has been easier elsewhere, needs to listen to Puoane. She and many other performers in Europe are “still feeling the harsh impact”. 

People are generally poorer and buying fewer gig tickets, bookings are scarce and shows get cancelled at the last minute because of insufficient uptake. 

“It was always hard landing gigs but now it’s even harder,” she says. “Everything else has gone up but musician payments haven’t gone up and, in fact, some bookers still try to negotiate a lesser fee …”   

Wrapped in Rhythm does have European launch gigs planned between next month and June, and its intensely South African character suggests it should come home too. 

Cherishing heritage means cherishing the contemporary as well as the ancient. Puoane’s vocal re-visioning reminds us of the intense South African creativity born from the complicated, contrary pulls of hope and disillusionment as the 1990s unfolded and of how we need to keep breathing on the flame of that hope. 

Probably my favourite track is Find The Path, with music by bassist Van der Feen. He has made the words a bluesy recitative, with gorgeous piano underpinning from Pierreux that takes flight, shaping “anchors into wings”. 

Twinning hope and regret, the track brings the musical character of Puoane and the poetic character of Mashile perfectly together. 

Though it never happened, you can almost picture the two perched side-by-side on bar stools in some dimly lit dive (possibly Yeoville’s House of Tandoor around the turn of the 20th century), wryly philosophising about the state of the world. Soon, Mashile’s going to bum a match for that spliff she may smoke with Jesus Christ later on tonight …