/ 13 May 2024

A debut jazz album amidst a pandemic: Linda Tshabalala’s journey

4 Min
Saxophone player and traditional healer blows away listeners with the re-release of her album

It takes guts to release an album smack in the middle of a pandemic lockdown, especially when it’s your debut as leader. But that is precisely what alto saxophonist Linda Tshabalala did in 2021 with Convergence: Bekezela Siyeza

The title expresses her reasons. The 11 tracks were a bringing-together of concepts she had been developing throughout her music education. 

Starting in Sibikwa, she’s an alumnus of the Music Academy of Gauteng in Daveyton; got her diploma in jazz performance from the University of Cape Town and then honours in jazz performance from the Tshwane University of Technology. 

Pandemic or not, it was time to get that music out and, in doing so, declare the need to hang on, because better times were coming.

The 2021 release was digital-only and, like much in those lost Covid years, it passed under the radar of many listeners. With the arrival of slightly better times, Tshabalala decided to re-launch Convergence as a hard-copy CD at the end of March “and the response reaffirmed my decision”, she says. 

“A lot of people hadn’t known the music but the launch was packed.”

The 11 tracks, all but one self-composed, feature Tshabalala on alto with guitarist Mark Komane, pianist Mongezi Conjwa, bassist Gally Ngoveni, percussionist Mpumi Nhlapo and drummer Sphelelo Mazibuko, alongside vocalists Lesego Mokgatle and Ncamisa Nqana. 

They range from lyrical ballads (Ukhaleleni Na?) to catchy, Latin-flavoured dance music (Ngiyabonga), and from sombre processional hymn (For Bra Johnny) to upbeat celebration (Vutha Jive). There’s even a Becky-with-the-good-hair moment on Nyatsi Ena (politely, “that home-breaker”).

“Yes, I do sometimes compose from experience,” Tshabalala says. 

“That song came from something that had happened to me but also from observing things that happened to friends. And, in that case, the lyrics came first. 

“But, equally often, I’ll create a melody first and sometimes the bassline, as in Edube.” 

The latter centres on a stretched-out sax solo that definitively proclaims who Tshabalala is as a player.

And yet it almost didn’t happen. She started at the Daveyton academy with aspirations to sing and play piano — “What some people see as women’s roles in jazz,” she reflects — but the academy’s late founder, trumpeter Johnny Mekoa, challenged her: “When I look at you, I see a saxophone player …” he declared.

The melodic thinking behind Tshabalala’s compositions and solos might remind some listeners of the late Winston “Mankunku” Ngozi — both reed players, although generations apart, have explicitly acknowledged the legacy of John Coltrane. 

“My father used to play Coltrane all the time; I knew about him long before I learned about Mankunku.” 

The arrangements create generous space for soloists, something Tshabalala says the group noted in the studio, “but not something I deliberately set out to do”. 

“I guess that comes from the influence of Johnny Mekoa and the big-band experience at Daveyton. That was the way he worked and how he taught us to work.”

Mekoa was forward-thinking for his era in so explicitly rejecting gender stereotypes in music: “Why shouldn’t a sister play a horn?” he once told me. Tshabalala, though, has experienced how patriarchal attitudes persist in the industry. 

“Nobody likes having to prove themselves the whole time. But I welcome situations where I can ignore the side-lining and come up with something that might be better than what those who are criticising can do. 

“When you make the choice to play in a certain way, you’re not playing ‘like a man’ or ‘like a woman’. You’re playing like a musician.”

One source of that confidence was Tshabalala’s mother, to whom the  track Nomza is dedicated. 

“At college, I got to a point where ‘being one of the boys’, which is the usual way of surviving that atmosphere, got very confusing. 

“Moving into my 20s, I wanted to express all of who I was — my femininity and at the same time my toughness. That was the kind of womanly energy I was trying to find. 

“When shows ordered the girls to wear a skirt, I’d usually turn up in pants — but sometimes it was me wanting to wear the short skirt. 

“My mom had incredible strength, but she was also as feminine as could be. I’d ring her up and discuss these things. She helped me find my way through.”

Now, Tshabalala feels, “The older you get, the more you understand those dynamics and are able to speak up. If you lose a gig through speaking up, you just learn how to find another one. I like taking the opportunity to dispel myths.”

Dispelling myths is also the reason she’s speaking about her most recent graduation. Last year, “I received the calling and took time off to train as an inyanga (traditional healer). 

“People have the strangest beliefs and misunderstandings about that; some even think it’s ‘devil-worship’. If I talk about it, I can deal with that.”

With a new album in the works, how has this affected her music? 

“There was a point when I found it hard to juggle both those sets of responsibilities. Music and traditional healing are each a lot on their own. I felt overwhelmed. I was ready to drop music, or use it just to support my daughter, who’s already, at seven, really musical.

“But I expressed that to those who are guiding me. And I received a response: ‘No, you can’t leave music. For you, the two are intertwined.’”

Tshabalala says her spiritual role is too new for her to articulate precisely how it’s affecting her music. 

“It’s given me a new frame to deal with negativity, and I can feel my music changing, but I’d like more time before I pin it down with words.”

As well as the next album, she has other ambitions. 

“I’d still like to research music more. And then, well, you’re never only a musician; you have other things you grew up doing that somehow fall by the wayside. In my case I’ve been a dancer, and I write too, so maybe do something multimedia …”

She concludes with a sentiment every jazz player will recognise. Wistfully, she reflects, “… but I do miss doing big band. Those dynamics …!”