By Amanda Maliba
Johannesburg – Decorated trumpeter Ndabo Zulu was among the Sama award recipients last week, walking away with a total of three gongs under the Newcomer of the Year category, the Best Jazz Album and Best Duo/Group of the Year categories.
The awards come in the light of his debut album Queen Nandi: The African Symphony that features heavyweights such as Nduduzo Makhathini, including vocalist Zoë Modiga, which created an ensemble like never before, worthy of the awards.
“The album was actually my Master’s thesis, although the final product wasn’t my initial research topic,” he explained.
Originally, Zulu was tasked with the assignment of writing music that would be played by two contrasting bands, one Norwegian and the other South African, and it is there that he noticed the difference in the execution of the music, leading him to dig deeper into finding out the contributing factors and influences, and also what informs different musical perspectives sonically.
“I then had to start doing my research here in South Africa on what influences that difference for different places and people, and while doing so – Umgidi Ensemble was born and resulted in me changing my Master’s thesis.
“The new vision then for Umgidi was to create some sort of Nguni orchestration like how one would find an American standard big bands orchestra, or in the West one finds a philharmonic orchestra.
“So I thought, what if we had something that is ours, something African, with our very own template that we could call a Nguni orchestration, with its own set-up of different elements and instruments.
“So it was within the curiosity and creation that the Umgidi project was born and seeks to evoke those themes of possibilities and ways of achieving the said vision,” he adds.
Although his initial life plan was to become a pilot, and his involvement with music from a very young age was never to pursue as a full time career path, the music bug bit him when he realised that he could make a living and do what he loves all at once.
“It was at around the ages 15 or 16 years when I started getting paid for playing that I realised the value in what I saw as an extracurricular activity. When I did my research, I quickly uncovered the possibilities of being a trumpet player,” he adds.
The muso hails from Chesterville, just outside of Durban, a very important factor to his identity, especially when one takes a closer look at the rich history of townships.
Zulu started playing in a project called the Field Band Foundation, before proceeding to the Salvation Army, where he received a few classes with the late Dr Brian Thusi at the Siyakhula Music centre in uMlazi.
Shortly after, he joined the Durban music school where they taught him how to read and write music.
“It was there where I joined the KwaZulu-Natal Youth Wind Band, and because they played predominantly classical music, it was there where I was exposed to symphonic music at the tender age of 14,” he said.
That exposure then led him down the route of his love for jazz, and later, pursuing it full time.
Zulu has also played, recorded and toured extensively with some of the world’s most respected artists such as Derrick Hodge (USA), Nduduzo Makhathini, Herbie Tsoaeli, Salim Washington(USA), Ayanda Sikade, Neil Gonsalves, Mbuso Khoza, Erlend Skomsvoll (NO), Rolf Lislevand (NO/IT), Roberto Bonati (IT), Tore Johansen (NO), Arild Anderson (NO), Bugge Wesseltoft and many others.
On his journey, he has won other awards like the SAMRO IAM winner 2018, Jazz i Sikte (Norway) 2016, and is a three time Mzantsi Jazz awards nominee for the debut album Queen Nandi: The Africa Symphony.
“As a scholar, I was always seeking knowledge in this gift, I can confidently acknowledge the role education has played in my development as a musician.
“It has helped me achieve all that I have to date, taught me the art of putting together the right amounts of any needed element to make music, how to read and write music and that today has won me accolades and helped create quality music for the consumers.
“Everything coming full circle”.