Singing Sensation Ntuthu Ndlovu blasts Addis
By Tibebeselassie Tigabu
Some singers have the ability to catch people’s heart through their music, immersing people in their journey and leading them in a different path.
One of the singers is definitely the South African poet and vocalist Ntuthu Nalovu.
Her unique voice is strong and makes one move involuntarily to her song, her insightful words give you the hope you desire, and her grace, combined with her powerful words, makes her a phenomenal singer.
She is like Sankofa, a bird which looks to the past to move forward. She also combines the ancient way of story telling in her songs and the contemporary genres which puts you in between the two worlds.
Her distinctive voice stunned the audience who had come to watch her perform last weekend at Laphto Complex as part of the events held in connection with the Hub Africa fashion week.
In her unforgettable performance she sang in a high pitch and then brought it down with spoken words, giving an alternative for people who like poem and music simultaneously.
Ndlovu, the lead vocalist of a band comprised of four members named Uju (Zulu for honey), is based in Johannesburg. The band does not limit to or define its music in terms of one genre. Rather it has come up with an alternative music style combining urban Maskandi, neo classic folk, jazz, hip-hop; it mixes the traditional with spoken words.
Though the band represents this generation, it is influenced by the ancient or the traditional which came from forefathers and fuses it with contemporary music genres like hip-hop, jazz, blues. And it blends all these things not into a conventional genre but in its own terms.
The band’s name, Uju, is also a metaphorical representation of who its members are, working as bees to fill the gap, to bring change - to change the assumption related with the youth which is used as a justification to equate it with stupidity and ignorance.
They try to use words to transform people in a positive way , to make the youth think critically. They raise political, economical, social issues, the despair, the poverty and the identity crisis the youth is struggling with. Their conscious debut album entitled ‘free’ is a manifestation of their thinking.
They chose not to glorify money, wealth or materialism, but to deepen their lyrics to bring change, to bring a glimpse of hope for the youth and to show the youth the way.
“We don’t know what our music is called because it consists of many genres and styles, but what we have done is we have got a spoken word which sort of ties everything together. We have a song which is more rock, a song which is acoustic and blues and then we go to wild, bringing everything,” Nalova elaborates.
The band is comprised of Nalova, Wandile Molebatsi (Percussion, rap and spoken words), Mosebetsi Nzimande (Bass guitar) and Earl Joseph (Rhythm Guitar). Sometimes, they add a drummer and electric guitarist when they are invited to perform with live drum.
The band started as underground seven years ago and now it is getting popularity and invited to concerts and clubs. It does all kind of gigs but Nalovu and co. never forget why they are doing this; they do not get lost with the popularity of pop into producing shallow lyrics and pursuing money.
“In Johannesburg clubs are popular but you need to draw a line between earning and at the same time having the street credo because we started as underground,” Ndlovu says.
Ndlovu is accidental singer; she was a poet and never considered herself as a singer and in one moment shifted her carrier.
“I was always strong with the writing part of myself and I have always never really thought of myself as a singer and someone who has a good voice to sing. And then I entered by default,” she recalls.
The opportunity, as she tells the story, presented itself when she accompanied her friend to a competition for young artists and the renowned artist Silayle Silota, who was behind the project, asked her if she can sing. She says her friend pushed her to do it and when she sang he really loved what she did, adding he told her on the spot that he wanted her to sign for him. But as she reminisces she had her own reservation and doubts when it came to singing.
“I was in a bit of in a shell because I had a perception about singing and what it required and I just taught it wasn’t for me. After a while I got introduced to women who are quiet inspirational, women like Bussein Faraoh, Janice Choplin, Freedacalo and others. These women, in particular, were just amazing to me because it was never about their technical ability when they sang or painted, when they did any of their arts. It was just something that came from inside, it was their feelings that were crawling out more and more, their emotion is what touched people. And I taught if they could touch me, I didn’t have to worry too much about how my voice sounded like. At that moment I knew I could sing the stories that were in my heart and the things I believed in,” Ndlovu recounts.
Later on she founded a group where she did poetry and spoken words. But after a while the group was dissolved and with one of the members Wandile Molebatsi, they formed a group named Embryo though it did not last long. Finally, they were able to put together Uju.
Even if people appreciate her voice and are overwhelmed with her voice it took her a while to realize what she got.
“My history as a singer has been on and off, I wouldn’t say even a specific year when I started to sing. It just kind of gradually came together. I would sing here back and there, have somebody do the lead part until I was comfortable enough to say,’ I think I can do this.’ It wasn’t easy; it was quite a transition for me because singing, especially in South Africa, is very competitive. There are lots of musicians who can sing, we have that in abundance. So I was always afraid because I felt like I was competing with people who have been there for a long time. But when I opened my mouth and sing I couldn’t believe every time people would be like, ‘Why don’t you do this more often?’ So that was enough encouragement for me to take it up a little bit more seriously,” says Nalovu.
She has explored the musics of the likes of Busem Sengo , Mariah Makeba, Billy Holiday, Sarah Vaughan, Santi Gold, Alison Goldfrap, Nawsparkely, Cillo, and now she has completely fallen in love with the songs of the renowned Ethiopian female singers Jiji and Aster Awoke.
“Busem sengo is one of my favorite artists. She sings more of traditional Zulu, which is one of the things that we are proud of in my country. She speaks from that preference. We are a very cultural people and we like that about her and I also share the same sentiment. I am absolutely in love with Jiji, but I can’t sing like her she has a very high-pitched voice. I haven’t sung in public any of her songs because I don’t speak Amharic and her pronunciation is difficult. Recently, I have been introduced to Aster Awoke. I really, really love her as well. I try to do everything, which is also a reflection of the diverse culture. It also shows what our tastes are as a group and what my taste is as an individual,” explains Ndlovu.
Through their music, they try to act as a bridge between the West and Africa and where they blend it beautifully, their long awaited album ‘free’ which was released in April, is an introduction of who they are as well as their struggle being South Africans after Apartheid.
“The post-Apartheid period is important for us because it’s been a blessing and at the same time a curse for us. There are lots of opportunities in South Africa when it comes to access to education or in doing whatever we want. We have progressed so much there were things we couldn’t do back then but we now can. We can walk on the streets without feeling like we are in the wrong area because of our color, because that was the case back then. The freedom has also overwhelmed us. In what sense are we free? What makes us free?,” Ndlovu says.
Even if South Africans earned their freedom, there is acute xenophobia with which they are struggling with. Ndlovu believes being free is to question what freedom means to people and also to free themselves from the chains that shackled people.
On their album, Uju have put pictures and placards to convey messages to the youth to go to school, to enrich themselves with knowledge and not to be deceived by different media like MTV and others which are eating into the youth in insidious ways.
“You have to be intelligent because it’s not just about instant gratification which I find all around the world, that’s what we are dealing with MTV now,” explains Ndlovu.
Their music has been a blessing and a curse at the same time because people are moved with pop music which have shallow lyrics. It has been a struggle to break into the market with songs which engage the youth on real issues. But they seem persistent in doing that.
“Even if it’s just a couple of thousands [copies] as opposed to millions, that’s the message. The market is not going to lead us. When people hear our music we know it is going to make a difference in somebody’s life,” Ndlovu says.
They have plans to tour the world in a bid to introduce their album and Ndlovu is planning to collaborate with Kenny Allen and the ‘251’ band.
“I am really excited about that and I think your country is amazing. I am very lucky to be in Ethiopia knowing that it is a cradle of civilization and everything started here,” Ndlovu says in conclusion.
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