Singer Tutu Puoane: “Sometimes it feels like jazz chose me”

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Singer Tutu Puoane has a clear character trait: she is authentic. She has a strong personality, however at the same time extremely modest. She knows what she has to do as an artist: to convey her musical message. In addition, her South African background has given her a solid foundation citing Miriam Makeba as a strong influence. Add to this the influences of Ella Fitzgerald, Billie Holiday, Nina Simone and Joni Mitchell and the result is a perfect breeding ground for a great jazz talent.

In 2002, she moved to Europe to study in the Netherlands before settling in Belgium in 2004. Puoane, has made a name for herself with her own quartet (in which her husband Ewout Pierreux is the pianist) and as a vocalist with the Brussels Jazz Orchestra (BJO) with whom she made the highly praised album “Mama Africa”, a tribute to Miriam Makeba. Now age 39, Tutu Puoane is also beginning to become increasingly well known internationally.

It’s not always easy working with your spouse, I asked her if she found it difficult to have her husband as the pianist in her quartet. “Not at all. It’s great in fact. Ewout is my buddy before anything else. We get to travel together and be together and have fun together on stage. It’s great cause he’s always the source of my jokes on stage.’’

She went on to say that Jazz has always been in her life and is her main motive to be a singer. “This genre has always resonated with me deeply. It’s the music I first heard when I was in my mother’s womb. It’s the music that my neighbours and my community played on very loudspeakers when I was a kid. I heard this music all the time, without choice. So when I discovered that I had the talent to sing, jazz was practically my number one choice. Sometimes it feels like the music chose me. So I play this music for my soul to be happy and feel alive. That is my motive, in a nutshell.’’

We went on to speak about her influences and I asked her if she would speak about the qualities of her favourite singers. “Billie Holliday could sing tears out of a rock. There’s something about her voice that just makes you stop and listen. Every single syllable means something and that’s a very special gift. That is something that can’t be taught.”

Speaking of Ella, she added “Ella Fitzgerald was, of course, a master musician. Her voice was truly a beautiful, amazing instrument. With her voice, she could do just about anything any musician could do with their instrument.‘’

“Nina Simone is one of the most important activists that ever lived, using her music to fight and shine a light of the injustices that Black people where living through. Truly a remarkably strong woman and a fantastic musician. Joni Mitchell is one of the best poets ever. Deciphering her lyrics makes me feel like I’m doing an assignment for an English literature class. She’s just an incredible lyricist.’’ However, it is not only women she likes to listen to. “Some of my favourite male singers are Bobby McFerrin, Mark Murphy, Johnny Hartman, Nat King Cole and Kevin Mahogany.’’

On the compositional side, she cites Joni Mitchell is one of her favourite composers along with James Taylor, Bert Joris and Quincy Jones. Another musician that has had an impact on her is guitarist Lionel Loueke and she stated that he is a musician she would like to work within the near future. “I’ve admired him for the longest time, since the first time I saw and heard him play. He came to my school, University of Cape Town Music College, to give a workshop in 1999 and I’ve never forgotten him. Now he’s a big star doing amazing things and he’s an extremely humble person. I admire that about him.’’

Tutu Puoane can’t name one specific highlight in her career up till now. “There is never one highlight in one’s career, well at least in my opinion. I’ve had many small highlights along the way. Meeting my heroes is always a highlight. Opening for Dianne Reeves at the Joy Of Jazz Festival in Johannesburg was a treat. Playing and recording with Bert Joris and De Filharmonie, The Royal Flemish Philharmonic, was very exciting. Workshops with the likes of Mark Murphy, Deborah Brown, Dianne Reeves – those were all highlights for me. Playing in big prestigious halls like The Flagey and The Bozar in Brussels and The Concertgebouw in Amsterdam – all highlights. I also played at a festival in Cully, Switzerland about ten years ago, and the band after me was Jack DeJohnette with Danilo Perez on piano, so I got to meet them. Always a highlight to meet jazz giants.’’

Asked about her favourite song to sing, she says: “Mmm, I have many, but the one that springs to mind right away is a South African standard called “Lakutshoni’Langa” – which means ‘In the eve of the sunset’. It’s a beautiful song that was written by Mackay Davashe and made famous by Miriam Makeba. I’ve been singing that song for many years and it’s never the same. Every time we play that song it moves in so many different directions.’’

Recently she performed a tribute to Miriam Makeba at the London Jazz Festival performing with the Royal Academy of Music Big Band. Looking forward, early next year she will travel to the US together with the Brussels Jazz Orchestra. “I will be presenting our latest project with the BJO “We Have A Dream” at Dizzy’s Coca-Cola Jazz Club in New York City on February 11 and 12.’’ She is looking forward to doing more performances in metropolises like London and New York.

Tutu Puoane says she will never forget her roots. “It took me exactly ten years to feel like Belgium was home. It will however always be my second home. South Africa will never cease to be my number one home. When you’re born and raised in such a country with so much dark history and at the same time so much beauty and resilient people, you can’t just discard it simply because you reside in another continent.’’

She is enthusiastic about the development of jazz in her native country. “Magical is the right word. Jazz has always been vibrant in South Africa. Nowadays it’s even more “fashionable” to go to school and study this rich music and its history. When I was at the Uni, there were two jazz vocal students in my year and maybe eight in total at the whole school. Today the school has at least over 25 jazz vocal students and they are all extremely talented, every single one of them, it’s incredible. The amount of talent in that country is over-flowing.’’

Artists website: Tutu Puoane 

Writer: Peter Beijie

Photo Credits: Maurits van Hout & Hugo Lefevre

Last modified: December 13, 2018