Founder of the music and dance group Zulu Tradition, Thandanani Gumede was one of four music-makers from the North of England selected for Resonance, Opera North’s residency programme for artists from Black, Asian and Minority Ethnic backgrounds, with support from PRS Foundation’s Talent Development Partner Network.
With his Leeds-based band Ubunye, Thandanani has forged an eclectic blend of Western music and South African traditions, sung in English and the Zulu and Xhosa languages. During his week’s residency at Opera North he worked with his songwriting partner in Ubunye, pianist, vocalist and composer Dave Evans, renowned bassist Kenny Higgins, whose past collaborators include Corinne Bailey Rae and Zoe Rahman, and others on the creation of a new song fusing jazz, gospel and traditional Zulu music. Here he reflects on his experiences.
“I am of Zulu and Xhosa heritage, two great tribes from South Africa with a rich culture of oral tradition. Our history is preserved in songs, poetry and dances with war chants and ‘amaHubo’ (traditional hymns). As an Afro-jazz musician and artist who is currently working in the U.K. as a migrant, it was a dream come true to have a week in the rehearsal studio to collaborate with jazz pianist, songwriter and vocalist Dave Evans and incredible bassist Kenny Higgins on the creation of a Zulu-jazz song cycle.
At the heart of this project were themes of home, migration, inner conflict and inner peace. We wanted to write songs around those four themes. My recent visit to South Africa really ignited the core origin of the story that and Dave, Kenny and I would begin to tell through the songs.
While in South Africa I had a traumatic experience with the UK Home Office, who seemed to be doing everything in their power to get rid of me without cause as I attempted to get a UK visa. As I was reapplying for my visa online in a township in Mzansi, I found that I could only get a signal and connection when I was under a tree outside the house. And there beneath this tree, a tiny beautiful bird perched on the branches and started singing.
I remember thinking that the bird could have come from any corner of the world and I gently envied its migratory ability. I saw the bird as a metaphor for myself. I am not allowed to work anywhere in the UK unless it’s music-related, due to my visa restrictions. And that’s okay, I love music. So I started mimicking the sound of the bird and imagined what the bird would sound like on keys, vocal scat, bass, drums and other instruments. After countless hours on the phone with Dave, a clear direction for the Resonance project formed.
What was even more amazing was how both Dave and Kenny drew from their own experiences to collectively construct music that was reflective of these themes; it wasn’t just about me, but about us, all of us in the rehearsal studio and the people outside who can relate to inner conflict, peace, home and migration. The experience with the tree and the bird also inspired us to include an animator who would incorporate a visual element into the work in progress performance.
As we were performing to the audience, artist and digital consultant Steve Manthorp worked with a VR headset and controllers to produce an image of the bird, the tree and rain, which took shape in real time on a screen behind us. We found that the improvisatory aspect really complemented the music, and finally in the project I found myself complete.
I have always performed Zulu music only with my group Zulu Tradition; jazz song mostly with my band Ubunye; gospel when in church; and so on. Until now I have had to separate these musical languages, each in its own box, but under the conditions of our collaboration we could do everything as one, seamlessly weaving our way from one style to the other. It was beautiful. Through this project, I got to explore different vocal onsets, cross genres and bring together an array of different styles to produce a more complete version of my art. It’s been wonderful to see, and a privilege to hear those songs fill the air when they did not exist a short while before, and I am ever grateful to Kenny and Dave.
We have continued to perform the songs with Ubunye and carefully integrated them into our concerts at Wakefield Jazz Club, Holmfirth Jazz Festival, Ribble Valley Jazz Festival, Leeds Jazz Festival and many other venues over the summer. At Flare Project in Leeds, we taught one song from Ubunye and another from the Song Cycle to pupils from different primary schools, who performed them in a collaborative showcase with Dave, Kenny and other members of Ubunye.
Upcoming gigs with Ubunye and Zulu Tradition include a return to the Lewes Bonfire in November, where we’ll perform led for 60,000 people. We are passionate about the Song Cycle and we will continue to work with it around these gigs to keep it alive and featured. We are all looking forward to developing what we started with our Resonance residency.”
The deadline for applications for the next round of Resonance residencies is 10.00am on Monday 8 October 2018. To qualify for consideration, the lead artist must be a composer, musician or music-maker from a BAME background, aged 18 years old or over and living in the north of England.