Why Siya Makuzeni is "a little bit more than a jazz musician"

06 December 2015 - 02:00
By Niren Tolsi
Siya Makuzeni produces an aural kaleidoscope with her impressive range.
Image: Johann Samuels Siya Makuzeni produces an aural kaleidoscope with her impressive range.

A recent Saturday at The Orbit in Johannesburg and the jazz club's innards are being filled up by the vocals of a rather small woman. Siya Makuzeni is bopping ferociously on her toes, but not moving around.

Her voice is, though; it navigates a spectrum that explores primal growls, shifts up to funk and gospel and recedes into low moans that add layers to sections of dirge-like bass lines emanating from The Blue Notes Tribute Orchestra's Romy Brauteseth.

The audience responds animatedly and the room appears to distend to accommodate the music. If the club were to explode, there would be no noxious flatulence, though, just an aural kaleidoscope bursting with colour and music - a rainbow to walk on in the after-life.


Makuzeni's elastic vocal range is one of the contributing factors to her recently being announced as the 2016 Standard Bank Young Artist for Jazz. The other is her trombone, her "baby".

"I am probably more dextrous, in a way, with the vocals," says Makuzeni, in an interview earlier that week, "but it doesn't take away from what is possible with the trombone for me and I ultimately use them both to at least have a message in my songwriting."

She describes her trombone-playing as having "a certain rawness, and that doesn't mean unrefined", which she partially attributes to an interrupted formal musical training. Having grown up in East London, a hothouse of South African jazz musicians, Makuzeni studied music at Stirling High School, followed by a year at Rhodes University before transferring to Tshwane University of Technology.

In what she describes as traumatic but character-building circumstances, Makuzeni left the Pretoria institution in 2003 and moved to Johannesburg and the "deep-end" of trying to cut it as a professional musician.

While Makuzeni's voice has developed and been burnished over more than a decade of collaborating and performing, she says of her trombone-playing, in the manner of a perfectionist: "In terms of the palette, for me, and the experience I went through, I don't believe that I have everything I should have as to what a trombone should be."

Makuzeni is the embodiment of pianist Thelonious Monk's observation that jazz is driven not by technique but by philosophy. Hers is a progressively open and generous musical ethos that acknowledges her musical roots, from a "huge leaning to the textures and songs" of her Eastern Cape home, through to jazz luminaries like bassist and composer Victor Ntoni and The Blue Notes' Johnny Dyani.

There is also a voracious appetite for experimentation and cross-over. She has been extending the possibilities of her voice digitally, with loops and back-tracks "to have a complete other range of what would be considered unnatural sounds" or to create harmonised backing vocals over which she layers live vocals during performances. With her band IppyFuze, Makuzeni moves into the realm of rock music, hip-hop and electronica, a sound she describes as a journey "between everything, but the core sound is a heavily groove-based rock riff".


Likewise, she credits working with musicians such as Carlo Mombelli in his group, The Prisoners of Strange, and Marcus Wyatt (Language 12, The Blue Notes Tribute Orchestra) with also broadening her creative and musical range.

Makuzeni has worked on music for artist William Kentridge, on the score of the Italian film Maybe God is Ill, and at the National Arts Festival's jazz programme earlier this year, where she appeared alongside Benin-born guitarist Lionel Loueke - one of the musical highlights of her career, she enthuses.

Her desire for musical exploration and the range of colours on her vocal palette, Makuzeni says, can be traced to her childhood. Her mother was a choir conductor, but more profound was her father's vinyl collection, which included Bob Dylan, Queen and Neil Young.

"I got exposed to that variety and it created a curiosity in me when it came to music," says Makuzeni.

"I knew from a very young age that we shared this interest in different styles - and there is beauty in all music, in how it is portrayed and interpreted - that mixed with the formal training at the school, learning jazz, gave me a very broad and dense palette.

"When we talk about the jazz scope and the artist that Siya Makuzeni is ... I perceive myself as a little bit more than a jazz musician in terms of how I approach music.

"For me, what has been going on, on an internal basis, is a bit more of a reckoning of a certain sound, which I guess I would call my own voice."