In Conversation With Thandeka Dladla

In a post-pandemic world, there is much less reason to postpone anything. Moments are fleeting, but the sounds left in people’s hearts live forever.

Thandeka Dladla

Progression implies movement, it entails moving from one state to another. But in that, we find both positive and negative connotation – a step forward isn’t necessarily a good step.

In the case of musical virtuoso, Thandeka Dladla, the last year or so has been of progression, in a positive sense. She has evidently embarked on a journey of career progression intertwined with one of personal growth. Her voice through the release of her debut project, Umnikelo, has been loud and clear enough to catch all our attention. Her work is beautiful, it is intentional and it is important for this time in history.

We caught up with Thandeka to speak about her journey to this point and all that comes with it, music and all its pockets and of course the work and thinking that went into putting Umnikelo together.

Read our conversation with Thandeka below…

Let’s paint a brief background picture for someone who may not know you, where is Thandeka from and how does she get into music?

Thandeka is a Zulu girl from the West Rand in Johannesburg (JHB), currently based in Cape Town (CPT). I am a musician who formally started studying music at the age of 11 or 12. I also attended the National School of the Arts where I studied classical voice and I played the saxophone for a while. Then I went on to study Jazz at the College of Music at the University of Cape Town. Apart from the formal training, I come from a musical family. My parents are avid lovers of music and I have been surrounded by music of different genres since I was born. So yeah, music has and continues to be a big part of my life.

I first heard you sing on the song Buya Ekhaya from The Unity Band’s debut album in 2018/19, a band which you are still a part of. Why then did you decide to branch out and pursue a solo career?

I have learnt that all expressions of music are important. Only one facet of me as a musician is well expressed through The Unity Band and I felt that there is a message that I want to convey on my own. Besides that, we as a band have never been opposed to members exploring and participating in musical ensembles and projects outside of the band. The Band is a space for us to connect as musicians and I have more to say outside the band. This seemed like the right time for me to branch out and explore my own voice outside of the safe haven that is The Unity Band, although I am still very much a part of the band.

Why have you named your debut EP Umnikelo , which for those who don’t know means an offering?

Over the years my gifts and talents have carried me, and I consider that to be a great blessing. This music is a gift that doesn’t come solely from my knowledge and expertise in music. The fact that I can make music and share it with people is also a blessing I don’t take lightly. So when I was putting this EP together I wanted to honour God with it for the gift of music He’s blessed me with; and I hoped that with this music I may be able to touch someone somewhere with the message(s) contained in it.

That’s profound. I want to touch on your collaborators for this project: how and why did you choose them?

I have great respect for the craft and the audience; because of that I put thought into who I call into the project. Lonwabo Mafani and I have worked together for many years, I even call him my pianist so when he’s rich and famous he doesn’t forget me. He’s also part of The Unity Band along with Stephen de Sousa and Marco Maritz who are also collaborators on this EP. The four of us have stayed together in smaller ensembles, outside of The Unity Band, and I enjoy working with them. Kurt Bowers is a phenomenal drummer and we’ve been playing together for about two years now. So, it was a no-brainer really that I would want to work with them on this project. Playing with them is like a reunion of old friends every time. Because we have worked together for this long there was no way I would have commissioned a different band for this project. These guys get me and working with them is so easy and light, and that’s the atmosphere I wanted.

Then I realized I wanted a saxophonist on the project and I love Sisonke Xonti’s sound, it’s absolutely amazing! So, I reached out to him and surprisingly he was in Cape Town when I was recording so it just all came together so well. My backing vocalists, Asemahle Tsholoba, Siya Kawana & Khonkco Twalo, are amazing singers. I used to hear them sing in College and I told myself if the opportunity ever presented itself I would want to work with them.

Take us back to those moments of recording this project, not the technical stuff but the relationship between the musicians, the understanding in the room, the feel of the room…how was the atmosphere in studio?

Yoh! To a great extent it was nothing new because like I mentioned before, most of us have been playing together for years. They are my people and I know for a fact that they don’t only have my best interests at heart, they also have the best interest of the music at heart. How did it feel? It was safe, warm and easy. I recorded the music in one day then we brought in the horn and backing vocalists. And even then, the vibes remained warm and respectful. Everyone and everything just gelled. It felt like a gathering with all my favourite people.

You grew up in JHB and relocated to CPT, which are two different worlds, how have you perceived the influence of both worlds in how you write, present, and understand music?

I’ve never thought about that before. I spent my formative years all the way up to 18 in JHB, and the relocated to Cape Town. I’ve been in Cape Town for almost a decade now and it has become home to me. When I think about it, I carry the people of JHB in my heart, they are my family; and that obviously comes through in my music as well. My time in Cape Town has been about sharpening my writing and vocal skills, but I’ve also lived here and gained stories (laughs). So to answer your question, I don’t think I can separate my Jo’burg self from my Cape Town self anymore, they are one.

Why was Jazz the genre for you?

My dad introduced me to this compilation CD titled “Ladies Sing Jazz” and I must have listened to it for months on end. I fell in love with it and that was the moment that drew me to jazz.

Jazz is so fluid and robust that you can figure yourself out within the genre. It allows you to have different faces and express yourself in a way that is true to who you are or who you want to be at any moment in time. It incorporates influences of numerous genres so there’s always room to push boundaries and that’s what I love about it.

Through our conversation and from listening to your EP I’ve picked up that you have reverence for God and you cherish that relationship, which brought this thought to mind: there’s a verse in the Bible that says three things will remain, hope, love and faith. In your debut offering “Umnikelo” you have presented these three pillars vividly, was this intentional and do you hope to erect these pillars in the listener?

Oh wow yes, I value my relationship with God and I’m so happy that it is something you can pick up from listening to my music. The truth is life is going to life, in any and every season of your life. But you can’t lose hope, because the sun does rise even after the darkest night. You need to have faith to execute whatever you hope for. And if we don’t have love then we have nothing. We need more love in general; more love for self, more love for God, more love for one another. My wish is that through my music, people would hold on to hope, keep the faith and love deeply and truly.

Where to from here for Thandeka Dladla?

I want to keep writing beautiful music and connecting with people through that music.