Tutu Puoane: Tshwane, Brussels, Cape Town – and a SAMA?

Tshwane-born, UCT-educated and Belgian-based songstress Tutu Puoane returns home for a single Cape jazz session – and to attend the South African Music Awards.

Tutu Puoane: Tshwane, Brussels, Cape Town - and a SAMA?

This column originally appeared in the Cape Argus ‘Tonight; section on 10-11 April 2010.

Tutu Puoane moved to Cape Town in the late 1990s to study jazz vocal at UCT’s College of Music. An accomplished performer, as well as possessing a fine voice, she was soon in demand for live shows and recordings – find her on the first Breakfast Included album, before that jazz four-piece birthed the electro-jazz duo Goldfish, and on the rare but superb Cape Town recordings by Dutch pianist Jack van Poll. In 2004, she received the Standard Bank Young Artist of the Year Award and in 2006 was one of twelve semi-finalists at the Brussels International Young Jazz Singers Competition. Study and work opportunities saw her relocate to Belgium, where she met her husband-to-be, pianist Ewout Pierreux. Her first album, “Song” was recorded abroad, but received with delight by South African audiences and, in part, saw her booked for the Cape Town International Jazz Festival in 2008. Her latest album, “Quiet Now”, has seen her nominated for a South African Music Award in the category “Best Traditional Jazz”. She returns to South Africa to attend the awards ceremony next weekend (April 16 and 17), and to play a single Cape Town concert – and her first ever solo shows in her birthplace of Mamelodi in Tshwane.

“Our Cape Town gig, at the Rainbow Room, is just the two of us, voice and piano,” explains Tutu. “We did a show at the Cape Town Convention Centre last year and had so much fun that we decided to explore this a bit, and make sure that we could get back to South Africa. We’re organising this thing ourselves, and an interviewer from MetroFm was asking me why that it is. I just said that I have to stop waiting for people to book me at home. We decided a year ago to just try and come home when we can and we’ve seen that there is a lot of support – people want to hear me and see my live, so that is great. Then there’s the Mamelodi show, which is the first time ever that I’m there under my own name – I sang there with some Dutch guys and their group in 2006, but this will be the first time it’s just me…”

“Quiet Now” features songs in both English and Sepedi, with original material written by Ewout Peirreux, as well as the title piece, composed by Jack van Poll, and a jazz take on Joni Mitchell‘s “I Don’t Know Where I Stand”. “I was introduced to Joni Mitchell by Yelena Revishin, who was my teacher at UCT and, to this day, is still the best teacher I’ve ever had. The more I get older, and the more I experience life, the more I understand her lyrics. I’m really a Joni Mitchell geek right now, but the song that’s on the album actually came about by accident! At the last minute, in the studio, our sound guy said, ‘It’s really a pity you don’t have a song just with voice and bass’. I said, ‘Yeah, well I did that already on my first album.’ Then we all realised that doesn’t matter, and we could do it again so I chose that song. Any Joni Mitchell song is great, but I chose that one.”

The album’s title is also a kind of coincidence, although one which is deeply meaningful to Tutu, as it’s a nod of thanks to veteran jazz pianist and composer Jack van Poll, who played no small role in promoting and encouraging her when he resided in Cape Town and, indeed, facilitated and assisted with her early trips to Europe. “I’ve been in love with that song for a very long time, ever since I’ve known Jack,” smiles Tutu. “It was some kind of thank you to Jack for everything that he’s done for me, but what do you get someone like Jack, who has everything he needs, to say thank you? While we were recording, we decided to title the whole album after Jack’s piece – just listening back to all the music it was a title that rounded off the whole album, and it’s a gift to him.”

The album has garnered widespread praise. South African jazz luminary Don Albert calls it “a very pleasant and highly musical offering, all sung with a feeling of innocence and vulnerability in her pure toned voice”. Veteran European jazz-man and harmonica maestro Toots Thielemans, who played a poignant show at last weekend’s Cape Town International jazz Festival, called it “a remarkable statement by a South-African singer/musician and three Belgian musicians”, adding that “Miss Puoane shows great jazz-feeling and of course takes into her native roots several themes which she sometimes decorates with tasteful overdubs.” The recognition that is the SAMA nomination is one which is extremely meaningful to the young singer.

“It’s amazing,” she grins. “I just bought my dress for the ceremony yesterday and we can’t wait to leave. I’m really excited about the nomination, and that’s enough – to win it would be the cherry on the top, but I know that I am up against strong competition. Actually, I thought I would not qualify, because I don’t live there anymore, but it is all thanks to Dorothea Photonidis from Jassics, who released the album over there. I’m South African, living and recording and working in Brussels, and now I’m going to be at the SAMAs, which is so exciting. I can’t wait…”

Tutu calls her move to Belgium “probably the best three minute decision I ever made” leading, as it did, to the establishing of both her career and her family and, now, a new company, “Ewout and I have started a company called Soul Factory. We’ll be doing anything under the sun, but mainly managing our own music careers and doing events like the show in Pretoria – creating gigs for ourselves. We’re also looking at some non-music-related things, like importing South African wines. As a kid, you always get told that you can’t do music for a living, and that little voice is always there, especially when there are the months that you don’t have gigs and have a child to feed and rent to pay – you want to do something beside just music. Wine is a huge hobby for Ewout and his family. ever since he first came to South Africa he’s been sampling wines and taking notes. We want to start the business and, of course, that will mean that we have to keep coming back to South African to taste what’s in Stellenbosch. And, while we’re there, maybe we can sing and play a bit.”

Tutu Puoane and Ewout Peirreux play a single Cape Town gig on Monday, 12 April at theRainbow Room (Mandela Rhodes Place, Church St, 7.30pm, R80; tickets 021-4221428 and events@therainbowexperience.co.za; parking off Burg St). See TutuPuoane.info,TheRainbowExperience.co.za and Jassics..co.za.

This column originally appeared in the Cape Argus ‘Tonight; section on 10-11 April 2010. Find out more on Tonight.co.za.