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South African Jazz Vocalist a Hit in Belgium

The 1950s in South Africa are remembered for the brutality of apartheid but also for the development of jazz, which grew into one of the country’s most popular forms of music. Annual events such as the Cape Town International Jazz Festival and the Standard Bank Jazz Festival continue to draw some of the largest crowds on the concert circuit in South Africa. The best-known artists are usually older, more experienced legends such as Hugh Masekela and Miriam Makeba. But 28-year-old Tutu Puoane, born in South Africa, is making waves in the jazz world in her adopted home, Belgium, and in South African jazz circles. Voice of America English to Africa reporter Unathi Kondile in Cape Town says Nontuthuzelo Puoane, better known as Tutu Puoane, describes herself as a vocalist and township girl from Mamelodi in the Gauteng province.

She grew up surrounded by jazz, which in South Africa conveyed the struggles of apartheid. Her mother exposed her to jazz musicians, including John Coltrane, Art Blakey and many more. She says her inspiration is her 85-year-old grandfather, who played jazz but didn’t perform professionally. She says there was another influence as well:

“I credit growing up in the township for my rhythm and my soul. And it was just wonderful growing up in Mamelodi. We didn’t have much, but we had enough of what we needed. It also showed me that you don’t need much to live in this world.”

In 1997, Tutu came to Cape Town for jazz music university auditions and was accepted by the music school at the University of Cape Town. Two years later, she was a vocalist for the National Schools Big Band in South Africa and took part in an annual Youth jazz festival. In 2004, she won the award of the Standard Bank’s Young Artist of the Year. Today she performs across Belgium and is also the lead vocalist for Brits Bayens Big Band in Holland.

Her latest album is titled "Song," which is also the title for one of the singles on the album. It includes numbers by American jazz musician Bob Dorough, Cape Town saxophonist Buddy Wells and South African composer Carlo Mombelli..

Tutu says, “I had to stop telling myself I have to be ready, because you’ll never be ready. So I realized that it was time to do the album. First for myself, for the experience and also really to record where I am at this time. And it’s not bad. I look forward to listening to it when I’m 40 years old and say “I wasn’t half bad!”

She’s been criticized for not sounding “African enough” in her songs and lyrics:

“Recently, someone wrote something like ‘For a black singer she doesn’t have a big voice’ …as if every black singer is supposed to have big voice. And I thought ‘Is that a criticism or a fact?’ Yes, I don’t have a big voice. So what? I take all the bad critics and the good critics with a pinch of salt because it’s just that one person who came to the show and they write their thoughts. I just take it in my stride and think I have to work on it or laugh it off or appreciate it. So it really doesn’t bother me.”

This year Tutu performed to a packed hall at the Cape Town International Jazz Festival and had audiences begging for more. She plans to spend this year travelling internationally and at home to promote her latest CD "Song," giving concerts with her quartet made up of Belgian and Dutch musicians. Her long awaited CD, which was already available in Belgium hit South African stores in April this year. Tutu's music continues to grow and she now plans to make more homecoming visits to South Africa to perform and visit her family.