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Rainbow Revisited - Thandi Ntuli

by Dan Charles

During the recording of her latest album, Rainbow Revisited, in Los Angeles, lauded producer and percussionist Carlos Niño asked Thandi Ntuli to play him “something from home.”  As a composer, pianist and singer who has captured the imagination of the South African music world through her eminence as one of the leading vanguards of the ever-evolving local contemporary jazz scene, Ntuli probably has a vast collection of South African standards that she could have conjured up from her repertoire in that moment. Instead, however, she chose to play a song written by her late grandfather called “Nomayoyo”. 

Releasing “Nomayoyo (Ingoma ka Mkhulu)” as the first single from Rainbow Revisited allowed Ntuli to fulfil her desire to record some of the music that her grandfather would write for his family to sing together – something that she has wanted to do since she was still studying music at UCT.

However, in the context of the rest of Rainbow Revisited, the inclusion of “Nomayoyo” serves as more than a celebration of the music that was shared within her family – it serves as an act of reclaiming a core part of her identity amidst an album seeking to reclaim the feeling of hope that was promised with the dawn of The Rainbow Nation in 1994. 

Understanding the use of the rainbow as a political symbol in South Africa, what is the significance of deciding to name your last album after your revisiting of the song “Rainbow”?

I was born in the late 80s and so this means that I am on the cusp of those who experienced apartheid first-hand and those whose only reality has been of a “free” and integrated South Africa. This means that for me, the legacy of Apartheid (and colonialism) has been experienced more viscerally than otherwise. One of the things I remember most about my childhood is the spark of euphoria in the country as we celebrated the “miracle" of the rainbow nation. A euphoria that, after some time, faded away as the toxicities of our society always found a way back to the social, economic and spiritual foundations of the Republic of South Africa. I wrote the song “Rainbow” as a response to my own inner conflict about this idea that the rainbow nation was a complete victory for our humanity, as it was sold to us and the rest of the world. Years later, having toiled with this and finding some semblance of closure with what has transpired, I felt Rainbow Revisited would be a great title as it carries a different energy and outlines my convictions that a reclamation of our dignity as African people will be achieved with a reclamation of, or a “fetching” of, ourselves and a return to the true meaning of uBuntu… and all that is connected to that.

How does the feeling of this sparser rendition of “Rainbow” compare to the feeling you get from the previous versions that you have released?

I guess because I feel light, clear, less angry or sad than how I have felt in a long time, this version reflects that.

You recorded “Nomayoyo” after Carlos Nino asked you to play something from home. Had you been considering recording any of your grandfather's compositions before Nino prompted you? 

Yes, I’ve wanted to record his music for a very long time. I was still in university when I first thought of this. This is a small bit of heritage that has been retained, that I am proud of and that is so precious to me. 

“Nomayoyo” is a song that has received a great and very warm response from listeners (and rightfully so, the song is so beautiful and it is such a gift). How does it feel to share one of your grandfather's compositions and have it received in such a way?

Thank you. I love this song too and it warms my heart that people have received this song well. It’s somewhat like a “nod of approval” from him and I’m grateful. Human beings are communal creatures, a win for the group is a personal win and vice versa. It is very affirming when something we belong to is celebrated and appreciated. The response that “Nomayoyo” has received has had the same impact on me and hopefully, my whole family. I also hope that it inspires people to dig into their own family archives. There are many unnamed / unrecognised musicians, artists, writers, sports legends etc. who belong to different families and communities, whose names never made it to the history books, often because of the times they lived in.

“Nomayoyo” is a song that is essentially about a cry for help and, yet, the song is very gentle and tender. What do you make of the dissonance between the song's lyrics and its composition? The song was also originally composed to be sung by a choir – do you feel that there is any change to the meaning by performing it using a singular voice rather than many?

The song is more a warning than a cry for help. The stories I’ve heard about my grandfather depict him as a very charming storyteller with a great sense of humour. And, to some extent, I think humour has been a tool for survival for a lot of our elders. He was a school principal and some songs he wrote were for the students at the school where he was a principle. So my interpretation of this song’s meaning is not necessarily a serious or heavy one because of how it is sung when we sing it at home, even when the lyrics denote some kind of danger. Though that could also just be because a lot of the time, African music sounds lighter than the lyrics shared. I think the version on the album, which is less four-part choral harmony and therefore less energised, is what actually gives it more of an introspective tone where the meaning of the lyrics become more apparent. I’m not sure what he intended when writing it but I think the meaning, in the context of the album, can be both humorous and sad.

Your work deals a lot with interrogating the generational trauma experienced by Black South Africans. Do you find that the act of sharing songs such as “Nomayoyo” that was composed by your grandfather to be sung by your family serve as sharing a sort of generational coping mechanism? In a way, “Nomayoyo” is also a revisiting of an older song kind of like how you revisited “Rainbow” in this album – does revisiting these songs reinforce their meanings and effects and make them stronger?

Absolutely a coping mechanism. Singing is actually scientifically a means of stimulating the vagus nerve and calming the nervous system. So I do think there is ancestral and indigenous wisdom that is being shared.  I’ve never made the connection between revisiting songs and revisiting our individual and collective traumas. But I do believe that it is important to ask questions, seek out answers, reflect and hopefully make peace with what has happened so we can make choices about how to move forward. It helps us see, more clearly, the root of the problems we often treat as “new”… as though they are personal failures rather than symptoms of a broken system. In my own journey of healing, I’ve had to really comb through what is “mine” and what is “systemic” and I think until you become aware of yourself, a lot of how you think and therefore feel is actually inherited conditioning. That, for me, has been the first step to feeling a sense of true liberation, understanding why the Rainbow Nation was not a complete victory, and the revisitation of this song really has expanded the idea and meaning of what freedom might actually require to be fully realised.

How has the experience of composing a very stripped-down solo-piano album affected the way that you might look at composing new work in the future?

The process was very different to how I’ve worked before as this was a fully improvised session… though I brought in some ideas and songs to work with, the process itself was not predetermined as it usually is when I work with a well-rehearsed fuller band and written scores. I think it showed me a different side to how my performance on a recording plays out in the absence of pre-meditated ideas.

Thandi Ntuli - Rainbow Revisited


Thandi Ntuli - Blk Elijah & The Children of Meroë, Ndlela Music (2022)


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