Award-winning jazz vocalist, classical composer and arranger Gabi Motuba chats to us about her love for jazz, debut album and career highlights. By Kwanele Mathebula
I was born and bred in Mamelodi, Pretoria. I took music as a subject in high school and majored in singing. After high school, I studied jazz at the Tshwane University of Technology (TUT). While there, I started to take jazz seriously because of a few classmates such as Tumi Mogorosi, Sibusile Xaba, Nhlanhla Radebe and Nhlanhla Mahlangu, to name a few. Their influence helped me understand jazz practice and philosophy, which was community, acute awareness, and critical understanding.
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The moment I realised that I wanted to pursue a career in music was in my early 20s. During my time at TUT, I was introduced to Esperanza Spalding’s album, Chamber Music Society. It changed my trajectory from being an aspiring singer to singer, and then to be a jazz singer. This moment inspired me to listen with intention, mostly to jazz music. I was moved immensely by her composing, musicality, fresh ideas and all-round artistry. I believed that I was witnessing a genius at work.
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Sanctum is an album I co-composed with Tumi Mogorosi in 2015. Pro Helvetia offered us a 3-month residency in Switzerland. This enabled us to record the album there. One of the highlights was that we were able to invite acclaimed jazz pianist Malcolm Braff to join us on the recording. With regard to the compositions, the project was influenced by the idea of creating really quiet music. We wanted to bring the listener into the world of quiet introspection. Also, what was at play was the conversation classical music would have with jazz music. The use of the cello brought a beautiful interpretation to our compositions.
Recording Sanctum helped me grow as a singer. I learned about my taste in music, and the album gave me the opportunity to explore the non-lyrical singing, which I’d been interested in for a while. I wanted to develop this practice further in my own solo work. I was also able to develop my compositional skills. Working with Malcolm Braff had a great influence on my artistry and musical approach. His ability to play softly, but still with intensity and intention was remarkable. His contribution to Sanctum is greatly appreciated.
My career highlights include earning a SAMA nomination for my debut album. Getting the best alternative album nomination for Tefiti – Goddess of Creation was incredible. Another highlight was when my album won a Mzantsi Jazz Award for Best Contemporary Jazz Album. When Tumi Mogorosi and I were asked to present Sanctum Sanctorium at the 2017 National Arts Festival, we were thrilled to do so.
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This year, I will be working on a new project. I have been commissioned to compose new classical works based on a literary text. I will be interpreting, sonically, various characters from well-known novels. I am very excited about this commission. It will stretch and challenge me as a composer, thinker, and artist.