Pianist Thembelihle Dunjana dreams in debut double album, Intyatyambo

When young musicians issue their debut albums onto the fan stage as a double album, they speak certainty and confidence. How ambitious is that?!

For pianist, vocalist, composer, and teacher Thembelihle Dunjana, her December 2020 released album entitled Intyatyambo showcases songs composed and recorded diligently over a 12 month period, but sometimes awkwardly during the COVID pandemic. Her ‘home’ band of fellow colleagues from university days at the University of Cape Town’s College of Music all stuck together in musical solidarity, patient to allow this enthusiastic pianist/vocalist creative space to cast her sonic spell. It’s one of those oxymoronic expressions that the horrible blessings of the viral curse during year 2020 allowed time and [enforced] spacial lockdown for quiet, methodical song writing, collective revisions with loyal band members, and recordings at various Cape Town studios.

Grant Van Rooyen (left), T. Dunjana, Tefo Mahola (rt)

Influenced by kwaito and hip hop, as a complement to her love for the more traditional jazz styles of South Africa’s improvisations and other influencers, such as American pianist McCoy Tyner, her double album seeks this confluence, through vocals and instrumentals. Album #1 deals with R&B and Soul, expressed through harmonic overlays of her vocals accompanied by her trio of zealots including drummer Tefo Mahola and electric bassist Grant Van Rooyen. Album #2 resonates with South African instrumental styles of improvisation, with the characteristic ‘jazz’ heard in the 4th and 5th chords in the lower scale register, or what Dunjana calls ‘trading fourths’.

I preferred Album #2, an instrumental album, which showcases Dunjana’s journey with chords, rhythms, and piano runs, all which allow her four band members to express their own wizardry, including two seasoned soloists of note: Tshegofatso Matlou on a lilting alto saxophone and Muneeb Hermans on trumpet.

Muneeb Hermans

A wandering bluesy expression in Dunjana’s piano meets a neat and clean concordance with her fellow actors. Her two takes of “Ngexesha” display this along with Mahola’s ‘talking drum’ sizzling with drum rolls which characterize his artistic vigour. In the first take, Hermans’ trumpet leads the tune, with some effective muted overdubbing, whereas in the alternate take which ends the album, Dunjana’s piano runs take over with a sax introduction and more of a ‘traditional’ jazz feel. Either way, Dunjana’s compositional skills display different horn and piano textures, all which thrill drummer Mahola to react accordingly. “Emlanjeni” has abit of an emotional crescendo affair between piano and drums that drops into a pleasant bebop with melody and some distinct blues sounds. One can tell Mahola and Dunjana have a ‘thing’, having grown up with tight coordination in reading each other’s soul vibe. This lovely composition of 10 minutes left me understanding better….

T. Dunjana – credit Gregory Franz

There’s a story line to the brief Interlude of “I Wonder Where” with lyrics followed by the longer instrumental Suite which seems to question. It speaks of a freedom. Mahola’s drums chat away and seem to know things. This seems to be his song.

In the trio’s video discussion about making this double album https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=YYzGvFYzYeo&feature=youtu.be Mahola admits he tries to include “that soft, warm 1-4-5 chordal texture” which, to him, pervades South African music. Van Rooyen likes the simplicity of South African jazz sounds which allows the listener to think about what they’re hearing. One can obviously hear on the albums how both colleagues appreciate working in “Tembe’s classroom” – learning and growing together. Band members concur that in Dunjana’s teaching, mentorship, and performances, she is truly living her dream. This double album certainly confirms just that.

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