Trombonist Siya Charles takes up opportunities with poise and guts

Why do some female musicians take to the large, bulky horn instruments like the baritone saxophone, the bass trombone, the bass clarinet, etc? “It’s their rich, deep, wide sound that holds melody, mood, and a sense of power,” chirps trombonist Siya Charles, as she prepares to leave South Africa for academic ventures at Julliard School of Music in New York City. “They’re suitable to round out that big band sound.”

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“When I was in High School, I actually wanted to learn jazz piano, but my teacher, Graham Beyer, enticed me toward the trombone. I’m happy that now, there’s a rise of more female musicians learning the brass instruments in South Africa, thanks to encouraging teachers and music programs.”

Charles is a product of Eastern Cape upbringing but with mobile parents as her father found work as a civil engineer in various vistas of the country. Hence, her exposure to different societies, schools, and cultures enriched her now progressive tendencies to build skills in both the jazz music genre and academia. Opportunities came her way, spinning her through exciting artistic collectives, from home music festivals like the Makhanda Youth Jazz Festivals, to international youth collaboration in Norway and Italy.

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At National Arts Festival 2021

Thirty one year old Charles is ready to roll, from working hard as a ‘side’ band member to leading her own Sextet of three horns. “After I finished my Honours at UCT in 2013, I was in an academic space where I loved books, doing research, and I just wanted to keep on going. I could gig on the side which was great for me. Then I went straight into a Masters Degree in Dissertation and jazz performance at UCT. I loved the academic side but used the lockdown time during the Covid pandemic to write my compositions. I was constantly learning from others, too.”

Charles is an avid teacher. “I grew up thinking I would perform as my primary focus. It’s been hard to break into the Cape town networks because much depends on ‘who you know’ and how you can break into that ‘brotherhood’ of musicians. I’ve always wanted to be in that teaching role and work with youth, and see them grow so fast, but for now I’m tending towards performing.”

We talked about social activism required of women artists and how many are reluctant to put themselves out there on a limb. The importance of reaching young students is one way. “I really want to be a part of the grassroots levels. Like, remember the program of the Norwegian Academy of Music that bought instruments for some township-based young musicians? Three of us taught at the Mannenberg High School with these instruments but it became so difficult due to security issues. Look at how Lorenzo Blignaut, the trumpeter, has forged his career – a good example of growing up in a township band, the Delft Band, as a teenager!”

As with life’s surprises, all may not go as smoothly as one would like in spite of ‘hard work’ intentions. “I’ve just been underestimated a lot, and talked down to by fellow collaborators. For instance, as a trombone player, I would be asked: ‘Are you sure you can play that?’ or about a tempo: ‘Is that not too fast for you?’ We female trombone players are sometimes seen as a disability,” she laughs.

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So what advice would Charles give to female musicians, given societal attitudes and security issues? “I had to practice my hiney off to get past all of that! I just want to be seen as a musician, and not be overlooked and undermined.” She referred also to her learnings from other female horn players: “Siya Makuzeni has shared her stories with honesty – stories about experiencing sexual harassment in the jazz space. Her overcoming these obstacles was a big inspiration for me. Same with Shannon Mowday’s experiences, being harassed because she preferred that larger baritone sax! We really need mentorships for young women artists.” This echoes the past experience of SAJE (South African Association for Jazz Education) in running a mentoring program which, after six months, ran out of funds.

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Shannon Mowday

Other blockages? Charles admits there have been payment issues and difficulties in obtaining adequate finances as a young Black South African. “People find it risky to invest in musicians, so I went the academic route, through scholarships, to make my networks and participate. Also, being away from my family at age 16 to school in Cape Town was hard. I got a scholarship to attend Stellenberg High School near Bellville and to sing in their school choir, while my family stayed in Gqeberha. That was difficult and I had to live in a dorm arrangement with the other students. This taught me discipline, but I told the conductor that I’m more interested in playing an instrument than in singing. My mother sang, my society sings, so I did that. I also so missed my little brother, being away from him and not seeing him grow.”

But Charles has managed admirably, with a seriousness of purpose. The Julliard School of Music in New York awaits her to start her two year Masters program this September 2022. But how did that come about for a young Black South African woman artist? “I pursued searching for scholarships and bursaries on line as I subscribe to an international network offering scholarships. Noone really helped me. It was through hard research. I found this First Rand scholarship from a philanthropist who had started the bank, the Laurie Dippenaar scholarship. So, I am contracted to return to South Africa for 5 years after completing my academic program. I won’t ‘get lost’ in New York.” While that was reassuring that South Africa might not ‘lose’ another creative artist to the other worlds, not everybody has initiative to make it on their own as she did. “We need to pay more attention to harvesting or facilitating opportunities for young women to grow their skills,” she admitted, “rather than have young people rely on their own initiative or networks which may be weak to non-existent.”

Stream her music here:

An 18 minute YouTube video shows Siya Charles’ expertise in leading her sextet at her National Arts Festival 2021 performance in Capetown: with band members:
Zeke Le Grange (Saxophone)
Shaw Komori (Trumpet)
Blake Hellaby (Piano)
Sibusiso Matsimela (Bass)
Damian Kamineth (Drums)

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