Tutu Puoane
Tutu Puoane
Image: Nunu Ngema

Jazz vocal virtuoso Tutu Puoane is an artist at the height of her powers. Based in Belgium and touring extensively globally, 44-year-old Puoane is at the intersection of how her music is heard today and how it will be remembered. She is eight studio albums deep, with her latest, Wrapped in Rhythm Vol. 1, released recently and the second volume in a series of two albums being slated for release in July 2025.

Wrapped in Rhythm Vol. 1 is an eight-track feat which has taken Puoane a decade to complete. The words for each song on this album series were gleaned from In a Ribbon of Rhythm, SA poet Lebogang Mashile’s seminal poetry collection originally published in 2005. “I found her poems online and that’s only when I discovered that she has a book,” Puoane says about her first encounter with Mashile’s work, “The first poem that struck me was titled Sisters. I made a song with that poem on my last album titled Ilanga. The more I saw her poems online, just reading them, I could hear music. I started the search of looking for the book, which was an extremely difficult book to find because it was out of print and the publishing company did not exist any more.”

Serendipitously, the two artists met at The Orbit, an erstwhile live jazz and performance poetry venue in Johannesburg’s CBD, some months after Puoane’s quest for a copy of Mashile’s book had begun. It was there that Puoane laid out her intentions with Mashile’s poetry. “Luckily, she was very receptive” Puoane remembers, “She had already known who I was. She was very charmed that I wanted to sing her words. I sent her a copy of what I did with her poem Sisters and she loved it.”

Wrapped in Rhythm Vol. 1 opens with Land of Broken Mirrors from Mashile’s poem titled My Kind. The song begins with a strident rhythm before slowing to an emotive homage to the poet’s genealogy, and then picking up again to end on an exultant mood. The former part of the song is an outward facing description, locating Mashile and her genealogy. “In the land of broken mirrors / The ugly become divine / With a heart too proud for this vessel / I choose to stick to my kind”, Mashile writes and Puoane sings emphatically.  

In a similar placing of the self, the second song on the album, Latitude, leads with a melody that is so quintessentially South African and written by Puoane’s collaborator and husband Ewout Pierreux. This poem explores individuality in the context of community with an extended metaphor that also defines one’s present self as different to the future self. “L’atitude refines the space between / The person that I am / And who I wish to be,” Puoane sings.

Lebo Mashile
Lebo Mashile
Image: Supplied

The similarities and shared experiences between these two artists working in different but related expressive media greatly influenced Puoane’s approach to singing Mashile’s poetry. Compared to her previous work, Puoane is more present and resolute in her singing on this album. Though astute in the delicate art of collaboration, Puoane carves out thematic and musical room for herself to occupy the centre of each composition, something she has not done frequently.

“It’s because of the words,” Puoane says about her performance on the album “The words resonated so incredibly much with me. It was almost like a spiritual journey that somebody’s words that were written 20 years ago can mean so much, 20 years later, to somebody else.”

Three months apart in age, Puoane and Mashile’s life experiences resemble two different sides of the same coin in terms of their identities. Mashile was born in the US and moved to SA in the mid-90s while Puoane has lived the former half of her life in SA and the latter half in Belgium. “I feel like a somewhat inside outsider in both countries,” Puoane says.

Image: Supplied

This interplay of belonging and foreignness is encapsulated in Mashile’s Inside outsider, sung as From the Outside In on Puoane’s album. At the creative meeting point of two black women reaching masterful heights in their respective crafts, this album does more than make jazz and poetry more accessible. It is a conversation in which one artist celebrates the existence of and affinity with another, while breathing life into the brave work of expressing the intricacy of their personhood.   

Puoane remembers “growing up in SA and going to Model C high schools. We didn’t read poetry from black female South Africans. To have a book of poems written by a black female South African meant so much to me because there’s so much of myself that I really saw in these words. I think that’s why I sing them the way I sing them because it’s almost as if I could have written them myself.”

And as one’s words echo in another’s music; a significant moment in our collective cultural history is marked.

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