In Studio: Thesis ZA
© Ashiq Johnson
Get to know the duo fusing elements of classical, jazz and Xhosa folk
Formed in 2013, Thesis ZA is a duo consisting of vocalists Ayanda Charlie and Ondela Simakuhle. Having been featured on Radio 2000’s “Rising Stars” program, the duo has also performed at Jam That Sessions alongside Zoe Modiga, appeared on HecticNINE9 and a joint show with SAMA-nominee Msaki at the Baxter’s Masambe Theatre. Currently working on their debut album, we caught up with them to find out how they got their start, their creative process, their unique sound and their work at Red Bull Studios Cape Town.
When did each of you start singing and what led you to start?
Ondela: I started playing saxophone when I was 8 years old. I was classically trained throughout Primary school into high school. Around the age of 15, I started playing around with jazz. Initially, my father had these Grover Washington CDs, I would play them and play over them. I started playing in the high school big band and really started playing jazz. When I got into matric and was thinking about what to study, my mentor told me that I should go to UCT to study music. I studied jazz performance for a little bit and was always singing here and there but it wasn’t really my thing. I never thought of myself as a singer. In UCT I met Ayanda and she needed someone to help her out with an event, she knew I played saxophone and gathered a few other musical people at res and we sat one night and arranged a few covers. Because we lived in the same res I knew she could sing so I asked her to not just organise but sing as well. So that’s when it started.
Ayanda: I always loved music. My dad and I have the same kind of taste. I never really sang at home except when I was alone. I always enjoyed music and had interpretations in my head of what I would do but never really had a platform to do that and wasn’t really that way inclined at that age. I was much more of a visual artist and I wrote a lot. When I got to university I was still a fan of music. In res we had jam sessions and I was always a spectator of those things. When I became a culture rep and knew there were people in my res who played instruments and sang I thought it would be nice to put together a live performance for my first event. I had ideas around songs that I liked at the time. There was a Cinematic Orchestra track and two Maxwell songs who is my vocal crush. I had always been harmonising to things he would do so on that night I popped in and out vocally to do third harmonies and things like that I kind of welded myself into the arrangement to the point that they couldn’t unhear it. So that’s the first time I sang to an audience.
How did you go from the group to becoming a vocal duo?
Ondela: It was a matter of using that time and I don’t think we did it consciously. We were really exercising this song making muscle. Whether it was covers or originals. We grew into a six-piece band at our height. When it came to musical direction and arranging, we were leading that and identified a clear partnership and understanding of what we wanted to achieve musically together. When the gigs started winding down in exam season and people get back into the academic grind, Ayanda brought an original song to me, it was just lyrics. We sat in one of the piano rooms at res and ‘iPhupha’ was born. She sang the first one or two lines and I just started playing chords that have never changed. From then on we realised that covering other people’s stuff is cool, but this is cooler!
Ayanda: At that point, we were seniors to everyone in our group. Everyone else was first year and we were stepping into third year and committing to performing more and making music, whereas other people were moving into more academic lives. By the following year, we knew we weren’t going to come back as a six-piece. We then started writing music understanding that it was her writing chords and both of us singing.
Ondela: Another important factor for me to keep going was the requests for gigs weren’t going away. While the rest of the girls were getting back into their academics we understood that people were still booking us so even outside of wanting to create more music we still wanted to perform and wanted to take on requests.
What’s your creative process like?
Ayanda: We haven’t lived in the same city consistenly for a while. I know for the first time when we were living together we would have rehearsals which would turn into new songwriting sessions where Ondela would come with a set of chords or I would come with a lyric or a whole song and we’d work on it. Over time we’ve been developing those original songs and whenever we do have more time it’s usually based on an incomplete idea that we workshop together. We don’t have the luxury of being languid about our songs. It’s always an idea that the other passes along and then we go back and forth. It’s gotten efficient. Some songs take a long time just because of what they are but when we sit and we say we’re setting aside an hour we usually walk out with a song.
Ondela: I’m not very strong when it comes to writing from a lyrical perspective. I think that’s why it works so well because that’s how her brain thinks. Whereas I sit and become really comfortable with sounds and chords, so I’ll chords written sitting in my voice recordings for months, not knowing what it is. Sometimes I’ll give it to Ayanda and she’ll come back it’l be done. Other times we figure it out three years down the line. I really belive in songs existing already and it’s a matter of the right time and the right phase in your life where you can complete it and give it the respect that it deserves. It varies but it’s always been such an organic process. That’s what I love about this partnership.
How would you describe your sound?
Ondela: It’s funny because the name of the group is Thesis and we really believe in using our lived experiences, things that we’ve learnt and picked up along the way in terms of our taste in music, theoretically what we’ve learnt as trained musicians and the song writing process that teaches you a whole new set of skills and that turning into songs, compositions that we either take for ourselves or give away because we are songwriters at the core, so everything that we make we don’t necessarily keep and perform. The sound and the genre so to speak is one of those layers of the thesis, part of that research. It’s a collection of things that have informed who we are as musicians and people. It is classical in a way because I write and think a lot as the child who was in orchestras. It informs the type of chords that I write. But because I was a jazz student for some time you will hear a bit of jazz in there. We write exclusively in isiXhosa so that ultimately informs what the sound event turns out to be. It is quite cultural. So classical, jazz-infused, Xhosa folk kinda blend. That’s what I’d say it is.
What have you been working on in studio?
Ondela: We’ve been working on three or four tracks. We’ve already released two singles and we used this opportunity to complete a third song and start on three additional songs. Which was a really special experience. It’s songs that people have probably heard at gigs they’ve attended. It’s a very special project. We’ve written so much over the last six years and we selected six that are going on this project quite deliberately. So it is a thesis!
Ayanda: It’s our first body of work. It’s our first album. So it’s a big deal.
Do you have a tentative release date?
Ondela: We’re looking at 2020 only because this year is really busy from a performance perspective and we want to really take our time from a mastering perspective to honour each song. Because they’re so different in sound. We really have to think about who we’re going to use for mixing and mastering because it’s a lot to take into consideration.
Ayanda: We make somber music. So we’re starting to consider what that looks like from a season perspective. What people are looking for and when. So we have to strategise around that.
What does summer hold for you?
Ayanda: We have a song that we think is summer appropriate that we’re putting out. It’s a house song. An original track that we did two years ago with a producer called Ronnie Deep in Johannesburg. Performance-wise we are going to be doing a few small gigs. We’re trying to establish ourselves outside of Cape Town in terms of audiences. We had great run here, people came to our shows. We have a good community here as well as PE which is where Ondela is from but we’re working on other audiences around the country so that when we put out something we know it’s not just selling in one corner of our country. We also intend in January, we’ve been selected to perform at showcase called Show Me in Switzerland at the Moods Jazz.
Ondela: In December we’re also doing So Far Sounds which is going to be really cool. As a lover of music I’ve watched my favourite artists do So Far in New York, London, so that we get to do it in Cape Town is pretty cool.
Ayanda: All of that comes with a lot of footage and documentation. Giving people more on the visual side of things.
What do you want people to take from your music?
Ayanda: The message is love. At the base that, but not just regular love. Love for the language. We prioritise writing in our language because we live our lives in our language. It’s important for me to make sure that I’m communicating life in all of it’s facets in a way that’s faithful to the language. I love when people can come to our music and go I’ve been trying to articulate and you just did that. To celebrate and preserve our mother tongue and to elevate it and show that there’s so much to it.
Ondela: The album is political but not in the ways people understand the word political to be. Your lived experience is political if you want to claim that or not. That is the album. It touches on various facets of life. There are themes of feminism, love and romance, heartbreak, resentment. That ties back to this idea that everything you do in life, every chapter you reach, you pick things up, a lesson, a story. Everything that we do ties back to this initially foundation that we called Thesis. Because ultimately everything in life results in some form of body of work or experiences that layered research lessons or feelings. So everything that we’ve done has leant itself to our name in a beautiful way.