Jazz Singer & Mom of 2 Tutu Puoane on Artistry, Gratitude & Creating Her Own Big Breaks

Veronica Wells-Puoane

In CafeMom's monthly series, Work It, Mama, powerful moms detail how they navigate their professions and home life.

Tutu Puoane’s musical gifts were apparent from infancy. As a baby, her great-grandmother said even her cries sounded like singing. Not only was music in her, it was all around.

“Like any kid growing up in a South African township, music is such a huge part of our lives. You can’t escape it,” Tutu said of her childhood.

Growing up in Pretoria, jazz was the preferred genre. Tutu’s mother was a huge fan. Her uncles collected all of the vinyl records and the people of the township bragged about jazz being their identity. Still, as a child, Tutu didn’t know that jazz would become her genre of choice as well. She just wanted to sing.

“I just knew that singing was like oxygen since I was a child," Tutu said. “It’s something I’ve always done. Singing has always been my identity.”

It was always something she did for herself, but by the time she was in boarding school, Tutu realized her singing made an impact on others as well. Around age 11 or 12, Tutu enrolled in a boarding school. The school, founded by Peter Anderson — a white man — was designed to expose Black children to more diverse learning possibilities.

“In those days, the education for a Black South African child was designed so that you don’t dream further than becoming a teacher, a nurse, or a policeman. It’s what they called the Bantu education,” the mother of two tells CafeMom.

It was the first time Tutu would interact with white people. It was where she received free piano lessons and where she saw the power of her gift.

“Every time there was a new teacher at assembly, I had this little bet with myself: How many new teachers can I make cry today?” she recalled.

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After high school, Tutu enrolled at the University of Cape Town on scholarship, to study music.

While she had merged both her passion and her career path, and even settled on jazz as her genre, Tutu learned early that the road of an independent artist would not be an easy one.

“When I was 17, I heard on the radio: 'If you’re between the age of 14 and 24, come to this place. Sony is looking for you,'” Tutu said recalling an early opportunity. She and 600 other girls traveled to the location mentioned. Tutu auditioned by singing Tamia’s “You Put a Move on My Heart.” Then, she and the friends who’d also auditioned didn’t hear anything for months. It would take a chance run in at a house party with the head of Sony Africa, to put Tutu’s name back on the recording company’s radar. Weeks after the party, a contract arrived at her door. Tutu’s mother took the document to a lawyer friend of hers.

“The lawyer friend read it and it scared the heck out of me. Because it was literally, in black and white, where I was going to go to school, how my hair was going to look, who was going to dress me… They really wanted to plan your life and make you into a product,” Tutu explained.

On top of all that, they didn’t want Tutu to sing jazz. When she told the head of Sony Africa, she was passionate about the genre, he said, “‘What do you know about jazz? You’re so young. Are you trying to please your mother?”

“I was belittled,” Tutu said. “I knew back then that this was going to be a long and not easy road.”

Work it, Mama Tutu Puoane-placeholder
Work it, Mama Tutu Puoane

Still, Tutu has no regrets.

Even when things become particularly difficult as an independent artist, Tutu employs a practice that helps her when she feels her mood descending. “The one thing that helps is just to quietly say, ‘Thank you. Thank you. I woke up. Thank you.' Everything still works. I can hear. The things we take for granted,” she said.

Tutu got this practice of gratitude from a therapist she saw during a particularly rough time, and it's become a part of her self-care routine. When she needs to stabilize her mood, she list the things for which she’s grateful.

“I have to give a huge shout out to this therapist. She said every time I go outside to take a walk, really walk and go nowhere. Just walk and look. Look at the colors. Smell and try to be aware. If I feel myself going down, that’s one of the things I do, I go outside and I look.”

Physical movement also plays a part in Tutu’s self-care routine.

“Skipping. I’m a huge fan of cross ropes. They’re Crossrope jump ropes,” Tutu says. “They’re weighted and they’re fantastic. I try to do 1,000 skips a day, with breaks in between of course,” the creative mom of two shared, describing her daily movement practice.

Ultimately, Tutu recognizes that she’s been able to do the work she loves with the people she loves, when and where she wants to do it.

“This idea of having this big break — now as a 45-year-old woman — what does that mean?” Tutu asked rhetorically. “In a way, I can say I’ve had little breaks along the way. All my dreams and ideas and goals, I’ve achieved some of my goals along the way. I guess we’ll see if this big break ever happens or not.”

One of those small breaks happened when Tutu met pianist Jack von Poll at the University of Cape Town.

Jack and Tutu became friends and started working together. Eventually, Jack would place Tutu in front of an international audience.

“It was because of him that I started to come to Europe to play,” Tutu explained. “He introduced me to a whole bunch of people in the Dutch and Belgian jazz scene. So it was around 1999 that I started traveling with Jack. It was because of Jack that I wound up in the Netherlands to study for one year.”

That year was 2002. That’s when Tutu met a boy named Ewout Pierreux who came to her with an interesting proposition. He said, “‘Why don’t you move to Belgium and see what happens?'” Pierreux would eventually become Tutu’s husband and father of her two children.

“Twenty years later, I’m still seeing what happens,” she said.

The birth of her children, daughter Mpho in 2007 and son Motsumi in 2013, would shift her career a bit as well.

“I had a nice little career in Belgium that never really required me to get out of the country. But now, once having a kid. That becomes a fact. You can’t just go anytime you feel like it,” Tutu said.

As her children have gotten older, the ability to take on unique projects has expanded.

Tutu believes they’ve been proud to witness the journey.

“I remember one time, my son, Motsumi, got extremely emotional. We had a concert in South Africa. It was a Sunday afternoon in this tiny place and this concert ended up becoming like church. South African audiences are just the best. We were playing and I started singing this tune and the audience joined in and it became church. And my son, he was in tears. He was crying,” she shared.

Tutu’s son is not the only one who’s had this response to her work.

“I write words in my tongue. And when I play them in Belgium, people always go, ‘Wow, when you sang that song that we didn’t understand, it touched me so hard. It was so deep.’ And I really don’t get the same reaction when I sing in English. But when I go home and sing in my tongue and people truly get what I’m saying, that is a completely different vibe. I don’t even have the English words to describe what that feels like. It’s very important for my soul to go home and sing for my people, to people who truly understand every word that I’m saying,” Tutu explained.

In Tutu’s upcoming release, Wrapped in Rhythm Volume 1: Tutu Puoane Sings the Poetry of Lebo Mashile, she’s channeling the words of another South African whose words touched her. It’s also a dream 10 years in the making.

“[Lebo Mashile’s] poems just grabbed me by the throat,” Tutu said. “I enjoyed poetry in high school. But everything we were told to read in South Africa, in the '90s, you don’t see yourself. So, finding Lebo’s poems, I really saw myself and my community in her words. She was able to express things that I feel deeply, that I could never express in the way that she does.”

As Tutu was reading Lebo’s work, she found herself hearing music. So she started singing. She pressed record and let whatever melodies that presented themselves come forward.

In 2014, Tutu met the poet in person.

“I met her 10 years ago and I told her I would love to do this. But I couldn’t find the book. It was out of print. The publishing company didn’t exist anymore but she still had some copies of the book. She came to a gig I was doing in Johannesburg with a copy of the book. She was so kind and so generous and with her blessing, she was like, ‘Go for it,’” she shared.

Tutu says Volume 2 is even more special.

As excited as Tutu is for the first volume of this work, she says the second volume is even more epic. Tutu sings with the Netherlands-based Metropole Orchestra on the project.

Volume 2 is my biggest dream. Volume 2, we can say, that this is my break. Even if five people get it hear it, the fact that I did it, was the break in itself,” she said.

Wrapped in Rhythm Volume 1: Tutu Puoane Sings the Poetry of Lebo Mashile will be available everywhere you stream music on March 15.

Tutu PuoanejazzSouth AfricaWork It MamaWork It, Mamaworking motherworking mommotherhoodjazz singerjazz musicianBlack History MonthMetropole Orchestra
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