EPISODE 2: Sonic Nuances by Siya Makuzeni

Singer and trombonist, Siya Makuzeni isa band leader, collaborator, composer, arranger and lover of music. She performs widely in cross-over bands and in styles ranging from jazz to electronic and groove. Siya started off with classical and baroque music and then learnt jazz at high school. She has always been interested in the different facets of music, not only performance but also what it means and entails to make music and be a musician. She is currently at the forefront of the surge of freshness on the South African music scene.

Module 2: PRE TASK

Siya has a real passion for music. And ever since she discovered that music was something she was going to do as a profession, she began to realise that there is a huge amount of space for expression. From early on she began to explore the many different musical styles and genres.

Having an open mind starts with listening to a wide variety of music. Siya has always loved all sorts of different genres. She imagine a middle ground where different influences can be drawn from and different ideas fused to create a multi-layered music. She works with fusing and melding genres. Jazz as a genre is quite diverse all over the world. Siya has fused jazz with new soul, hop hop or classical; or electronic and drum and base and melded it with rock music. This complete love for melding genres and musical influences has fed into the imagination of the musician.

Having an open mind is really expanded through collaboration and interacting across styles and with different musicians. This becomesa reference point for gauging your knowledge against other styles. This influences the way you hear and write music and get into that free space where your own unique voice and typical sound can come out.

As Siya says, “There is so much music when people are less scared to be themselves.” How do we take that risk, take that leap of faith into the unknown? How do we prepare ourselves for the great surprise of creating something new? By knowing we are supported.

Many people would assume a voice must sound ethereal and sweet, but what about a voice that is growling, bending notes, singing like a sea-gull or doing any number of strange or unexpected sounds? Through experimentation and the freedom to be herself, Siya began to explore the possibilities of finding her own unique voice.

There are only certain things you and only you can do with you voice that nobody else can do. There is no better training ground than experimentation and the freedom to experiment. This is the nurturing space in which to grow. Some people call this the deep-end and say the only way to learn to swim is just jump right in. So, experimentation is therefore not a comfortable space and never will be. However, it is a rewarding space. When you throw yourself right in to the deep end, you will see which way the current flows. Go with it and see where it takes you. This is what the great musicians call learning whilst playing, learning on stage or learning on the job.

Vocals is an instrument

Siya Makuzeni says there is really no other vocalist like Ella Fitzgerald. She uses her voice as an instrument, delving deep into the music and showing what else is possible with vocals?

Siya is both a vocalist and a trombone player. Having both instruments to draw on definitely affects the way she improvises and composes, adding a lyrical approach and more dynamic tone projection to her output. And as she says, “I definitely recommend all vocalists to pick up another instrument.”

Any kind of instrument in your periphery is going to be helpful in learning composition, understanding harmony and arrangement. As a vocalist who plays another musical instrument you can widen your application of harmonic logic.


1. What is your voice capable of doing? Where are your strengths and what are the points you need to improve upon? What do you like doing with your voice?

2. Cross-over is a term describing many different elements coming together to make one coherent musical expression. What musical elements would you ultimately like to choose in creating a unique expression that fills you with excitement?

3. What are the different nuances that people will be able to pick up from your vocalcapabilities? What are the compositional elements in your music that an audience will be able to pick up on as unique? And how would you be able to convey these elements in an arrangement?

4. For Siya using the voice as an instrument has taken her more into the avant-garde musical space where there is freedom to be innovative and use different sound effects in the musical approach, where the approach to a vocal solo is no longer in being lyrical and having a phrase that goes over the entire bar, but can take on a percussive element. Imagine using your voice as a drum!

Now, find a song you love and improvise over the rhythm of the song: What amazing things can you do on top of this to stretch the boundary of the vocal timbre and tonal basis?

There is so much music when people are less scared to be themselves. Siya Makuzeni

Module 2: POST TASK

The voice is a musical instrument. And to find your own voice, a great way is to learn to step away from the standards and those tried and tested formula’s that obviously work, such as delivering the lyrics in a certain tonal structure that doesn’t deviate from the diatonic progressions. This is a wonderful foundation that you have learnt, but once you have learnt you are able to stretch the boundaries to see what else is possible. In other words, step away from the melody and start embellishing and come up with new phrasing.

Some people may call this improvisation and why not? Taking scatting for example. Improvising while scatting creates that element of surprise. By hitting notes you didn’t possible or using scales you might otherwise shy away from, you will give your solo a different shape. Scatting allows you to move into unchartered waters and be more creative.

Drawing from tradition

The Xhosa folk music tradition is known as one of the most musical. There are distinct Xhosa harmonies, rhythms and progressions which draws us back home and sounds extremely South African. Music aswell as dancing is a part of traditional ceremonies. Siya grew up with this music and really loved the tonal aspects of the Xhosa folk music. She loved the way the women have a language as a group and the music is very communal. A lot of what she learnt was from watching these traditional people as they play, their holistic group dynamic.

Part of finding your own voice is recognising where you come from. There is something quite unique how we approach our music in South Africa. Identifying with our traditional music helps us to identify the space we are in. Because when we have an interest in our own folk music, it is a great base from which to develop an interest in folk music in genre because there are some extraordinary similarities. Take for example the split-tone singing of the Eastern Cape and the split-tone singing of Mongolia. The music is a bridging gap that can bring these communities together even if people can’t speak to one another because of the language barrier.

The foundations of traditional music forms have been there for a very long time. They are well versed styles of music and a lot can be drawn from them, even from a Western point of view. Even in traditional African music there is harmonic and tonal structures that can be decoded in Western theory. The language of traditional African music can be interpreted in a way that makes sense to Western schooled musicians and students. This is a musical gap that can be bridged through ethnomusicology so these concepts don’t stay hidden or looked at as something that is other to Western music. African music needs to get to that point where we have our own language for it.

Many South African musicians such as Bheki Mseleku have used traditional South African music to create a unique sound. Your roots music from home really helps to shape and develop how you turn out as a performer. Your roots are crucial to how you are going to present yourself and stand out, particularly when you arrive on the international stage.


1. Siya developed her vocabulary by taking standards from the great jazz composers such as John Coltrane, Dizzy Gillespie, Chico Korea or Herbie Hancock and transcribing the music and then playing it out. This helps build your vocabulary. Take one of these songs and learn the melody.Rearrange the melody in such a way that you embellish it. Bring in new notes that are not necessarily and create your own interpretation of the song. This can become a new melody.

2. How does this new melody speak to you in terms of your compositional voice? Make note of the formulas and foundational structures that come into play: The context, style, musical thematic and progression elements?

3. What are the different nuances that are used and how do they relate to your compositional capabilities?

4. Polyrhythm is essentially being able to take a rhythm in a certain meter and then start adding other rhythms on to that – that all correlate even though they may be in different meters. It is mathematics at the same time.

5, A great influence for all popular music is that African Groove or what Siya calls, “the intrinsic African pulse.” There is a difference between a beat and a pulse in the polyrhythm of African music. The African pulse is always constant and speaks to the internal rhythm of the body. It adds to the excitement and movement of the music. Find a polyrhythm song that you love and improvise with the rhythm. Now see if you can find a polyrhythm song in a jazz context. Can you count out the rhythm? Can you feel the pulse and feel how it pushes and pulls the rhythm? Can this inspire you to create something of your own?

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