At the Conservatoire in Cape Town, Tutu Poane was noticed by Dutch pianist Jack van Poll. He took her under his wing like a second father and ensured that Tutu could pursue her studies at the Royal Conservatoire of The Hague in the Netherlands. In 2002 Tutu Puoane left for the Netherlands and two years after that she moved to Belgium. Once more it was love that showed her the way: this time she was in love with Flemish pianist Ewout Pierreux.
Since then, Tutu and Ewout have formed a unique duo on the Belgian jazz scene. He is the versatile but unassuming straight man and arranger at the piano, thrifty with notes, his playing full of soul and restrained swing, his lyricism of an enchanting beauty. She is the versatile and captivating singer, now hesitating almost timidly in slow ballads, now groovy and with a coarseness in her voice that hints at a gospel past.
As a big fan of Ella Fitzgerald she occasionally has a go at scat – not all that often, but always hitting the mark. Tutu’s diction is quite distinct and her rendition always empathic and personal. She sings in English, but also in her mother tongue, Sepedi, and in other South African languages.
Tutu and Ewout form the core around which some trusted figures of the Belgian and Dutch jazz scene revolve as their permanent travelling companions: trumpeters Bert Joris and Carlo Nardozza, saxophonists Tineke Postma, Frank Vaganée and Wietse Meys, bassists Nicolas Thys and Clemens van de Feen, and drummers Lieven Venken and Jasper van Hulten. Tutu Puoane surrounds herself with these musicians for her CDs and concerts under her own name.
In addition, Tutu is much in demand as a singer in the projects of the Brussels Jazz Orchestra. A highlight of her career is certainly Mama Afrika, her acclaimed CD from 2010: a tribute to the music of South Africa, and more particularly to the musical legacy of Miriam Makeba.
In her own repertoire too, there is often that South African touch that ensures a warm glow and a particular accent in the tunes. At the start of her career she relied a lot on well-known and lesser-known standards, later choosing more for her own compositions and songs written specially for her by, among others, Ewout Pierreux, Nicolas Thys and Jack van Poll. Stylistically she feels at home in jazz, soul and jazzy pop.
Since 2016 Tutu has been touring with The Joni Mitchell Project, with which she performs the songs of the Canadian singer-songwriter in her own jazz idiom. Joni Mitchell is one of Tutu’s examples. Billie Holiday, Nina Simone and Ella Fitzgerald are also her idols. But she will never try to imitate those great singers. Tutu Puoane knows like no other that she has to make the best of her own voice: ‘There is only one Ella, there is only one Sarah Vaughan, and there is only one of you’, she said in a TV interview. ‘The best you can do for yourself is to try to be the best possible version of yourself.’
Foto: (c) Cees van de Ven