Tu means you in French you know” says Tu Nokwe. And if you didn’t know better you’d be forgiven for thinking Nokwe means music in Xhosa. It doesn’t, but in a sense it does. The Nokwe’s, as it has been said before, are the Jackson 5s of South Africa. The family is comprised of six family members that have made music for most of their lives. They are Alfred & Patty, Marilyn, Papi, Ptoto and Tu. There is no messing with their makeup and density, as it is obvious on Tu Nokwe's solo career.Read More...
Looking back, her musical beginnings have also been influenced by Bheki Mseleku's imprint. He used to live with the Nokwe’s in KwaMashu; theirs was one of the few houses that had electricity and more importantly a piano. Which is where Tu would find Bheki rehearsing everyday for hours on end. And that’s where he found her one-day in the late 70s, distraught that she had failed matric. It really shook Tu because she knew she was bright, but now it was like her worst nightmares had come true – she’d have to find work in a factory or as a maid. It was Bheki that broke her lethargy – he grabbed her results and reminded her that the piece of paper was not a true reflection of her greatness, and that the report represented the master plan of the apartheid regime-he said: ‘Education is in your hands’. It was Tu’s parents Alfred & Patty that got their children into music, and it was them also who dragged Tu back to school to rewrite her matric, which she passed with flying colours. Alfred was in a number of jazz swing bands popular in South Africa in the 50s and 60s. Patty’s life is better documented in plays and books; SINGING THE TIMES, MY VOICE MY LIFE, AN ORPHAN SHINES. She went from being a virtual salve in a Durban family’s household, to one of the finest mezzo sopranos this country has known. She was discovered by an Italian opera teacher who took Patty under her wing and taught her not only how to sing but what to sing as well (Italian and operatic arias). There was no doubt that her children would be anything but musicians, and it was Patty who taught them all to sing. This influence also had a profound effect on the surrounding musical community. The door to the Nokwe house was always open to musicians who were in town and often time they would make a pilgrimage to that door. The children would be sent to bed listening to Letta Mbuli and Mirriam Makeba records. Tu knew all the words and had even worked out a live routine. As she tells it, something in her would just snap and she’d have to get up and go perform in front of the guests. She’d sneak into the lounge turn the Volume down and do her song and dance routine, after which, her father would often chase her into bed.
A gifted speaker, Alfred was in demand as a compere at weddings, parties, and variety community functions. He would often use his opportunity to include his daughters in the overall performance. They were known as the Black African Angels, a vocal group that Tu had started along with Sister Marilyn and a friend Nonhlanhla. Their fame spread like a winter bushfire, as they would eventually record an album on RPM records. But more importantly than their success, was that their performances exposed Tu to young disadvantaged township youth. At this point, her career took a turn as she focused on guiding those children who asked for her help. This would mark the beginning of the Amajika Youth and Children’s Art Project. This project involves teaching kids music; drama; dance and self-respect. Seven members from the first class went on to join Mbongeni Ngema’s Broadway hit Sarafina; including Leleti Khumalo who ended up playing the lead role. Tu also wrote songs for two recordings for Amajika’s as she completed school. It was at this time that Tu decided it was time to broaden her horizons while the Nokwe family continued on with Amajika Project.
Her travels took her to London for almost a year. However before she left, she landed the role of Shaka’s Zulu's wife, Phatha in the movie Shaka Zulu. After her London experience, she was off to New York were she went for auditions at the Manhattan School Of Music to continue developing her craft. Asked what key she sang in Tu wasn’t sure, She did asked them to listen to a blues arrangement with African lyrics. On the spot she was offered a scholarship that would pay half her tuition. The Manhattan School of music boasts Famous South African alumni such as Jonas Gwangwa and Hugh Masekela. To pay the tuition and rent, Tu would teach African culture classes at pre-school and then rush off to class for the rest of the day.
Eventually the burden became too much and so Tu dropped out after two years. But dropping out doesn’t really feature in Tu’s vocabulary. It just meant that she would develop a new project. This project would eventually become a one-person play that would take her on a 21-prison tour of the States in 11 days. Exhausted, she realized it was time to return home and continue what she started with Amajika. “I understood then that I had left home only to find home” she would say later on as she recounted her experiences.