Up close and personal with Tutu Puoane - Living in Europe, singing with angels
TUTU Puoane's emotive and lucid alto has been compared to the flow of a clear stream after the summer rains.
Comparisons can be so clichéd, but the truth is that her peerless vocal artistry has that unique, irresistible touch that is reminiscent of great jazz singers such as Billie Holiday, Sarah Vaughan and Ella Fitzgerald.
Once you start playing her music, it is hard to let go.
When she graduated in voice and jazz studies at the University of Cape Town in 2001, the Atteridgeville, Tshwane-born singer and lyricist was offered a lucrative contract with a major South African recording company.
But she accepted an offer from renowned Dutch pianist Jack van Poll to further her music studies abroad.
"I left home in September 2002 after receiving a scholarship to study at The Hague Conservatory in Holland," says the Belgium-based singer. "I started getting a lot of work in Belgium while I was studying in Holland, so I decided to live there for a while."
It was here that she met her husband, pianist Ewout Pierreux.
"I met him at a rehearsal," she recalls. "A mutual friend asked me to fill in for her for a gig she could no longer do. Ewout was the pianist at the rehearsal and I immediately loved his accompanying skills.
"It wasn't love at first sight at all. We just hit it off musically and we became instant friends.
"He paid ilobola. He really wanted to."
The couple is blessed with a five-year old girl, Mpho and they are expecting their second-born in May.
Puoane's love for her daughter is immortalised in Mpho, a song she co-wrote with South African musician Neo Muyanga. It appears on her 2009 Sama award-winning album, Quiet Now. She sings: "Mpho, you are the day the summer floods came, when the rivers were again able to quench all our thirst..."
What does she think of Antwerp, which has been her home since 2004?
"I like living here. It's a beautiful city and I love the fact that one can go out and hear live music by jazz trios or quartets in some cafés every single night of the week.
"Flemish people are generally shy, but on the whole they are pretty nice people. I can honestly say I haven't experienced any racism since my arrival here.
"Only in SA will a white person walk into a shop while I'm waiting for my muffin and assume I work there."
In 2004 she also received the South African music industry's ultimate salute of young, exceptional talent - the Standard Bank young artist award.
"I was doing my second year at the Royal Conservatory in The Hague. I was cold and depressed when the phone rang and it was from South Africa, wanting to give me money to stay on at The Hague.
"I stayed, thanks to Standard Bank."
She didn't finish her six-year programme at the Royal Conservatory, but is grateful for the chance to have studied under voice teacher and respected jazz singer Rachel Gould.
"When I first came here the climate was pretty harsh to deal with. But I somehow got used to it and now I can even claim to enjoy the snow. What was most difficult was getting the hang of organising my shows.
"Theatres and music venues book their acts at least a year in advance. If you don't get your proposal in for consideration in good time you'll have a difficult time booking work.
"I still struggle with this, but it's easier now 'cos I've built a small name for myself on the jazz scene."
She is being very modest. Truth is she is now a household name on the European jazz scene and on many international stages, having performed in major cities including New York and New Orleans.
Besides her regular band - her hubby Pierreux, bassist Nicolas Thys and drummer Lieven Venken - she is a member of Holland and Belgium's most famous jazz orchestras, the Frits Bayens Big Band and Brussels Jazz Orchestra
So what does she miss most about her beloved country?
"I discovered how much I love atchar only after I left home. That's pretty much the one thing I bring back to Belgium with me. If I could pack some sunshine in a jar, I'd bring that with me too," she quips.