Tuning the groove: Tshepo Mothwa is refining South Africa’s jazz concerts


IT’S a warm Saturday evening on the moderately quiet Reserve street in Braamfontein in Johannesburg. People are trickling in at the Untitled Basement for the night’s show.

Tshepo Mothwa, 24, has spent the afternoon micing up the room for jazz musician Linda Sikhakhane who is launching his third solo showcase, Isambulo. It is Mothwa’s job to ensure everything sounds right.

Mothwa’s interest in jazz was sparked during a tribute album recording for the former president of the ANC, Oliver Tambo. At this time, he was still a student at the Academy of Sound Engineering.

“Trumpeter Ndabo Zulu actually got me in that studio while I was running around with mentor and former teacher of mine, Issak de Munich. That session sparked my interest in jazz because I saw a whole array of artists, from McCoy Mrubata to Feya Faku and more,” he said.

When Zulu later recorded his debut album Queen Nandi: The African Symphony, he sought the services of the Grammy award-winning Los Angeles-based engineer Qmillion. But Mothwa was called in to assist Qmillion in the engineering.

“I didn’t have much experience with the studio, but Qmillion treated me as though I knew everything. We figured it all together, including how we wanted the set-up to look,” Mothwa recalled.

When asked about Mothwa’s skills and work ethic, Qmillion praised the young sound engineer.

Tshepo Mothwa enjoys downtime during a session at Jazzworx studios. Photo: Tseliso Monaheng

“Incredible youth, I wanna work with him again,” he said. “I appreciated that when I came in, he knew what he was doing, the vibes were right, and everything just moved smoothly. He helped create an environment where the musicians were relaxed and natural, and we just captured the moment.”

After that recording, Mothwa says everyone started calling him for their events. He also became intentional about learning more about sound engineering.

“The drummer, Ayanda Sikade’s advice, opened my eyes; he taught me soft skills like how to address people, who to listen to musically, my strong points, and so on. I also met sound engineering professionals who had been at it for a while from those two gigs alone.”

It has been four years since that experience, and Mothwa continuously proves himself to other musicians and their audiences.

Despite his success as a young, Black, independent sound engineer who is still relatively new to the scene, Mothwa has faced several challenges.

“It’s being needed by many places simultaneously, although some aren’t willing to pay. The other challenge is that because of my age, people doubt my sound engineering capability. I’m also short and that has at times made people apprehensive of my ability. I constantly have to prove myself everywhere I go,” Mothwa said

And when the world came to a standstill in 2020 due to the COVID-19 pandemic, Mothwa faced his biggest challenge. His source of livelihood is live performances, which was prohibited during the lockdowns.

“I kept busy,” he says. “My daily routine would involve mixing something that people had previously recorded, and there were also live-streamed gigs that kept me hopeful,” Mothwa remembered.

Tshepo Mothwa checking sound levels for The Brothers On during a live recording of the PDX Jazz Festival at Joburg Theatre. Photo: Jazzworx

“I’m not surprised that I survived it. I also learned that I am patient and that I really love my job. I never took any side job during the past two years and never applied for anything else.”

Mothwa’s level of focus during live shows and his attention to detail in studio settings led him to successfully engineer entire sessions independently. He recently recorded pianist and composer Thandi Ntuli’s album, Black Elijah and The Children of Meroë, a feat which has now seen him in constant demand for live performances across Johannesburg and Pretoria.

His future plans include expanding his company, OneWav Recordings, which he registered in 2021. He also looks forward to more ‘perfect gigs.’

“The perfect gig would be one where I don’t have to prove myself, regardless of how much it pays. For instance, the Linda Sikhakhane one that I just did at Untitled Basement,” Mothwa said.

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