Rainbow Revisited is the fourth studio album from South African pianist Thandi Ntuli, recorded with the prolific Cali-based percussionist and producer Carlos Niño, best known for collage-like ambient jazz explorations recorded under the name Carlos Niño & Friends (he also produced André 3000’s debut solo album New Blue Sun, released on the same day as Rainbow…).
The seed for this album was planted back in 2017 when Niño caught a video of Ntuli playing a piano motif of hers called “The One”. He really liked the song and expressed interest in recording it, but it wasn’t possible until 2019 when Ntuli travelled to the United States for the first time, thanks to the LA-based creative collective The Nonsemble who had organised a special performance of international jazz. The musicians took advantage of the opportunity to finally meet in person and play together, heading into the studio to record while Niño directed the process.
Ntuli approached the sessions as a performance and focused on exploration, whether that meant vibing in the moment or playing around within a section of an existing song like “Rainbow” (from her 2018 album Exiled), another piece that initially caught Niño’s ear. She describes the process as intentional deconstruction, which found her ruminating over different themes and ideas. Rumination is a useful frame for this music, with an emphasis on its meaning of musing, meditating and pondering. This might be most evident on the two ‘experiments’ of the album: “Breath And Synth Experiment” and “Voice And Tongo Experiment.” Easily some of the most exploratory pieces, they are immersive in their intimacy yet not without a sense of place that expands beyond the studio. On the former, chimes and sounds of waves create an aural environment that is entirely transportive, while the latter hands the percussive element over to Ntuli herself, chasing a rhythm across the surface of a tongo drum and exploring distortion on her voice.
The title track is something of a rumination too, in the form of a response to the original version of the song, which was expressive of a discontent Ntuli felt with what has been accepted as freedom in South Africa. “Rainbow Revisited” is gripping and emotional, a reclamation of the rainbow as a symbol of hope, emphasising its potential for healing. This concept is expressly referenced even further on the album’s final track “Lihlanzekile”, titled with a Zulu word that means ‘it’s been cleansed’. The piece is largely wordless, but its pensive, powerful mood makes for a striking closing statement.
Ntuli’s background is all over this album, but it was Niño’s invitation to play a song from home that led to its most moving piece. She initially considered doing a traditional South African standard, but ultimately gravitated to something more personal: “Nomoyayo (Ingoma ka Mkhulu)”, a song written by her grandfather that was often sung at family gatherings. Although not a professional musician, Levi Godlib Ntuli was a lover of music who fostered a tradition of composing, playing and singing together within his family. Ntuli never met the man herself, but he was a mythical presence in her life. The song is imbued with a sense of myth too, the lyrics sending a message to a young boy who has just woken up that a thief is entering the house. But despite the sense of warning, there’s a lightness to the song; it almost feels like a comfort to the distressed person. Ntuli’s take is spare and gentle, gorgeously measured, a lovely tribute that immortalises a piece of her family history.
For as expressive as Ntuli is with the piano, her voice is equally as resonant, invigorating the music with an additional textural layer while reiterating the humanity of the work. Her breath experiments show her really using the human body as a vessel for expression, while on “Nomoyayo” she sings in XiTsonga, the language of her grandfather. Throughout it all, Rainbow Revisited feels effortless; although of course it’s the brilliant result of two people with a creative spark, working together across time and space to shape something beautiful into being. Niño’s adventurous, meditative spirit is a worthwhile companion for Ntuli’s masterful piano and expressive voice, resulting in an album that is vivid and subdued in equal measure, the vitality of a battle cry rendered as a warm embrace.