With her sultry looks and powerful vocals, Natalie Rungan is one of Durban’s most celebrated musicians who grew up surrounded by music and the sounds of the old time jazz greats of a bygone era. Her story takes us from singing hymns in church to the launch of her fifth album, One heart.
From the comfort of her Musgrave home, with her pet rabbit, Fletcher, beside her, Natalie pauses to listen to the birds singing outside her window as she talks about the ways in which music, of every kind, makes her world go round.
Between conversation and indulging us in the chorus of every Lady Gaga and Bradley Cooper fan’s favourite song, Shallow, you can tell her voice is powerful with distinct characteristics, as she moves effortlessly from one range to another – from sultry and husky to a belting alto. A good friend once described her voice as burnt honey; Natalie prefers to call it, sunshine.
Her favourite shoes, a pair of Steve Madden diamanté heels, have been whipped out the wardrobe for us to see, along with a string of some of the most glamorous dresses she’s worn over the years including those from nights spent in New York jamming with greats like Larry Ridley, Brian Steele and Michael Rossi, in Sweden at the famous jazz club, Nefertiti, as well as in Australia, where she wowed audiences at a black tie charity ball, and the list goes on.
“Music is a language that everyone knows and speaks in their own way. It lifts spirits and reduces you to tears, but it is ultimately a language of love. A way that people all over the world can connect and understand one another.”
“My music is a combination of so many different influences and styles. There are elements of jazz, gospel, pop and folk at times, all blended with African rhythms and sometimes even Indian music,but my music allows me to be me, and the best part about it, is that it can evolve. I don’t have to be the same me as I was 10 years ago.”
Natalie found her jazz feet in a childhood surrounded by music. She recalls listening to her mum singing in the kitchen during the early hours of the morning, and speaks highly of her musician father, who was a drummer in a popular Durban dance band in the 70s, acknowledging them as her two earliest influences. This, she believes is what started her journey. From an early age, Natalie also sang in church, but it was in high school that she realised there was something within her that needed an outlet.
“My classmates were always asking me to sing in class, and that became my first stage. My first real love of Jazz though was ignited by my vocal teacher, Mitos Andaya, who opened my eyes to a world of music that, at the time, I never knew existed, and so I began to spend every spare moment I had listening to Joshua Redman, Ella Fitzgerald, Dianne Reeves and other greats.”
Naturally, Natalie studied music at school and university where she excelled in vocal performance and went on to teach jazz vocals in the Jazz Studies programme at UKZN. In 2002, with her Masters under her belt, she scooped the award for best jazz vocalist in the Old Mutual National Jazz Encounters Competition. The rest, they say, is history.
She’s an experienced choir director on both Jazz and Gospel circuits, and has been nominated for several awards within the music industry. Natalie has also risen to become an independent recording artist and producer whose smooth vocal styling, honed by hours of tireless practice has seen her perform at a presidential dinner in front of former South African president, Thabo Mbeki; share the stage with South African greats the likes of Yvonne Chaka Chaka, PJ Powers, Winston Mankunku and Wendy Oldfield, and travel the world to explore her unique song-writing and performance abilities. Several of Natalie’s original songs, Death and Love, Taking another Chance on love again, now until the end, have been chosen to feature in the local TV series, The Wild and Isidingo . But one of her treasured highlights is being invited to sing at the official memorial service for Nelson Mandela in Soweto.
“This was truly a humbling honour, and one that will never be forgotten. It’s moments like this that remind me of why I sing. With influences from the bygone era, like my father, who didn’t have the opportunities to pursue his talents and will always play a massive role in my musical career, I’m driven to achieve greater success. I still hear my dad’s music (The Raiders) playing at events and in cars passing by. It amazes me that people still love their music.”
“I didn’t always want to be a singer, I wanted to be a vet, and often there are times when I think of doing something completely different because creativity expands into many areas of my life.”
“I love so many things and am passionate about all of them, which is why I feel the constant sense of juggling – but I love that about my life. Every day is different and always involves me having to find solutions to some really challenging tasks. I thrive on that.”
When asked if she feels her hometown has affected her music in any way, Natalie’s response is patriotic. She loves the warmth of Durban people and the community vibe that helps her to live in a happy mind space.
“I’ve heard people scoff that Durban is too slow, but I love it. I’ve always created my own pace, and when I find that things are moving too fast, I have the ocean to calm me down and my friends and family to remind me why I started this journey. As a songwriter, I need the space in my mind to write, create and play around with ideas, and Durban creates a perfect balance for me to do so.”
“I also have an amazing husband who balances me in the most perfect way. Being a musician himself, Bruce understands my world and allows me the freedom to express myself without being intimidated or threatened by success in any way. I cannot tell you what a blessing that is to me… to know that I am free to live this dream with him beside me.”
In the decade since she penned and produced her long awaited debut album; ‘Love is…’, Natalie admits she’s overcome many tough lessons musically and personally, the biggest of which has been learning to love herself.
A registered PhD student at Rhodes, Natalie hopes that completing this degree, will enable her to further build her platform of influence. She’s also the director of the Chris Seabrooke Music Centre at Durban High School and during this time, she’s initiated several programmes to help develop young talent through music education. Next year is the launch of a dream project of hers, the first KZN Jazz and Rock Schools Music Festival, in partnership with Sibaya Community Trust, aimed at further developing music education in KZN.
“I have a story and believe that my medium of expression is music.”
“My motivation has always been the same – to inspire through my music, to affect change wherever I can, and to positively influence the next generation by providing hope and more opportunities for them than were available to me.”
“American singer, songwriter, musician, arranger, and civil rights activist Nina Simone once said ‘…an artist’s duty is to reflect the times’ and I believe the ability is within each of us to change our outlook on struggles and bad times, and that music is there to help people believe and move beyond those struggles.”
“Think about how you feel after you’ve listened to your favourite song. Does it not lift your spirits or make you feel like you can conquer the world? In some ways I’m just an old fashioned kind of girl with old fashioned values – it could be my upbringing or just observing societal changes over the years, but I have strong opinions about respect, morals, values and how we treat fellow human beings.”
“I am conservative, but liberal in my thinking. Jazz by definition is improvised music, and I believe this has filtered into every part of my journey as an artist. I like trying new ideas, and don’t consciously take from the old to use now. I just think on some subliminal level, the music dad and mum played will always live through me.”
“I’ve always hoped that, in some way, people will not only like and experience my music, but that they will take something away from it… something that might impact their lives.”
“We all have goals and dreams, and the most important thing is never to give up on those. A huge dream of mine has always been to sing with Sting. I might be reaching for the stars, I know, but a dream isn’t a dream if it doesn’t scare you, and if you never put it out there.”
Natalie is currently working on her new project with Neil Gonsalves, Shaun Johannes and Bruce Baker. The album, set to be launched in March 2020, will features songs, written by Neil and Natalie, that were performed for the first time at the Hilton Arts Festival. You can catch Natalie live at the Rockwood Theatre in November, and at the Christmas Jazz Concert at the Playhouse in December. Dates will be announced on social media and Natalie’s website, www.natalierungan.co.za
Photos: Michelle Venter, RavenFire Photography South Africa, 071 365 4754, [email protected], www.ravenfirephotography.co.za
Hair and make-up by Jennifer Pillay from Jen’s Hair Couture 083 795 0029