PhD candidate and Jazz singer draws on her musical heritage and wins international music award

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Rhodes University’s Music and Musicology PhD candidate and jazz singer and songwriter, Natalie Rungan.
Rhodes University’s Music and Musicology PhD candidate and jazz singer and songwriter, Natalie Rungan.

By Sam van Heerden


Rhodes University’s Music and Musicology PhD candidate and jazz singer and songwriter, Natalie Rungan, has recently been awarded for her love, dedication, and hard work in music. She won an international Akademia Music Grand Award for her lively and introspective Jazz EP, 'There's A Sound in My Head.' The album was composed as the creative foundation of her PhD. In it, she reflects on her musical journey and the life turns and revelations that made her the artist and teacher she is today.

"As a musician, I have always written songs that people can relate to. I didn’t want this PhD study to be any different," said Rungan. The Durban-born composer is being supervised by Dr Boudina McConnachie. Featuring warm and rounded vocals atop spirited instrumentals, Rungan wrote a song for each chapter of her thesis to form the EP. It is easy on the ears, reverberating with the smooth sounds of Jazz, R&B, Gospel, and Pop. The album is also profoundly contemplative. She recalls her musical heritage with vulnerability and curiosity.

"The musical direction the EP took was guided by the subconscious rather than deliberately intending to be placed in the Jazz genre," said Rungan. The Akademia Music Award recognises top musical talent from across the globe. Winning it is significant for her because she has often pushed the boundaries of jazz by incorporating different genre elements. "Many have told me that this could be problematic because people like boxes," she said, "This award has reassured me that my sound has a place and has been recognised for what it is." The Akademia Awards, based in Los Angeles (US), admired this eclectic quality of Rungan's fusion EP. They said it "opens up an entirely new set of possibilities for the genre."

Though the record focuses on her past, her PhD aimed to see how this personal archive and its revelations could help her to teach the next generation of jazz enthusiasts. Rungan went into education for some time after her undergraduate degree at the University of KwaZulu Natal. After a few years of recording, touring, and establishing her performance career, she decided to return to the schooling world. "I remember performing at a concert and realising that the audience was starting to look too familiar. I knew developing audiences who appreciate jazz would require developing younger players," she explained.  

Focusing on jazz education at the high school level, her doctoral project tried to uncover the personal inspirations which led her to embrace jazz and how these experiences have informed the way she teaches. "It was cathartic to discover the reasons behind [my career choices] and why I ended up building a jazz programme at a high school," she said.

When Rungan applied for her PhD under a different topic, she was unsure how to translate her passion for jazz training in high schools into an academic project. When she started researching, she found minimal studies on jazz at the high school level. Although a jazz specialisation was introduced into the national curriculum in 2012, only a few schools in South Africa have taken it up. "I recall asking, how would a teacher begin to embrace the new streams in the music syllabus without relevant information?" she said. Dr McConnachie assured her that "doing this study wasn't just important, but necessary."

For jazz education to progress, Rungan believes that more performers need to become involved in schooling. Reflecting on her history and personal approach to the genre has made her aware of and refined how she nurtures the musical instincts of her students. This method, she hopes, will give hesitant educators a way forward. "Every Jazz musician has developed their way of playing and, in turn, a way to teach themselves and others jazz," explained Rungan, "Using one's methods to teach the jazz syllabus makes it less daunting and more accessible."

As for her own unique style and methods, Rungan said the Akademia Award has "given her the courage to keep writing songs that push boundaries." Just last month, she signed onto a new record label, Child of the Light Records, owned by SAMA-award-winner and her long-time friend, Ernie Smith. She looks forward to what will unfold.

Dr McConnachie congratulated Rungan on her achievement.