Sisonke Xonti, the 2020 Standard Bank Young Artist Award winner for Jazz, is an increasingly well-known saxophonist. Few would have guessed, however, that the musician only took up music as a full-time career six years ago, having studied towards a degree in law throughout his university career.
Throughout his studies Xonti had been performing with friends who were all now playing music professionally, building sustainable careers out of the craft. Xonti made the crucial decision to move up to Joburg in 2013 and music became his full-time career.
Music has been a part of Xonti’s life since childhood. It was at the age of 13 that he discovered the saxophone, and he soon fell in love with jazz. Early signs of Xonti’s talent were his selection for three years to the Standard Bank National Schools Big Band (2004-6), and later his selection twice to the Standard Bank National Youth Jazz Band under the leadership of Andrew Lilley and FeyaFaku.
“Back then, music was still just a hobby.” says Xonti. “But looking back, those moments were really important to me. I may have been taking those moments for granted, but for me it was about having fun and that’s something I have to keep reminding myself – music always needs to be about having fun.”
Another influential moment came in the form of performing in Jimmy Dludlu’s band which saw him learning from the legendary guitarist as well as performing to audiences across Africa, China, Réunion, Switzerland and more. During his student years, Xonti continued to perform and played frequently alongside South African jazz contemporaries and former Standard Bank Young Artist Award Winners Kesivan Naidoo, Shane Cooper, and Bokani Dyer.
Following his move to Johannesburg, Xonti connected with musicians Nduduzo Makhathini and Ayanda Sikade who subsequently introduced him to Herbie Tsoaeli.
In 2017 he released his debut album Iyonde, named after his own middle-name and meaning ‘to be enjoyed’.