Ernie Smith. Picture: Instagram

Guitarist and vocalist, Ernie Smith returns to the National Arts Festival in Makhanda to perform at the Standard Bank Jazz Festival.  

We caught up with him to discuss guitars and his success working across genres.

You’ve performed at the Standard Bank Jazz Festival in Makhanda many times. What keeps you coming back to the festival?

I love performing at the Standard Bank Jazz Festival because it is such a great atmosphere of music and appreciative music lovers!

You’ve managed to develop a career as both a loved gospel and jazz musician. Which of these genres do you feel most at home with?

I love both Jazz and gospel genres as I feel relevant in both expressions. I feel comfortable communicating the same message of love and hope through music.

Let’s talk about the guitar lineage in SA. Who would you say inspired you the most when you were starting out?

When I first started playing guitar I was inspired by so many different great artists. Guys like Jonathan Butler, George Benson, Earl Klugh, the late Sandile Shange and Ntokozo Zunga.

The SBJF is big on Student development and education. Talk about you memories as a music student. How does it compare to what you see in students today?

Well I was a student at Natal University for a bridging course for about a year and then later continued my studies on my own! I do a few  lectures around SA particularly JHB. 

My studies were really focused on learning how to understand the jazz genre and as quick as possible, and to translate that into a live practical musical career. Those years we could only learn and absorb what we were taught by our lecturers and whatever cd’s we had. 

Today there is no limit in exposure to the learning  process via the internet and it’s vast amount  of information. I really did and still do believe in adding my own voice to this vast and beautiful musical melting pot, and to leave the music further than where I found it through my small contribution. 

A lot of kids today are doing that and not just learning Jazz as a means of documenting an historical legacy.

What is the one thing that you would recommend to young guitarists dreaming of stardom?

Practice after that practice and then practice some more, Oh Yes and also try as much as possible to be in a band situation where you are testing your skills and learning from your fellow band members. It’s really important to listen to yourself and pay attention to technique and not just the notes. 

You were often compared to Jonathan Butler a lot when you started out. How did that affect the way you position yourself as a performing musician?

I embraced the comparison to Jonathan Butler when I first started as he is a great player. Miles Davis said ‘ you take a long time to sound like yourself ‘ I think we all learn from our luminaries but the important thing is to grow into yourself through the process of time and self introspection.

You have an extensive repertoire which you presented in various forms at the SBJF. What can music lovers expect from your performance this year?

This year I am wanting to speak more in an organic jazz voice that seems to be invading my consciousness as I get older.  So it will definitely contain a few of my older favorites in terms of songs but also some newer inflections which show my constant evolution

Ernie Smith will perform at the Standard Bank Jazz Festival in Makhanda (formerly Grahamstown) on July5 and 6. For more information visit: