The Rebirth of Cool. Picture: Tshegogatso 'Harmonix' Mmahlatji
On a windy day in Johannesburg, we’re gathered in a room on the top floor at Kaya FM. Rebirth of Cool, featuring Stogie T, are at the tail-end of their live performance on the radio station when something funny happens. 

Thandi Ntuli and DJ Kenzhero, generally two very serious musicians, look at each other then dab.

It’s not a dab with a flex. It’s not even the kind of dab that shows you they’ve been practising. It’s a dab that is layered with inside jokes. 

The kind of dab that says they are tickled to be able to make the worlds of jazz and hip hop - yes, even that trap-laced rap that Stogie T is now peddling - collide in a fresh musical experience.

“When I born,” Ntuli exclaims after I ask her and Kenzhero when they learned how to dab. “I came out of the womb dabbing.”

On this day, only Ntuli and Kenzhero are present for the performance but on Friday (in Braamfontein) and Saturday (in Brakpan), the entire Rebirth of Cool band will perform. The band is made up of Ntuli (piano and vocals), Sphelelo Mazibuko (drums), Benjamin Jephta (bass), DJ Kenzhero (decks) and the gentlemen who make up H3: Sthe Bhengu (trumpet), Senzo Ngcobo (trombone) and Linda Sikhakhane (tenor sax).

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The name of the band exudes a certain mystery and Kenzhero says it was inspired by one of the greatest to ever step on to a stage. “The name of our band was inspired by Miles Davis’ Birth of the Cool which came out in 1957,” he tells me. “When he came out with that album, it changed music. It changed the jazz scene from bebop to cool. It started to be called ‘cool jazz’. So I thought the idea of changing the landscape of music now was great. Obviously we won’t be Miles Davis, but we took from that idea to create our own Rebirth of Cool. I just thought we should do it in a South African context.”

The Rebirth of Cool. Picture: Supplied

Initially, Rebirth of Cool was a seed in the minds of Kenzhero and his friends. “It started as just the four of us without H3, but it felt really thin,” Kenzhero explains. “Together with another collective of mine - which includes myself and my friends Muzi and Tebogo - we had an idea around putting a band together for a certain kind of market.

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“So then I put out a PSA on Facebook. Thandi’s friend saw it then said Thandi must hit me in the DMs. She inboxed me and then that was it. Thandi was instrumental in choosing the other band members and making sure we have the right people for this idea.”

On the day that I watch this part of Rebirth of Cool perform, Ntuli is wearing an African print hat and tapered pants that together match her flair-filled style of playing. Kenzhero sports a “What’s Wrong With Groovin?” sweater. So I ask them if it’s a prerequisite that everyone in the band be, well, cool.

Ntuli giggles and then explains: “I actually just chose the musicians for their musicianship. The coolness is just an added bonus. They just happen to be cool people. We all play jazz, but because I know Benjamin and Sphelelo’s interests musically, I know they’re very experimental.

“I also love all of them because I feel like together, we can go anywhere musically,” she continues. “And that’s what we usually do. We will rehearse or know where we want the song to go, but it usually never plays out that way - pretty much like how jazz is.”

I see this first hand when Ntuli leads the band on this particular day and finds herself weaving in dub vocal stylings over jazz and Kenzhero scratches. Or when she intonates De La Soul and then mixes that with Erykah Badu - even though she comically forgets the lyrics at some point.

Kenzhero says: “As a band, we freestyle all the time. And Thandi will go from singing something by 340ml - and then I have to very quickly find the scratch for 340ml - and then she’ll go into something else and then come back. The band will just follow because we are fluid. If someone comes up with a nice note then we’ll all just go there. That’s the spirit of how we do things in Rebirth of Cool.”

Ntuli adds: “We usually mix covers. You know there is a tradition of playing jazz standards? We take from jazz standards and then take from hip hop. More than anything, we’re applying a philosophy to how we approach music, the philosophy of hip hop and jazz and everything in between and putting it together. Sometimes we do covers and other times we play (each other’s) original songs. We’re hoping that at some point we will be able to come up with our own original songs as a band. We’ve just been doing covers and weaving in between different songs.”

Kenzhero chimes in: “I think I’ll also say that we’re doing mash-ups because in a hip hop sense, it’s not exactly covers. For instance, we may take a hip hop song and also take the original song that was sampled in order to create that hip hop song and mash up those two. I like the word ‘collision’. That makes sense.”

The Rebirth of Cool. Picture: Tshegogatso 'Harmonix' Mmahlatji

All in the band have carved lanes for themselves in the emerging jazz scene and Kenzhero is an icon in hip hop but when they come together, it’s just... cool.

I ask Ntuli and Kenzhero what they miss the most about Rebirth of Cool when they aren’t playing together. Kenzhero sums it up: “Everyone is funny in this band. A road trip with these guys?! Everyone has their own little character that just shows up. Because we don’t see each other all the time, we don’t get to annoy each other. But it’s really cool to be in this band.”

* Rebirth of Cool is at The Orbit in Braamfontein, Johannesburg on Friday. Tickets at the door. Catch them at Drum Beat taking place at Carnival City on Saturday. Tickets at Computicket and the door.