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How Shirley Tetteh became one of the UK's most exciting new jazz guitarists

Shirley Tetteh
(Image credit: Press)

It’s the heat of the summer, back in the late 2000s. An 18-year-old Shirley Tetteh is sprawled out on the fake grass on the Southbank along London’s River Thames. 

The Queen Elizabeth Hall stands tall behind her and the group of young people who have gathered outside after a jam session at Tomorrow’s Warriors - a jazz music education and artist development organization. 

Alongside Tetteh sits drummer and bandleader Moses Boyd, saxophonist and (now good friend) Nubya Garcia, and pianist Zuri Jarret-Boswell. 

“I remember it just being endlessly summer. Zuri buying us icicles and sorbets,” Tetteh recalls from her South London home. “It was just lovely to sit and hang with people that you were passionate about learning music with”. 

This love for cross-collaboration has remained at the heart of guitarist Shirley Tetteh’s music-making. And what might have started over a sorbet at the Southbank has quickly become nothing short of prolific. 

Over the last few years, Tetteh has featured on some of the most innovative records to come out of the jazz scene, from East London soul singer Zara McFarlane’s Arise and The Musicians’ Company Young Jazz Musician Award winner bassist Daniel Casimir’s, Escapee

The guitarist is also an integral member of spiritual jazz ensemble Maisha, seven-member collective Néjira, and alto-saxophonist Cassie Kinoshi’s SEED Ensemble. The latter of which she was actually on tour with just before the world came to a standstill earlier this year.

“We were on our UK tour for Driftglass [the band’s 2019 debut]. We played one gig in Glasgow and then lockdown happened so we came back. I was immediately thinking 'How am I going to earn money?' and then promptly four or five more tours got canceled,” she says with a note of sadness. 

“But at the same time, I was also exhausted. Not that I would ever, ever wish this kind of global pandemic on anyone but the one silver lining was just being able to rest. 

“Moving forward, it's important for two things to happen – for musicians to look after themselves mentally and also physically, making sure they're eating well and finding ways to make it so that our schedules aren't ridiculous. The other thing is being able to earn a living regardless of whether we're on tour or not.” 

Not that I would ever, ever wish this kind of global pandemic on anyone but the one silver lining was just being able to rest

Because while teen Tetteh reveled in the vast self-expression a genre like jazz can afford you, a decade on, and the realities of being a self-sufficient musician have certainly set in. 

“It's interesting now because we've all grown together and we're now all super-focused on maintaining our careers. Part of it is survival, especially during the Corona times. You're suddenly very aware that you need a roof over your head”. 

Tomorrow’s Warriors successfully armed a swathe of pioneering young talent to shake up the jazz scene in South London but at the same time gifted them with some necessary perspective. 

“Looking back at that time, you appreciate it. They're still your friends, you still love them, but you now have this added responsibility of being an adult and looking after yourself.”

Tetteh is fairly adept when it comes to handling herself though. Shirking off her preconceptions, she began playing in the live band of indie outfit JUCE when she was 21 years old. 

“I was a bit of a purist at the time so I was like, 'Oh no, I can't play pop music, that'd be horrible.’ But I had an intuition that I couldn't miss the opportunity,” she remembers fondly. 

JUCE brought their groove-addled party music to a chart dominated by earnest singer-songwriters. The group also encouraged Tetteh to open her eyes to a whole history of guitar greats. 

“I saw how much music they knew that I had no idea existed. I didn't know much about Michael McDonald. 

I was a bit of a purist at the time so I was like, 'Oh no, I can't play pop music, that'd be horrible.’

“I was just stood there looking at their record collections thinking 'there must be something I'm missing here because there's all this knowledge around this music that I don't know anything about so it can't be rubbish… Let me be a bit more open-minded and see what's going on here,’” she explains with a bashful smile. 

This revelatory moment kickstarted another transformation within Tetteh as she began to reclaim a voice she’d put on hold since performing jazz. “I stopped singing because I thought to play, I'm going to have to give everything up and focus.” 

At the same time, the musician began attending counseling sessions in Hackney. When she found herself broke and unable to pay for her sessions, a proposition presented itself. 

“My counsellor said, ‘Why don't you pay me by writing me a piece of music every week until you can pay me back?’ I couldn't understand why he'd want a piece of music rather than actual payment. Now I can see he was thinking this would be a useful thing to direct this person's experience and energy.”

Through this energy, Tetteh’s solo project Nardeydey was born. Some of the early Ghanian influences of her youth sidle up against the clean wonky pop of her JUCE days. 

Her songwriting became a cathartic experience to process her feelings and enter into a new era of acceptance. Speedial explores a more comfortable Tetteh after leaving the church and coming out for the first time. While Slippin finds the musician imploring us to “excuse her feelings because she can’t control them anymore.” 

With live performances off the cards, for now, Tetteh confesses she’s spent her time getting to grips with the latest addition to her guitar rack. She reaches for her new Fender American Professional II Telecaster Deluxe, presenting it proudly to the camera. 

I did have a little thought in my head like imposter syndrome. 'There's no way... Is it because...?'

“It’s got two humbucker pickups and a C profile neck, so slightly different from the necks they normally have,” she begins. 

“I was wondering if my fingers would like it because I'm super-used to the Cort Yorktown but my fingers seemed to be really getting on with the neck. It’s kind of like an ES-175 Gibson.”

Despite a quiet year, Tetteh’s carefully crafted arrangements have still been recognized with a nomination at this year’s Jazz FM Awards for Instrumentalist of the Year alongside Tomorrow's Warrior’s alumni Binker Golding and Mark Kavuma. 

But in a modest manner that’s becoming clear is Tetteh’s style, the guitarist wasn’t totally at ease with the accolade. 

“I did have a little thought in my head like imposter syndrome. 'There's no way... Is it because...?' And then I just thought, actually this is nice and I'll just take it.” 

She also picked up her guitar for the first time again as part of K. Frimpong & His Cubano Fiestas Kyenkyen Bi Adi M’awu for the recent Virgil Abloh/Louis Vuitton S/S 2021 runway show.

Even in moments of stillness, Tetteh appears tied to some of the most exciting projects out there at the moment. Testament to the fact that this 30-something is fast becoming one of the most important jazz musicians in the UK. 

Those carefree summers might be behind her but Tetteh is still in the pursuit of a higher education. 

“I've had moments where I felt frustrated with my practice. Constantly beating myself down about my playing which is not a very inspiring or motivating thing to do. A lot of my guitar friends are a little ahead of me so I've been like, 'How do I make this guitar sound a particular way?' I'm still learning even now.”