Wouter Kellerman: magic on flute

Wouter Kellerman performing at the
launch of Colours, his debut album.
(Image: Wouter Kellerman.)

MEDIA CONTACTS
• Tholsi Pillay
Manager: Wouter Kellerman
+27 78 458 9090
tholsip@mweb.co.za
• Wouter Kellerman
+27 83 625 0955
wouter.kellerman@pixie.co.za

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With South Africa named Country of Honour at Midem, the world’s largest music industry trade fair, taking centre stage was the country’s premier flautist, the eclectic and funky Wouter Kellerman.

Kellerman joined other major South African musicians such as Themba Mkhize, The Parlotones, Vusi Mahlasela and Kurt Darren at the Martinez Hotel in Cannes, France, for the opening ceremony of the three-day event.

An award-winning musician, Kellerman’s principal instrument is the flute, which he uses to construct unique compositions variously described as “crossover” and “fusion”.

“When listening to Kellerman’s interpretations on the flute, it seems like a complete discovery of the sounds and nuances of this often discrete instrument,” said Midem organisers.

Kellerman’s debut album Colour, released in 2007, went straight to the top of South Africa’s classical music charts, and has made good headway in Germany, Austria, Switzerland and most recently Australia. A blend of African, Latin, jazz, tango and Celtic sounds, the album was received with enthusiastic reviews and nominated for a 2008 South African Music Award for Best Instrumental Album. It is soon to be released in the US.

As well as performing on the album, Kellerman co-wrote the music, and co-produced and arranged it, working with legendary South African guitarist, songwriter, arranger and producer Mauritz Lotz.

“I was involved in every part of it,” he says, “from the technical – I researched and decided which equipment would be best to record the flute – to the creative, writing most of the music with my friends and colleagues, and being involved in the arranging, mixing and mastering processes.”

To support the album he has toured four continents in the last two years, performing in cities such as Johannesburg, Cape Town, Melbourne, Sydney, Berlin, New York and, of course, Cannes. In Australia Kellerman was the supporting act in Johnny Clegg’s Down Under tour, and took the time to record children’s music for the Werribee Zoo in Melbourne.

Making music with breath

Kellerman was born and raised in Johannesburg and grew up in the suburb of Linden. While his initial qualification was in engineering, from an early age his passion has been music – the flute in particular.

“When I was 10, my parents took me to a symphony concert and asked me which instrument I would like to play,” he says. “I liked the idea of using my breath to make music. I noticed that most wind instruments pointed to the front, while the flute pointed to the side, so I assumed the flute must be a special instrument.”

So his parents bought him a flute. But when he got it, his music teacher was sick. “I couldn’t have my first lesson,” he says. “My parents didn’t know how to put the flute together and were worried I would break it, so I wasn’t allowed to touch it. So I just opened the case and looked at it every day. I couldn’t wait to get started!”

That teacher entrenched Kellerman’s choice of the flute. “She was an amazing teacher. She was very encouraging and I was completely sold on the flute. I have forgotten her name and wish I could find her and say thank you.”

Performing live was not easy in the beginning. “I remember when I auditioned for a junior orchestra the first time I was very nervous and played really badly,” he says. “The flute is very tricky to play when you’re nervous – you need a steady breath and steady hands.” His solution was to perform frequently, helping him practise his way out of nervousness. In time he became the principal flautist for the South African Youth Orchestra.

After school he wanted to study music full time, but couldn’t afford it, so he studied electrical engineering, because he could get a bursary for that. After he qualified, he returned to music.

“I combined engineering and music by working half day on each,” Kellerman says. “I started my own engineering company, which allowed me the flexible time that I needed to play the flute.” For many years he went to Europe and the US during summer for master classes with some of the world’s best teachers.

“Most of my teachers were really good to me,” Kellerman says. “I listened to James Galway’s records a lot and tried to imitate his playing – he was a huge influence on me.

“A few months ago I received a postcard from him, saying how much he enjoyed my CD, and I was thrilled. I have participated in many master classes by the English flautist William Bennett, and he has been another big influence.”

As a classical musician, in 1981 Kellerman appeared as a soloist with the Johannesburg Symphony Orchestra. He went on to feature in several South African orchestras, winning awards along the way. Among these was winning the Perrenoud Foundation Prize during the 1997 Vienna International Music Competition.

Loving the music

Colour was a labour of love, Kellerman says. “I worked very hard on the album, and it’s really great that other people can ‘get’ what I was trying to say.” He has already started on a second album.

To mix the album, Kellerman travelled to Los Angeles to work with Grammy award-winning recording engineer Husky Höskulds. Höskulds, who has worked with Sheryl Crow, Tom Waits, The Gypsey Kings and Los Lobos, mixed one of Kellerman’s favourite albums, Norah Jones’s Come Away With Me.

“It is always frustrating to mix, because you never get what you want without travelling a looong road,” he says. “But it was all worth while in the end. I learned a lot in the process and am looking forward to working with him again on my new album early next year.

“We worked in LA in Husky’s studio that he set up at his house, so it was very relaxed. It was glorious summer weather over there.”

Kellerman doesn’t consider himself to be famous. “Being famous is not important to me,” he says. “For me it’s just about playing beautiful music and connecting to people through the music.”

His other passion is helping children. For the past 15 years he has sponsored a house with 10 children for SOS Children’s Villages, an organisation that supports children who are orphaned, abandoned or whose families are unable to care for them. “I love children and I think investing in a child will help their children as well.”

Kellerman’s advice to young South African talent is that you can’t be only a musician; you have to be a businessman, a lawyer and a marketer as well.

“Hard work gets you everywhere,” he says. And his favourite quotation? Golfer Gary Player’s “The more I practise, the luckier I get.”

  • To get involved with SOS Children’s Villages, email Rae Bagus at rae@sos.org.za