Over the years I have had the opportunity to interview and hear from a variety of influential people making a real mark in their areas of speciality. Ernie Smith is one such musical powerhouse with a gentle soul. As an award-winning South African contemporary jazz icon, he continues to place Africa on the map through powerful song and an unwavering faith in Christ. By Tamsyn Cornelius
We recently had the privilege of interviewing Ernie Smith who shares enthusiastically about his faith, family life and a deep desire to draw people closer to God. As a musician, Ernie continues to influence global audiences with his innovative songs and easy-going African Jazz genre. Not only is he an accomplished vocalist, but Ernie is equally comfortable behind an array of instruments, from the guitar and keyboard to the bass guitar and drums. It is this dedication to his art that has earned him an array of musical awards and international recognition.
THE EARLY YEARS
Growing up in Wentworth, Durban, Ernie was the youngest of nine siblings in the Smith household. “I had an incredible childhood amidst so much love from my parents and siblings,” Ernie explains. “I am the last of nine children, so you can imagine me being spoilt and picked on at the same time!”
In many ways, Ernie’s solid family life shielded him from the reality of gangsterism and drugs that had ravished many homes in their neighbourhood of Wentworth, Durban.
“Wentworth, during my childhood years, was predominantly a coloured township filled with the bustling of energetic, youthful innocence and the always eluding hostility of emerging gangs from the different areas,” Ernie begins. “The air was always littered with the gas smells released from the ‘all too near ‘ oil refinery about 200 meters from my house, and the incessant sounds of airplanes flying over our heads from Durban’s airport.”
And yet, music had always been a part of his life, flowing from one generation to the next. “My mother was an avid lover of all things musical and particularly loved playing music by Jim Reeves, Dolly Parton and Simon Mahlathini amongst others. She said she used to sing in her early life but never did so professionally or seriously. My sisters however did so in Church, particularly my sisters Bernie, Odette and Imelda – all have since passed on,” he adds.
Church was the predominant influence that drew Ernie into a life of music. “I started playing music because I became a Christian. The first time I was exposed to live music was in Church and oh… something in me leapt and I felt drawn to it!”
He speaks openly about his salvation and recalls this pinnacle time in his life with ease. “I became a born-again Christian at the age of 12 (and a half) at a ‘cottage’ meeting. Won’t ever forget the half!” he teases. “Today it’s called a ‘home cell’. I remember the night like it was yesterday. I was so touched by the Word being preached by the late Pastor Blake Crouch and committed my life to the Lord Jesus!”
And it is this very calling to the things of Christ that influenced his musical career. “My sound is intrinsically African Jazz. I started off playing Church choruses and music from artists like Jonathan Butler, George Benson, Maskandi and Koinonia to name a few. I have always believed in consistently drawing inspiration from current young and older artists through the years. My music always talks to the issues of the human condition, both good and the challenges.”
In 2001, Ernie released his first album, ‘Child of the Light’ which later earned him two South African Music Awards for Best Newcomer and Best Adult Contemporary. It further helped him achieve a KORA award for Most Promising Male in Africa. It was during this season that the anthem of ‘When I’m feeling kinda lonely…” was replayed on radio over and over again. The soothing sounds and simple yet powerful lyrics so easily connecting with listeners… which it continues to do today, some 16 years later.
Following the success of his first album, Ernie went on to release ‘Lovely Things’, which earned him his third SAMA and a Metro award for Best Jazz Artist in 2003. This second album is said to have tapped into a younger R&B / Jazz genre which broadened Ernie’s musical reach. And sure enough, people were noticing. So much so that in 2005, Ernie began to collaborate on his third album ‘My African Heart’ with the likes of international stars such as Jonathan Butler, and featuring Grammy award winner, Kirk Whalum.
“There have been many successes and highlights in my career by God’s grace,” says Ernie. “Winning different awards and traveling all over the world; having number one hits; and working with artists like Bebe Winans, Jonathan Butler, Kirk Whalum and so many others. The greatest for me honestly, is seeing lives being touched and young people being inspired through my music,” he adds.
The journey to success has not been an easy street. “The challenge faced as a Christian artist is working in the secular environment. One of the challenges used to be Christians who believed that I should only play and sing in Church,” he admits. “I believe I am called to bring light to a darkened world. Greater is He that is in me than he that is in the world. I also found that as a coloured artist, it’s not as easy to get support. It’s something that is changing but is still a challenge.”
There have also been personal struggles along life’s journey that continue to draw Ernie closer to Christ. “My two daughters, Israela (9) and Zoe (7) came after three miscarriages and lots of tears and sadness. My wife Kissa, and the girls, have become the light of my life and my inspiration to seeing the plan of God fulfilled through me,” he explains.
“My family is my first priority, after my personal relationship with God. Being a father has taught me how to put myself last and how to serve others. I have to live by faith in front of them through challenges and blessings and show them real grace through faith.”
A BALANCING ACT
As a husband, father, musician and entrepreneur with his own production studio, Ernie has to do much to ensure balance in his life and he admits that he really needs to “depend on God daily” to juggle all these roles and responsibilities. “My life with God is paramount in my daily functioning and living,” he explains.
So how does he maintain the balance? “I have to believe in a routine that keeps me nurturing every part of my life,” he continues. “I have certain things that have a ‘no compromise’ sticker on them. I daily spend time alone with God and in His Word. I have time, especially in the mornings, when I spend time with my wife, either over breakfast or going out for lunch. I take my kids to school and pick them up after. When they are home, my wife and I help them with their homework and try to tell them a bedtime story at night. My wife gracefully gives me time during the day to spend on music, either doing studio work or practicing.” Family before ‘work’ seems to be a winning principle here.
As a family man, Ernie knows the importance of connecting with others in real, meaningful relationships. “My latest album ‘Closer’ was inspired by my realization that people are so distant. Distant from their partners, kids and fellow man. People are distant from their relationships with God and His desire for us to love Him and each other. I experienced a distancing in my marriage that made both my wife and I think about being apart. I think that there is so much urgency for us to be present in our conversations and relationships with our families. We are so absent from the lives of the people that matter most to us. I also wanted to revisit the original vision God gave me for my music that I felt over the years has become a bit faint.”
‘Closer’ is a testament to Ernie’s hard work and dedication to push through in the industry. But in many ways, it goes much deeper than making music that people enjoy. “I love seeing the impact of my music on people’s faces and in their lives. There is nothing greater,” he adds.
With a wealth of new material, Ernie’s new album ‘ Closer ‘ was released, not only to South African fans, but also to the American public through his recent US signing to SAIG Entertainment in New Orleans.
When asked about his most memorable live performances, Ernie says, “Malaysia because it was my first international concert, and New Orleans because they love jazz so much.”
So, what is up next for this talented and down-to-earth muso? Ernie explains: “I am working on an EP and my Gospel project. I am also looking to sign and produce new artists.” His production studio, Child of the Light Productions, is where Ernie hones his musical passion with a fervent desire to raise up new talent. To encourage young local musicians, Ernie says: “Be yourself in your music. Talk about what matters to you in your songs. Learn everything you can about the industry… ‘Google is very helpful’!”
We are humbled by the sincerity and realness that is Ernie Smith. We look forward to this next season and hope to be jazzing along to many more Ernie originals in the near future.
To find out more about Ernie Smith, connect with him on social media for updates of his latest projects and upcoming gigs. Instagram: @erniesmith. Twitter: @ErnieSmithzn and Facebook: Ernie Smith.
*This interview featured as the cover story in the August 2017 issue of The Christian Lifestyle Magazine. View it digitally HERE.