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Tuelo: A strong believer of affirmations

As seen in Guitar Girl Magazine Issue 19 – Spring 2022

Tuelo Minah, who goes by the stage name Tuelo, is a singer, songwriter, and guitar player from South Africa. Her music draws inspiration from the great traditions of South African protest music and the polyrhythms and tonalities of her native Tswana and Khoikhoi tribes. 

Moving to New York when she was 17 with just $50 in her pocket, Tuelo had a chance encounter to audition, and that audition would lead her to her first paying gig and launch her singing career.

Tuelo recently released her debut full-length album, The Life of Margaret Cornelius, consisting of 12 raw, personal songs written across the globe. In the press release announcing the album, it was stated, “The alter-ego of the titular Margaret Cornelius is used, in Tuelo’s words, as ‘a tool through which to relay some of the things I want to unpack.’ She adds ‘the record is a protest, awakening the mind, and trying to uncover the uncomfortable but important things that make us human… it covers the spectrum of feelings possible, but mostly urges you to leave trouble even if it seems impossible, and find a place to start again.’”

I just want to jump right in. Tell us where you’re from and how you got into the music industry. What is your story?
I’m from the desert area in South Africa. It’s a very remote place, and I grew up on a farm. My father was a pastor, and my mom was a teacher, and both were community and political activists. I was one of many children in my family, and there were lots of people always in my home. All of us were around music and singing constantly; it is a common part of South African expression. There are also a lot of amazing singers from South Africa. For this reason, I didn’t think of myself as a singer or performer outside of our collective singing culture. 

When I migrated to the US around age 17, I picked up a cheap guitar but didn’t use it at first. I ended up letting a friend borrow it for two years because I wasn’t playing it at all. My guitar was returned to me when my friend moved, and it turned out to be the right moment in my life for me to come back to it. So I taught myself how to play guitar. 

Another significant moment came for me when a meeting with a friend in Times Square turned into an audition that would lead me to my first gig. Being South African in the US, I only knew a handful of people who spoke my language, so I decided to reach out to one of these newer friends. She proposed we go out for coffee as she was auditioning close by at the theater where The Lion King musical was showing. I went to wait for her at the theater with the others auditioning, and I was asked if I could sing because I was waiting with everyone else. I said, “No, I only sing in the shower.” You know, it’s not so serious. And they were just like, “Okay, we want to hear how you sing in the shower.” And so I went in and ended up singing Whitney Houston. I only know the words to one verse, and they were just like, “We’re going to teach you everything.” And then they hired me on the spot! It was my first professional show. It was my first show where I could actually even hear my voice. 

From there on, people started hiring me. I started writing music, but I didn’t actually want to be a musician. I thought musicians are a certain type of way, and I didn’t think I could possibly add value to the music world by writing music. And so I showed my music to people who told me that thinking was rubbish. I grew by the luck of people being so kind to me and giving me gigs and all of these huge musicians, helping me out and telling me, “You can sing, we’re going to hire you, and we’re going to pay!” It was really kind of cool!

Oh yes, come on now! That’s awesome. I always love hearing people’s stories about how they come to where they are. I think that everybody’s journey in life is unique to them. It’s yours and you own it! I want to talk a little bit about guitar because I’m a musician as well! How would you describe your guitar tone and approach to playing music?
South Africans, in general, will sing without instruments. In my tribe, when we sing, we also clap, play drums, and tap our feet, so the beats are polyrhythmic. When I play guitar, I layer these rhythms and create my own polyrhythms. I have to explain to other guitarists or the band, “This is what I’m trying to see, this is what I’m hearing,” and pare it down so that everyone can understand what I’m trying to get there. In terms of my world in Africa, we play so many rhythms that all work as an ensemble. When I hear polyrhythms, I can hear notes in them. 

That’s really unique! And I think that that’s beautiful. I love what you’re saying about polyrhythms and how you can build from there. Are there any other aspects or inspirations perhaps that help you when you’re creating music when you’re in that songwriting process?
I am the kind of person who’s inspired by many things. I’m also burdened by many things. My process is either a sound or a word; I could start off with words that I spoke to someone meeting them for the first time or something I heard from someone. 

When I first started writing music, I didn’t know I was writing music! I was just writing words in order for me to hear what was in my head and not think I’m crazy. I was just always this person who felt like I had to write something and put it down and remember it.

So now my phone is full of all of these things. I’m just like if the TSA opened my phone, I’d be in jail right now. All of these are just thoughts that I need to process and unpack. I also have my phone voice memos now!

Photo by Kevin Wenzel

Sometimes a song will come, and I will write everything in ten minutes fully grown. Sometimes I’ll write a word or a piece and leave it for a while and ask myself, “Why is this here?”

Right now, I’m dying to write! I’ve been working on the record, and finally, it’s happening. And it’s just been me writing words, writing some melody here and there, so I can’t wait to go back and explore all of that. 

The easiest way for me to write is if I have a theme. If I have one, I can write 12 songs that day and finish them. I’m like a machine! But if I don’t have a theme, it’s just me moving through life and letting a song go write itself. So, I’ve written a lot. I have what I call a “song bank.” Just a bank of all these fully grown songs, and then I have everything that’s waiting for me to raise them to nurture them. So I can’t wait to tap into that. 

I really like what you said about moving through life and letting life write the music for you to a degree. I want to ask you about the importance of affirmations to you in life, and what are some of your affirmations if you don’t mind sharing those?
Outside of curiosity stream, I also watch YouTube or videos of that sort. Because I’m an immigrant, or rather, I like to say an expat, like white folks say, I was alone for a very long time raising myself to be a woman. I’ve had really difficult times raising myself. I had to hold onto something because I’m not part of a particular religious affiliation, even though I would say I’m culturally Christian because my parents pastored. So letting go of that, I had to find myself having to keep myself and my sanity together. 

I moved to New York with $50, and remembering that actually brings tears to my eyes. I was sitting on the train; I started this affirmation I got from a group where everything good happens to me. There are all good things in the world, and everything good happens to me. I am surrounded by goodness. I am a good person. Everything good and well happens to me. I keep that with me all the time because that, that there, like really, really helped me get through and just feel okay with being lost.

Sometimes I feel I am undeserving because I understand that I am African, and I am so lucky to be in America. Not that America’s perfect, just that I’ve had the opportunities that most people would die for. And I also know the level of talent. I have to constantly affirm my place in the world. Yeah. I am deserving. I’m deserving of goodness. I’m deserving of kindness. I’m, you know, not only am I that, but I’m deserving of good things to happen to me too. 

I love to compliment people because my mother’s that way too. My mother says, “You can’t just leave a person hanging without giving them something good to walk away with.” I love to compliment people. Like, I don’t even care if people compliment me. I’m just like, “You are amazing. And I love you. And like, your look, your hair, how did you do that? There’s no reason for us to leave people without a good word. So as much as I love affirmations, I love affirming others that they’re doing well.

I resonate with so much of that. I’m very similar in how I like to verbally express to people how much I appreciate them. People just don’t do that enough! I want to wrap up with one more question, which is what’s next? What do you have planned next in this crazy world of limitless possibilities?
Well, the record came out February 11th, which is, oh my goodness! And I’ve already recorded two more records, but I just can’t wait to tour and really be able to dig in. We also have three more music videos coming up. I’m just really, really excited about the record. Yeah. And I just want everyone to hear it. It’s cool. I’m very lucky. 

Is there anything else that you want to mention for this article that I might have missed?
We’d done part of this record in Colombia. When I was there, we did some music video stuff and a whole lot of creative stuff. I realized that I couldn’t find a woman in any of those places. Even though I think you’ll find a lot of women in creative spaces in the US, in other parts of the world, and even in the US, it’s still very little, and I do think that we add nuance, a specificity, a beauty, gracefulness, and elegance, in all of these creative places. I think that we need to have more women in these spaces. I couldn’t find anyone when we were going through music videos to sit down with all of these men and be part of the writing team, be part of the production team, and be part of all of that. It stressed me out. Because I know I just want to have a sister around, right? To be like, “You get me.” 

I think there are many women out there who are just too afraid to step into those roles. I really want to encourage them: that we need you, and we need the nuance that you add to this space. 

The Life of Margaret Cornelius Tracklist

  1. I May Be Lost (intro)
  2. Happier
  3. Canary
  4. Trouble
  5. Killer
  6. Saint Margaret
  7. Queen of Nothing
  8. Hilda
  9. I Am A Kingdom
  10. Radio Tuelo (interlude)
  11. How It Ends
  12. How It Really Ends

 

Guitar Gabby

Gabriella “Guitar Gabby” Logan is an Atlanta Native and proud graduate of Spelman College and Vermont Law School. Her background in environmental and music law fueled her desire to start and manage the international all-women touring collective, TxLips Band, LLC. Logan believes it is important for artists to be well rounded and versed in many areas of the music business, thus inspiring women worldwide to be an unstoppable force. She is the Diversity Editor for Guitar Girl Magazine and the Board Chair for Girls Rock Asheville. http://www.txlips.com

Guitar Gabbyhttp://www.txlips.com
Gabriella “Guitar Gabby” Logan is an Atlanta Native and proud graduate of Spelman College and Vermont Law School. Her background in environmental and music law fueled her desire to start and manage the international all-women touring collective, TxLips Band, LLC. Logan believes it is important for artists to be well rounded and versed in many areas of the music business, thus inspiring women worldwide to be an unstoppable force. She is the Diversity Editor for Guitar Girl Magazine and the Board Chair for Girls Rock Asheville. http://www.txlips.com
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