Tones of an Icon

A profile-interview on Kyle Shepherd, solo pianist, poet, composer, and leader of his band, the Kyle Shepherd Trio, who starred in SABC’s 21 Icons television series. Originally published by TCB Media in SLOW magazine, circa 2015.

Brainchild of Adrian Steirn, the short-film series 21 Icons – launched in 2013 to audiences in south Africa and worldwide – explores the many faces and facets of creativity to present stories that question, inspire, and challenge. A socio-cultural multimedia project that has traced Mzansi’s history, 21 Icons celebrates pioneers, the women and men who have and continue to shape our nation. Taking inspiration from the life of Nelson Mandela, icons in previous seasons include Hugh Masekela, Desmond Tutu, and Sophia Williams-De Bruyn, to name just a few.

Like the prior seasons, season three uses photography, film, and narrative in gripping concord. However, for this concluding season, entitled The Future of a Nation, it is all about fresh vision and buoyant energy – South Africa in the present.

Shifting from the fine art black and white portraits of previous seasons, Gary van Wyk (lead Photographer), Zee Muller (Video Editor), and Steirn (on behind-the-scenes images) capture the fierce passion of the country’s future leaders in vibrant colour portraits. And an individual that truly embodies this season’s objective – “to inspire young south Africans through the future icons who echo the psyche and pulse of the youth” – is the award-winning, world-touring, 28-year-old virtuoso pianist, Kyle Shepherd.

On 22 November 2015, Van Wyk captured shepherd – solo pianist, poet, composer, and leader of his band, the Kyle Shepherd Trio – in an intimate portrait, entitled Making it Up, filmed in his studio at his grandmother’s house in Grassy Park, Cape Town. The three-minute short gives a taste of how Shepherd uses music as a tool to transcend socio-cultural barriers.

“I was given a plastic violin that played itself when you moved the bow, also plastic, over the ‘strings’. I went on to study classical music on the violin for 11 years from the age of five,” says Shepherd.

With humility, Shepherd shares his insight about music, saying: “The study takes place at home at your instrument, you soak up as much knowledge as you can, you process that and imitate what you learn, then you work on assimilating that knowledge into something personal. only then you embrace the stage and get all that study to flow from your fingers in real time, with no second takes.”

Shepherd says his love of jazz and classical music is because he’s been listening to it all his life, with a few examples being Abdullah Ibrahim, Robbie Jansen, J.S. Bach, Beethoven, and Mozart.

In 21 Icons, Shepherd explains his passion for what he does: “what I love about jazz and improvisation is the freedom it gifts you. It allows you to be yourself.”

Shepherd’s current interest is creative contemporary music, “probably for its forward thinking aesthetic”, he says. “[I have been listening to] some of the pioneers like Stockhausen and also to some contemporaries like Flying lotus, Alva Nova, and Taylor McFerrin.” He never ceases to explore and dive deeper into the current world of music, because it lights his creative fire. “The world of minimal or ambient electronic artists is a sound palette I draw from often in my film scoring work.

“We have a vibrant youth culture making waves, demanding change and refusing to ‘toe the line’,” says Shepherd.

Shane Cooper, Benjamin Jephta, Claude Cozens, Zoe Modiga, Bokani Dyer, and Mandla Mlangeni, in his view, are among the musicians and composers who are pushing the boundaries of South African music.

Shepherd gives insight into music’s place in the “bigger picture” of creating a future that allows for positive change nationwide. “I have seen young people equipping themselves with the tools to become professional musicians and lifting themselves out of adverse social and economic situations.” Learning the business part to one’s passion is fundamental to harnessing it, something that shepherd is witnessing among the youth. “Any musician who is self-producing, self-releasing albums, and managing his or her own career, is an example of this.”

On working with Van Wyk, the musician liked his “enthusiasm to dive into [his] headspace and musical world and try to capture that in an image”. Furthermore, he enjoyed meeting and interacting creatively with like-minded individuals. “I learn from most people I encounter.”

Currently [at the time of publication] composing a film score for a South African feature film titled Noem my Skollie, set for release in cinemas later this year, his is a story far from over.

For icon portraits, short films and profiles visit and for more info on Kyle, visit

Text: Sarah-Claire Picton | Image © Gary Van wyk

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