Student Spotlight: Lumanyano Mzi

The Cape Town, South Africa, drummer and contemporary writing and production major discusses his winding path to Berklee, the biggest insights from learning to write for large ensembles, and more.
November 14, 2023

What’s it like to study at Berklee? Our Student Spotlight series asks current students all about their Berklee experience—what they’re learning in class, what kinds of projects they’re involved in onstage or behind the scenes, how they recharge, and of course, what they’re listening to. This week, meet drummer Lumanyano Mzi, an eighth semester contemporary writing and production major from Cape Town, South Africa.

Follow Lumanyano on Instagram, Facebook, and YouTube.

Lumanyano Mzi behind a drum kit

Tell us about your path to Berklee. What made you decide to come here?

While studying at the University of Cape Town, South African College of Music, I got to learn about Berklee College of Music through my professors. They insisted on how great Berklee would be for me. This got me curious about the school and I did a deep dive, and the school’s YouTube really got me inspired.

In 2017, Berklee City Music held an outreach program that took place at Stellenbosch University. On their first day in South Africa they came to see a concert at the Jazz in the Native Yards [concert series] where I was playing with Dr. Jo Kunnuji, who is a Nigerian trumpeter, composer, and musicologist. After the gig, Berklee faculty members Ron Mahdi and Chris Rivelli came to greet and congratulate me on the show. I was again told by them, “Berklee would be a great place for you.” Chris followed up with me offering to write me a recommendation letter if I chose to apply.

They came back for a visit in 2018 where they got to watch me perform with my band, the Unity Band. By then I’d applied to Berklee and was awaiting a decision. I received the decision that I’d been accepted, but the scholarship I’d been awarded was insufficient—which was bittersweet. I deferred in the hopes that I’d be able to come up with the rest of the funds.

By 2020 I had long forgotten the dream of going to Berklee despite having tried numerous avenues to secure the funding, and being unsuccessful. In the middle of the lockdown, I married my wife, who is also an artist, and she encouraged me to reassess the Berklee acceptance letter and its validity.

I reached out to a friend I’d met while on tour with Azania Band in Réunion Island, whose company promised to fund a third of the amount I needed. A week later they’d extended enough for me to cover the first year’s tuition deposit, flights, and accommodation.

However, six months in, the company was forced to withdraw the funding due to Covid, after which Berklee did the unthinkable and offered me a full tuition aid. This was my long and winding journey to being here!

What's been your favorite class so far, and what has it taught you?

All the classes I have taken have been nothing but incredible learning experiences. Two standouts have been Writing for Orchestra with Joe Carrier and Writing for Big Band with Manuel Kaufmann. Having had no experience writing for large ensembles/orchestras, their classes have taught me and solidified a lot of concepts related to harmony, melody, orchestration, organizational skills, and overall professionalism. 

What's a project you've worked on since coming to Berklee that you've been especially excited about?

Since coming to Berklee I have worked on a lot of different projects, but one that comes to mind and that’s been recently released is Ciara Moser’s album, Blind. So What?, now available on all digital platforms.

How do you typically recharge or find new ideas outside of class?

I prioritize sleep, spending time with family, watching movies, and being intentional about spending time with friends outside of school. All of this helps me recharge and enhances my creativity. 

When you think towards your own future, who inspires you most?

There are a lot of people who inspire me. However, looking towards the future and the kind of work and projects I’d like to be doing in the future, I’d say Terri Lyne Carrington, [Snarky Puppy’s] Michael League, and [Late Show with Stephen Colbert bandleader] Louis Cato are one my biggest inspirations.

What's one piece of advice you'd give to your high school self?

Seek knowledge and don’t be afraid of being the only who does not know, ask questions, be right, be wrong. Keep trying and don’t be scared of failure.

Lumanyano's Five Favorite Artists

We asked Lumanyano to pick a track from his five favorite artists. Here's what he said:

1. “Ndibonis’indlela,” Mandisi Dyantyis 

This one reminds me where to go when I feel lost.

2. “As It Is,” Burning Spear 

It just never gets it all, it makes me want to dance, and most importantly tells his story.

3. “I Trust,” Ciara Moser

This one has a powerful message that I believe in.

4. “Long Road,” Antonio Sánchez 

I love this entire album; it's inspiring and takes me on a journey. 

5. “Ferguson – An American Tradition,” Immanuel Wilkins 

It's captivating. It’s kept me awake on long bus rides. The writing and playing in it is phenomenal.