How 62-year-old South African flautist found his success

Grammy award winner Wouter Kellerman talks about what made him change his career at 43 and how he met with astounding success thereafter

By Manju Ramanan

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Published: Sun 28 Jan 2024, 4:55 PM

Success knows no age; it comes to those who strive, regardless of time and tide. Defying the common norm of setting early goals and achieving laurels at a young age, South African flautist Wouter Kellerman, started his career when he was 43. At 62, he is now a two-time Grammy award winner and has nine South African Music Awards under his belt. His journey speaks volumes about how passion and dedication can take one to destinations dismissed by others as impossible or hard to achieve.

Wouter grew up in a family immersed in classical music. His parents played songs by singer, songwriter and civil rights advocate Mirium Makeba all the time. Though Wouter’s babysitter would play feisty African music, once his mom left for work and he grew up with both influences.

But why the flute? “My mom once took me to a music concert and asked me which instrument I liked and I chose the flute. It operated out of the breath of a person hence it is the closest to a human sound outside singing.”

“The flute is a versatile instrument. It lends itself to classical tunes, jazz, and even beat boxing. The oldest flute was made out of an animal tusk and I even have a $10 plastic flute and a collection of Indian bansuris and Chinese flutes,” he says.

His parents couldn’t afford to send him to music school so he studied electronics engineering at the University of Johannesburg on a scholarship. When he married, he had kids early on but the marriage didn’t last. “I got custody of both kids and ran my engineering company to raise them. I would take a couple of weeks every year to learn flute from the masters.”

After 20 years, when his kids left for University, he decided to take up music full time. He was 43 years old then and people thought he was crazy to give it all up in pursuit of a profession that involved struggle. Wouter took nearly four years to create his first project with Husky Höskulds who had mastered Norah Jones’ album. He was rejected by every recording company that he approached. He recalls how Universal Music didn’t even open the CD he had given them.

“I realised that they didn’t expect a middle-aged white man playing a flute to reach anywhere. They probably wanted someone young.” But as soon as his album won the first South African Music award, the recording labels came looking for him. With accolades and fame galore, Wouter became a voting member of the Grammys and started receiving other people’s music. Ricky Kej was one of them and the duo collaborated over a song on Mahatma Gandhi and Nelson Mandela, Winds of Samsara that won them their first Grammy in 2015 for Best New Age, Ambient or Chant Album.

“I never met Nelson Mandela because he was sick and ailing but I wrote him a song and played it in front of a crowd of 83,000 people and he was listening to it from his hospital bed. That was a beautiful moment for me,” he says.

He has performed all over the world including at the Dubai Expo where he collaborated with the Firdaus Orchestra. “I deeply admire AR Rahman and have done a version of his Bombay theme. I have met him over Zoom call, not in real life.” The Arab world inspired him to create a piece called ‘The Desert Moon.” “ Arabic music is passionate in nature and organic with its microtonal expressions,” he says.

Wouter Kellerman with Indian composer Ricky Kej along with whom he won the Grammy award in 2015
Wouter Kellerman with Indian composer Ricky Kej along with whom he won the Grammy award in 2015

Wouter then went on to win the 65th Grammy award for Best Global Music Performance for ‘Bayethe’ with Nomcebo Zikode and Zakes Bantwini last year.

A connoisseur of roots music, Wouter’s first Grammy album had Argentinian Tango and Irish influences and the second had Flamenco infusions. “When there are no lyrics, people connect purely through the heart. You don’t need language to communicate. Music is enough.”

But this musician is passionate about mathematics too. Elaborating on the similarities between the two domains, he says, “Bach’s music is analytical and there are beautiful patterns in the music and scale like a mathematical concept. Even Indian ragas are a mixture of interludes. When I started music as a 10 year old, I immediately noticed the scales and could relate it to mathematics.”

Wouter believes that it is great for kids to learn a musical instrument. “You encounter a hurdle a day when you start learning a musical instrument and then find ways to overcome that hurdle. The same transmits to your life too and you don’t give up despite impediments coming your way."

Wouter does an hour of practice every day to “keep the engine in top shape.” It is like meditation and helps him keep calm at concerts and in other life situations. Ask him if music is a gift or can be taught and he will tell you emphatically: “Talent is a common occurrence and will fade away if neglected. Perseverance is more important than talent.” We couldn’t agree more.

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