It was one Saturday morning making pancakes with her family that Nandi Bushell first became transfixed by the drums. Her father, John, had put on a YouTube clip of The Beatles’ “Hey Jude” and while her younger brother Thomas and mum Lungile carried on cooking, Nandi was mesmerized by the drummer at the back, thumping along with a huge smile etched across his face.
“Nandi would just have that on repeat,” remembers John. “Something must have triggered in her mind that drums make you happy from that video. That’s the only thing that I can kind of rationalize.” Sitting next to him and Lungile on a sofa inside the family home in Ipswich, a mid-sized town in tranquil Suffolk two hours outside of London, Nandi nods excitedly. “I’d look at Ringo Starr’s drumkit and think it was amazing.”
A few years later, at the ripe old age of 10, Nandi Bushell is rock star famous. She’s an internet infant phenomenon, a drumming virtuoso and prodigal multi-instrumentalist who has become a global viral sensation with her octopus-limbed, beat-perfect cover versions of songs by bands with really great drummers. There are many ways to tell this tale. You could use the stats — Nandi has over 800,000 followers on Instagram, 258,000 subscribers on YouTube and her cover of Foo Fighters’ “Everlong” alone has had 3.8 million YouTube views. Or you could go with the stories, like how she emerged victorious from a drum battle with Dave Grohl or joined Lenny Kravitz onstage for a jam at his show at London’s huge O2 Arena. But really, the best way to view this story is the sentiment. This is why her popularity has blossomed over the past year and why she’s connected with both mega-famous musicians and the uncle who doesn’t post anything on Twitter but emails you a link to every funny video he sees. At a time when the world is a bit of a downer, hers is a sweet, heart-warming story — unanimously positive and innocent. No politics, no PR angle, no conspiracy theories, just a young British and Zulu girl playing drums better than you or I could ever dream of.
“It’s mind-blowing that people have latched onto Nandi and the fun that she’s having,” says John. “As a family, we are so proud that we have given some happiness to this world in such a difficult time.”
Adds Lungile: “Nandi is just doing what she loves doing.”
It was a few weeks after having her mind blown by “Hey Jude” that John took Nandi to a toy shop as a reward for doing well in her maths test at school and said she could have anything she wanted (within £25, or $35 USD). Nandi walked past all the girls toys, all the boys toys and went straight to the music section, immediately halting in front of a plastic drumkit. “This is what I want,” she told her dad. They took it home. “We couldn’t get her off it,” recalls John. “It became a little bit of an obsession.” “At first, I had to practice a lot,” says Nandi. “But I was feeling it and I was getting better.”
Neither parent is a musician. John is a software engineer and Lungile works in HR, but both are big music fans. Having been in a few bands at university, John knew a little bit about playing together and put himself forward as his daughter’s jamming partner at home. The first song they played together was The White Stripes’ ‘Seven Nation Army’. It was around this point that John realized he was out of his depth. “I was better than my dad in, like, two weeks,” says Nandi with the sort of ego-less matter-of-factness that’s only possible when you’re 10. “I was extremely happy that Nandi was so good,” confirms John. “But, at the same time, I was feeling quite inferior… to a five-year-old.”
Nandi says that playing the drums makes her feel “happy, excited, hyped… like I can take over the world!”. She loves heavy metal and its ferocious speed and she was thrilled to show off her double-pedal skills on a recent cover of Slipknot’s “Unsainted.” “It has really fast double pedals and really fast drum rolls and drum snares and it was really tiring,” she reveals.
One of Nandi’s earliest champions was The Roots ringleader and percussionist-in-chief Questlove. He had seen an Instagram video of Nandi mastering a tricky groove and he got in touch, offering to gift her a drumkit he’d specifically designed for children. “In the post a few weeks later, this drumkit from Questlove arrived,” says John. “As Nandi has been doing more and more covers, I know he’s been sharing them with his contacts because soon after that, Anderson.Paak posted a video of Nandi playing Bill Withers’ ‘Use Me,’ which is how Lenny Kravitz started to follow Nandi.”
The most high-profile Nandifan, though, is Foo Fighters frontman Dave Grohl. The former Nirvana drummer is hardly a slouch himself behind the kit, but even he was taken aback by Nandi’s cover of “In Bloom.” “I was, like, ‘This kid is a force of nature,’” he told Stephen Colbert. The two of them embarked on back-and-forth drum battle that became one of the few good things happening in the world at the tail end of 2020, and it culminated with the pair agreeing to write a song together. “It was crazy and exciting,” says Nandi. “I covered ‘Everlong,’ then he came back with Them Crooked Vultures’ ‘Dead End Friends.’ I practiced it in two days. I got it perfect. I smashed the ball out of the park!”
Nandi would like to have her own band one day. They’d be called The Titans, she says, because her favorite TV show is the superhero animation Teen Titans and because she likes the fact titans also means gods. Music is an obvious favorite subject at school, but she also likes math and art. Surprisingly, her online fame doesn’t come up with school friends. “We don’t really talk about it,” Nandi says. “We just play.” That doesn’t mean she doesn’t have grand musical plans for the future. “I want to write another song,” she declares. “If I write a song every month, then I can make an album. And then when I’m 12 I can release the album. And then write more songs in the meantime to wait for my album to go platinum. And when my album goes platinum, when I’m 14, I’m going to tour the world.”
Maybe then, the neighbors might stop complaining about the noise. There have been letters. “We completely sympathize with someone who doesn’t appreciate the drums,” says John. “We’ve tried to put soundproofing up, and Nandi now has an electric kit she can practice on.”
Aside from that, though, this has been a special period for the Bushell family. Says John: “It’s gets a little overwhelming thinking about how many people have interacted with Nandi. It’s a moment in time that, as a family, we’re incredibly proud of.”