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Linda Sikhakhane: Two Sides, One Mirror

Seton Hawkins By

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This scene has really made me appreciate who I am, and where I come from. That is important, to have certain nuances that really describe who you are and where you come from. —Linda Sikhakhane
Though it has not received the level of press attention it warrants, South Africa's Jazz scene of the past decade has experienced an astonishing flourishing of artistry and development. While the scene lost some of its titans like Zim Ngqawana, Winston Mankunku Ngozi, and Bheki Mseleku, it has also found new paths through the efforts of a cavalcade of incredible young talents. These artists, born and/or raised in the post-apartheid era of South Africa, have navigated an amazing balance in the music, on one hand looking to and drawing from South Africa's Jazz heritage and local traditions, while also negotiating its place in the global music environment of today. One such artist, saxophonist Linda Sikhakhane, has emerged as a particularly exceptional voice in the music, both as a tenor player and as a composer. Indeed, for those who have not yet heard his debut album, Two Sides, One Mirror, it offers a wonderful glimpse into not only Sikhakhane's talents, but indeed into a wide array of exceptional artists in South Africa's scene today.

All About Jazz: Can we start with your upbringing, growing up in KwaZulu-Natal and your earliest encounters with music, and then finding Jazz?

Linda Sikhakhane: Back in primary school, I was part of a school choir. I must have been about 10 years old. From there I began to take music lessons—recorder lessons with Mrs. V Rajmoney—as well as fundamentals of music theory.

In 2003, I went to the Salvation Army in Umlazi township [just outside of Durban], where they host a community music project, called the Siyakhula Music Centre, led by Dr. Brian Thusi. I started playing trumpet there, learning music further, and then ended up playing clarinet. From the Siyakhula Music Centre, I got a bursary to study music at the Durban Music School, where I took lessons with the late Werner Dannewitz, from Germany, who was the head of the school at the time.

When I decided to make music my career, I began studies at the University of KwaZulu-Natal in 2010, having picked up the saxophone in 2008.

AAJ: Historically, it seems that a number of South Africa's jazz artists started out by playing horns in these brass bands.

LS: Yes, it is a thread in the history. Some of the greatest musicians who are dominating in the South African Jazz scene, like Sydney Mavundla and Prince Lengoasa, they all come from that tradition of the brass bands. It has played a big role in introducing horn players to the scene.

AAJ: You mentioned studying with Brian Thusi, who is certainly a titan in South African Jazz. How did he approach education with you, and how did he speak of the country's Jazz traditions?

LS: One thing about Dr. Brian Thusi is that he has a huge library of music, both American and South African. His main role in my upbringing was introducing me to records of music. He is the one who introduced me to the music of John Coltrane, to Winston Mankunku Ngozi, and he introduced me to these artists by showing me the parallels between South African Jazz and American Jazz.

AAJ: So as you were learning, you were studying both countries' traditions in parallel?

LS: Yes, I was.

AAJ: You bring up John Coltrane here, and in other interviews, you've mentioned how John Coltrane really inspired you to take up and focus on the tenor saxophone. Can you talk more about that?

LS: In my first encounter with the music of John Coltrane, it felt so natural to listen to that kind of music and it really struck some resonance. I gravitate towards this particular sound, it allows me to speak my language and I would say that I am a committed disciple of John Coltrane! Listening also to Bra Winston Mankunku Ngozi, whose sound is really inspired by John Coltrane brought me closer to the source, and listening to both Coltrane and Mankunku, I heard a lot of synchronicity in the sound that both artists executed through their horns.

AAJ: It's striking: in interviews with artists in South Africa going all the way back to the 1960s, John Coltrane looms so powerfully in discussions. And many artists have noted parallels between what Coltrane was doing, and what artists in South Africa were and are doing, musically. Why do you think there's such a resonance?

LS: His intention of playing music is clear and deeply rooted to Africa. To me, Coltrane sounded like he was more concerned about the narrative of the music beyond the technical aspects of it. Take an album like A Love Supreme, where he is connecting to God and giving all these acknowledgements. You can hear that in the music. With Winston Mankunku Ngozi, he recorded "Yakhal Inkomo" shortly after Coltrane had been dominating in modal music, and Bra Winston—in parallel to Coltrane—was working with the same sound, which intrigued me a lot.

AAJ: To your point, with "Yakhal Inkomo" you have that narrative in sound. A story that's being told with no words, with the idea of the bellowing bull.

LS: Yes, exactly.

AAJ: Returning to your university studies, can you talk about your experience there?

LS: Moving to UKZN, I'd say that was the best time of my life, because I was exposed to a lot of new music and a lot of history. A lot has happened at that university, especially with the alumni that went through it. I studied with Mr. Neil Gonsalves, and he shared so many stories with us, like the period of Mr. Bheki Mseleku being around the school and teaching them music from Home At Last, his last release.

It was a special time for me, also interacting with so many peers who had love for Jazz. It was inspiring.

AAJ: The alumni list of UKZN is pretty staggering. You mention these peers at the school; so as you all began to develop as artists and composers, how were you discussing the legacy of this music?

LS: We tapped into a lot of history of music, jazz to be specific. I became good friends with a trumpeter named Sakhile Simani who hails from East London, he exposed me to the Eastern Cape movement in jazz, and also the Zulu influence on jazz in KZN that was strongly executed by greats such as Mam Busi Mhlongo, who was present for a short while during our time at UKZN. He also had so much to share with me in terms of local records that I did not know of like Mankunku's Molo Africa. I got to know more about Eastern Cape music scene; he also introduced me to the Blue Notes, which I had not heard before I went to university.

AAJ: You bring up the Blue Notes, who went into exile, and you've discussed Winston Mankunku Ngozi, who remained in South Africa; who were some of the other artists you were listening to at this time? Were they more of the artists who remained?

LS: In terms of the artists who remained behind, it was mostly Mankunku, and then later an influential collective in SA jazz, the Voice Quintet. I listened to a lot of the Blue Notes and had an interest in Johnny Dyani's music at that time.

AAJ: Did any of the Cape artists like Robbie Jansen or Basil Coetzee get into your earlier studies? Or were they later?

LS: To some extent they did, with the help of Dr. Brian Thusi who knew them personally, he would share stories of his time playing with them back in the day. Cape jazz was also covered in our history class, mostly associated with the exiles.

AAJ: You moved from Durban to Johannesburg—can you talk about the differences of scenes of the two cities?

LS: The move to Johannesburg was an unplanned move. I was supposed to spend another year at university in 2013. But having visited Johannesburg, I fell in love with the scene. At that time, cats like Tumi Mogorosi and Nhlanhla Mahlangu were coming up, and the scene was really amazing. I wanted to be a part of that. I moved to Johannesburg with my closest friend and trombonist Senzo Ngcobo, who is a member of a group called H3 that we co-founded together with another friend and trumpeter Sthembiso Bhengu.

My move to Johannesburg was the best move I could have made in life, because of the scene. Johannesburg has a much bigger scene than Durban, and it has a certain drive and energy. I believe that contributed to my growth in music.

AAJ: It does seem that the past five or six years in South Africa has seen the emergence of many wonderful Jazz artists. Was that your experience?

LS: Yes, that was my experience. I must say that it's an exciting and important time for South African jazz.

AAJ: Let's talk about that group H3. In that group, you worked with Luyanda Madope to produce the album Connecting Generations. Can you talk about that project?

LS: Connecting Generations is a collaborative project between Luyanda Madope & H3. It was introduced to us by Madope after we had been longing to do something with him. With his guidance into the project, the basic idea was to connect different generations in music, also paying homage to South African composers.

AAJ: You ultimately get a scholarship to come to New York and continue your studies. How did that come about?

LS: I was so honored to receive the SAMRO scholarship in 2016, and there was no doubt that I'd find myself in the streets of New York. I've always wished to be in America, and when I heard about the New School faculty—Mr. Billy Harper and Mr. Reggie Workman—I decided to myself that I want to study with these masters. I knew I would learn and absorb so much in terms of the jazz culture in the U.S. Being in the same room with the great Reggie Workman is so special. He has so many stories and wisdom to share.

AAJ: It definitely makes sense. Given how prominently Coltrane has inspired your work, to then study with one of his bass players, and with a saxophonist like Billy who has really carried on that spirit! Can you talk about your studies with Billy?

LS: One special thing about Billy Harper is that he allows you to be yourself. I had the pleasure of studying with him for a semester, playing in an ensemble that he instructed. His music gave us room to really express ourselves, and he helped us achieve a group sound sort of emphasized communal approach to music. Playing what we heard and felt, but in the same spirit.

The fact that Billy has been around for such a long time means he has so many inspiring stories to share.

AAJ: In interviews, Billy has also placed the traditions from Africa at a very high level, and spoken of it at length as it relates to his music. Have you and he discussed South African music?

LS: We haven't really talked about it much, but we have had some conversations about South Africa after he was invited to play with a South African big band at the Tshwane International Big Band Festival.He was really happy and moved by the riding of Nduduzo Makhathini ,Ayanda Sikade and the entire big band.He was shocked by the fact that people knew his music in South Africa.

AAJ: As all of this is developing, you record your debut. Can you talk about the decision to make your record?

LS: This was inspired by a gig opportunity I got to present my original music at [Johannesburg-based jazz club] The Orbit, honoring an invite by producer Aymeric Peguillan. I formed a quintet that I had always wished to hear play my music. From playing that gig, I decided to document this experience before leaving for the United States. I knew that the move would compose new material so I had to first document this important experience in my life.

AAJ: You brought on Nduduzo Makhathini to act not as a pianist on the album, but as the producer. What was that experience like?

LS: Nduduzo is like my closest big brother. He introduced me to the Johannesburg music scene when I moved there, and I even had a chance to play on his second album, Mother Tongue. That was the first Jazz record I was a part of in Johannesburg.

His experience helped guide the whole project. I believe in his creativity and musicality. Judging from his albums and other works that he produced, he has done really amazing work as a producer. To have him produce the album was also a good opportunity for Sanele Phakathi to learn closely from a person who inspires him.

AAJ: You titled the album Two Sides, One Mirror, and in the liner notes there is a reference to the music coming from two separate periods of your life. Can you expand on that?

LS: The title was inspired by a mirror in my parent's bedroom at home. I would meditate on it when they were away at work, reflect on things that had happened in my upbringing and things that I aspire to do in the future.

Later, I came to realize that the title is even deeper than I thought. The whole album is actually a reflection of my life, the richness of culture in KwaZulu-Natal where I was born and raised.

AAJ: Let's walk through some of these tracks. Can you talk about "Hidden Love" and the addition of a vocalist and lyrics?

LS: Hidden Love is a song I composed in 2012, while I was at university. It came through an experience of loving someone but not being able to express the feeling.

The lyrics were written by Omagugu Makhathini, these lyrics are so in sync with the narrative of the song as if I had explained to Mrs. Makhathini the story behind the song, I had not told her the story but spiritual communication gave birth to these amazing lyrics. Having Sis Omagugu on vocals was intentional. I new that she would execute it in a satisfactory way singing the melody with so much dignity, drawing a lot of inspiration from the great Mam Abbey Lincoln.

AAJ: You also add a vocal element right at the end with "Closer to the Heart." Can you talk about that?

LS: "Closer to the Heart" was composed in the same period as "Hidden Love." This was a song I received when I was inspired by the music and people I had been exposed to in that period.

The vocal chant at the end of the song captures a unison idea of a rejoicing collectively after an accomplishment. Such sounds are borrowed from our African ceremonies.

AAJ: So the studio and session allowed for that flexible approach?

LS: Yes indeed.

AAJ: One song that jumps out, as it's so distinct from the others in its tone, is "A Night in D.C." What is its story?

LS: Back in 2012 and 2013, I was part of a group at UKZN that was invited to Virginia Commonwealth University for a cultural exchange program. In year 2013 the group recorded in South Africa then Richmond, Virginia. After the recording we went to Washington D.C. and spent a day there, visited the Library of Congress and many other places. Later in the night we went to watch Kendrick Scott perform at the Bohemian Caverns, which was a really special inspiring concert. When we went back to the hotel after that concert, I heard this particular bass line and melody. The whole song just came like that to me. So I named it "A Night in D.C.," because it was a beautiful night in Washington D.C.

AAJ: Another one that jumps out is "Influential Moments."

LS: "Influential Moments" came when I was reflecting on events that have occurred in my life, sometimes a melody would come through these reflections. In this case themes that I was playing over and over at a gig I had in Durban gave birth to this song.

AAJ: The liner notes also mention one of the songs is a dedication to your grandmother and to your upbringing...

LS: Yes, that's "uKaMadinana." It is a dedication to my late maternal grandmother. So back in the day, we would visit her in Joburg, and then visit my paternal grandmother in KwaNongoma after Christmas. We would go to visit usually at Christmas, This particular song was composed on the 25th of December, I was alone back home in Umlazi while the rest of the family was in the rural areas. I was thinking deeply about my grandmother, who passed on a couple of years ago. I was reflecting on the Christmas Days I've had before with her. This is how the song came, and with that song, it took me a long time to have a final product of the composition. It was just a melody with no harmony, but the night before the recording, Nduduzo added harmony to the song. It was really exciting to hear the full version of the song after the recording.

AAJ: With you now in New York, how has that transition fared? Are there new projects developing?

LS: New York has a very huge scene, and it keeps you on your toes. It has so much to offer, and I meet so many great players. It is humbling. This scene has really made me appreciate who I am, and where I come from. That is important, to have certain nuances that really describe who you are and where you come from. I think that comes up when I play at jam sessions and in concerts.

This place has been good place for me to network and get closer to the source. I recently debuted my gig as a leader in the city. There are projects developing and I foresee a strong connection between South African and American artists. I've been also writing new music that I hope to record soon in New York .

Selected Discography:

Nduduzo Makhathini, Mother Tongue, (Gundu Entertainment, 2014)
Luyanda Madope and H3, Connecting Generations, (Yanda Productions, 2017)
Linda Sikhakhane, Two Sides, One Mirror, (Skay Music, 2017)

Cover Photo Credit: Sufi Don
About Linda Sikhakhane
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