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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.
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