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Nduduzo Makhathini: Jazz Is a Shared Memory

Seton Hawkins By

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I wondered what legacy I could leave with my kids, and I felt one thing I could leave is identity. —Nduduzo Makhathini
It can be overwhelming to keep up with the artistic growth, creative reach, and constant development that marks the career of Nduduzo Makhathini. In the past four years, he has released eight solo albums, all exploring remarkably different territories and demonstrating a ceaselessly probing mind and inventive creative urge. In addition to that, he has emerged as one of the top Jazz producers in South Africa, bringing a unique vision to others' works, and helping to birth some of the most well-received albums of the past few years.

A onetime musical disciple of the late legends Bheki Mseleku and Zim Ngqawana, Makhathini undoubtedly wears the influences of both artists proudly. However, while he shows their influences, he has also taken the lessons of his teachers and used them to forge a unique identity of his own. A truly singular pianist, an astonishingly gifted composer, and a deeply nuanced thinker on the music, Makhathini stands as one of the country's most remarkable talents. As he celebrates the release of his latest album Ikhambi, released last year, he explains the rich and complex influences that led him to where he stands today.

All About Jazz: Growing up in KwaZulu-Natal, in a musical family, what were some of your earliest experiences?

Nduduzo Makhathini: Growing up, I heard a lot traditional Zulu music. It was based on some of the ceremonies and rituals I attended as a child. As a young man I became involved in isicathamiya and other various acapella music. But the biggest influence for me initially was the Zionist Church, and their use of the drum, meditative chants and prophecy. The Zionist Church incorporated Christianity and ancestral beliefs. So I was introduced to music as a mode for spirituality. It was only later, when I went to study music, that I really came to learn the people were getting paid, and that kind of thing! So my background links to African spiritualism in music. My dad played guitar, and my mom played keys. It was beautiful to see them play and sing together. Later on, I became attracted to the idea of how improvised music could be a way of promoting healthy communities. It's something I think I've always had in my subconscious, from seeing my parents playing together. I think about that a lot, and the role of music in cultivating that.

AAJ: You've mentioned in other interviews that, while in university, you came across John Coltrane's A Love Supreme.

NM: You can imagine, I was seventeen, and I'm introduced to BeBop, to Charlie Parker. In terms of the curriculum that was used at UKZN [University of Kwa-Zulu Natal], they start at the beginnings of Jazz. Only later do they get to people like John Coltrane or Wayne Shorter. In the beginning, we were learning transcriptions from the Charlie Parker Omnibook. I found that very difficult, as I was coming from what I'd term modal music, not so much moving between chords. So things like that ii-V-I movement were very unfamiliar to me in terms of what I had heard before. African music is more modal-oriented music.

So transcribing through music in the curriculum and trying to find my way, I was looking for something I could instantly relate to. I remember one time I was frustrated by not understanding things, and so I went to the music library and I found this album. I read through the liner notes and saw Coltrane's prayer, and learned about this artist who was coming from a Christian background. For the first time, I started seeing these things as linked to spirituality. Before even listening to A Love Supreme by John Coltrane, I was intrigued by the spiritual aspect that was conveyed in the title and the liner notes. I played it, and it was the first time I had listened to a Jazz record all the way to the end. I was transfixed, my eyes were closed.

What attracted me to the record was this meditation aspect, his use of pentatonic scales, and also McCoy Tyner's comping that made me imagine these ceremonies that I grew up in. It touched my physical memory in a way that was very special. I wanted to find out more.

Soon after that, I met Bheki Mseleku, who was a big disciple of Coltrane's. He introduced me to Eastern philosophies and ways of thinking that are very much connected to Africa modes of spiritualism. If you think about modes of Ubuntu, and you think about the Zen teaching, there are so many parallels. So that's how I got into Jazz, through modal music.

AAJ: You mentioned Bheki Mseleku, and you of course worked very closely in your career with Zim Ngqawana. Both artists are heavily influenced by John Coltrane, but both of them also found a link between John Coltrane's music and the musical styles of South Africa. I hear that in your work, too. How did you make those links?

NM: With Mseleku, it was based on the McCoy Tyner style of playing. So what he did for me was give me a closer context or take on modal music. He comes from the Zulu tribe, and so he grew up listening to the same music I heard in ceremonies and rituals. When I first met him, he was too advanced for me, and I didn't fully understand what he was about. I didn't quite understand his take on composition, or his take on spirituality. And remember, I came to him from a Christian background, as most South Africans do. I had been playing in church, and was bonded to that. As a teenager, through a dream I was given a gift of ubuNgoma [divination and healing], which was hard to access, due to the bondage I had to Christianity (as a born-again Christian). So Mseleku sort of broke that for me.

Now, Mseleku had more structured forms. His music has improvisation, but it's based on really structured, composed music where you can find a scientific formulation in the music. He was really attracted to cycles. I think it comes from Coltrane's work in the late 1950s on things like Giant Steps, where he was exploring cycles in music while also exploring his religious beliefs. When I started playing with Bra Zim it was a more abstract thing. He was a composer, but his take was that he composed music that allowed him to improvise. He wanted to use shorter themes that would trigger something within his deeper need to improvise. Bra Zim was also inspired by Sun Ra, who wanted to create a new imagination in improvised music, and create a freedom for blackness. Bra Zim was about that too, embracing his upbringing as a Xhosa man in the Eastern Cape. Think about one of his most popular songs, "Qula Kwedini." That is a traditional song that the guys sing when they go off into the mountain. That's a big part of being a Xhosa man, it's linked to that initiation into manhood, and it was amazing to me that Bra Zim would use that memory and try to bring it forward through improvisation. Later, he formalized his work with his Zimology Institute, which I was a part of. He was looking at bringing in these ideas into the progressive approach of Jazz. Bra Zim was big on fusing his upbringing with the curriculum he had learned in Jazz at UKZN. What cut through for me was that, within his music you can tell he was from South Africa.

What's interesting to me is that for both Bra Zim and Mseleku, is that towards the ends of their lives, they were both moving towards trying to extract themselves from the Zulu nation in Mseleku's case, and the Xhosa nation in Bra Zim's case. They were trying to disown the idea of being a Xhosa or a Zulu music; they felt the tags were limiting and restricting them from a universality. I find them to be really interesting people.

AAJ: Listening to Zim's work in particular, "Qula Kwedini" is on one of his earliest albums. Later, like on the live album from the Cape Town Jazz Festival, he's moved into a very free space. You can hear in his music what you're describing.

NM: It has to do with trying to deconstruct these aspects I was describing earlier. Things like him being a Xhosa person and thinking around the memories of his upbringing. He wanted, maybe not to disconnect, but to go beyond that, and it comes through in his improvisation. I don't know if you've heard the live recording from Linder Auditorium [50th Birthday Celebration], which is completely abstract, but you can feel connection to the hymnals he drew from Abdullah Ibrahim's music. You can feel connections to traditional music, but there is a constant movement away from that, too. He was into teachings about dissolving, this Zen state of No Mind. It plays in an interesting way in his music, especially when he was playing with people like Matthew Shipp at the Vision Festival. It was about creating an alternative space for people to freely express themselves, whether through music, dance, painting.

AAJ: It seems that with South Africa's Jazz history, there's a navigation of the roots an artist comes from, versus a question of universality. It ebbs and flows, and changes with different artists.

NM: I've been thinking about the South African Jazz aesthetic that developed in exile. It was using these musical memories and imaginations to try and create this connection with South Africa, but from a far-away land. It's interesting how the Blue Notes came from a mbaqanga foundation, and later in exile you see them gravitating to this robust proteus-like music. Jazz was always a music that could reflect people's pain, but in the Blues Notes' music, and Louis Moholo-Moholo's in particular, you find a confronting of what was going on in South Africa. There's an album of Louis Moholo-Moholo's called Bra Louis-Bra Tebs that has a song called "Sonke." On it, Bra Louis talks about how the music took them through pain, but also how it became a way of living and laughing together. It's such a powerful song, and also it sonically represents what it's talking about. It's got an ostinato in the bass, that to me represents the resistance, and then over that they develop these melodies over it and it goes abstract. But the ostinato remains. To me, it's a representation of what we've all been through, and Bra Louis captured the experience of exile in the 1960s in a profound way. He was trying to connect with a construct of home. It's interesting that Mseleku would later think of the construct of the home as a spiritual construct, rather than a physical space. They weren't able to practice these freedoms in South Africa, but they go to Europe, a foreign land, and are able to express themselves in the music.

There are debates about what I'm trying to explain. There are people who didn't leave—Salim Washington would call them "in-ziles"—who saw the exiles return home after 1994 and receive more recognition for the fight against apartheid for a democratic space. But there were people like Winston Mankunku Ngozi or Tete Mbambisa who stayed behind to create music. If you look at Bra Winston's Yakhal'Inkomo, which was recorded in 1968, it was about a slaughter of a people. Bra Winston was witnessing it in front of his eyes, rather than an exile who had to use his or her imagination to connect to the experience. But then you look at someone like Abdullah Ibrahim, who was in exile but also returned pre-1976. He records the masterpiece "Mannenberg," and it gets regarded as an unofficial national anthem for South Africa because of what it meant to the people during the uprising. So I think there's a very interesting discourse about the inziles and the exiles, but for me, they both contribute to South Africa's Jazz aesthetics in an interesting way, whether in the diaspora or here in South Africa. I'm trying to define these for myself, if that's possible. Taking Mseleku, can you look at his albums and say "this is the sound of exile," or look at the Home at Last album and say "this is the sound of South Africa"? You look at something like Beauty of Sunrise or Celebration that have a universality, whereas Home at Last has a longing that Mseleku has always had with his home. It embraces the mbaqanga and kwela styles, for the first time in his recordings, especially on a song like "Monwabisi." And he was dedicating songs to people like Dudu Pukwana, Johnny Dyani, and Bra Winston, but also to Monk, so even there he showed his links to American Jazz music.

My own thinking is in between what many of these artists had to think about. But also mine is directly linked with the idea of healing. We don't put enough emphasis on that in Jazz in South Africa. Someone like Philip Tabane with Malombo does directly try to channel that healing energy in music, but I think in general Jazz focuses too heavily on the intellectual side.
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