Let's look at how you synthesize all of this in your music. In a very short span of time, you have released eight albums, all of them very different from one another. Albums like Icilongo
certainly reflect your idea of music as healing, while Inner Dimensions
explores questions of identity in very fascinating and profound ways. Can we walk through your different projects? NM:
My first two albums were Sketches of Tomorrow
and Mother Tongue
, which were released at the same time. With Sketches of Tomorrow
, it was the idea borrowed from Ornette Coleman's Tomorrow Is the Question
and The Shape of Jazz to Come
. How do we look at the shape of Jazz to come within a South African context? And Sketches of Tomorrow
borrows from amahubo, which is pre-Colonial music popularized by Princess Magogo. Amahubo are really praise songs, and if you look at Sketches of Tomorrow
, it starts off with a praise song to Shaka Zulu. Sketches of Tomorrow
is trying to look into what South Africa Jazz might look like in the future. I was also thinking about legacy. I started a family quite early, and was thinking about having three kids and my wife, and had all these questions about identity as a South African. I wondered what legacy I could leave with my kids, and I felt one thing I could leave is identity. So I was working on connecting with my Zulu-ness in that first song. But there is also a song towards the end that features the poet MoAfrika, and she talks about these borders that restrict us from seeing the oneness of this continent. There are a lot of things that are projected on that album. Mother Tongue
tries to look at first language. It's a tribute to my mother, as someone who introduced me to sound as my first language. My grandmother relates a story to me that I took a long time to start speaking as a kid, to the point that my mother used a lot of songs to get me to grasp words. So the album looks into that in a child-like way, looking into the language of music to understand words. I get into other things too"Echoes of You" is a tribute to Mselekuand so Mother Tongue
looks into people who helped to shape my concept of language.
What followed that was Listening to the Ground
. Looking to this idea of the Colonial Period, the British brought Christianity and introduced it as the only mode of spiritualism. And so people started to forget about ubuNgoma and other forms of spiritualism that are ancient in South Africa. Listening to the Ground
came when I temporarily lost my sight. I had gone to eye specialists, all of whom said my eyes were fine, but sometimes I would be partially blind. My uncle told me that my losing my sight had to do with the gift of ubuNgoma that I had been given, but had ignored. I had to do work to connect with it and open these channels of dreams to be guided by the ancestors, and give them room to talk to me. I did as he suggested, and all the repertoire started coming to me. The songs came through dreams and visions, and looks at how we canin the post-1994 South Africareconnect with our pre-Colonial ancestry. It's also connected to my new album Ikhambi
, of how we repackage ubuNgoma in this modern space, and how we bring them closer to the people.
All of these albums ultimately are connected. Matunda Ya Kwanza Vol. 1
looks at the celebration of the first words. Icilongo
was based on my grandmother's teachings through Christianity and the Bible, and how that plays within my identity. Seventeen years of going to church and absorbing the repertoire, it's a part of me that I can never disown, but can always return to and give it new meanings. AAJ:
Can you speak on how you reconciled your Christian upbringing with this revelation and gift of ubuNgoma in your teens? On Inner Dimensions
you wrote about both ancestors and of God. How did these two worlds reconcile? NM:
This idea comes from what I've been questioning. This idea that Christianity almost was an introduction to spirituality in Africa, I think is wrong. I don't think there's a disconnect between ancestry and believing in a higher being. Inner Dimensions
looked into that. In Zulu culture, we refer to God as Umvelinqangi . So this is an ancient concept that connects with Egyptology and the idea that we came from the North, and follows the movement of people as they went South from Egypt. So I'm trying to connect Zuluness with Egyptology. Sun Ra
was big on this idea, as well, and it's something I learned from him on some of his talks about language and words.
There was no point at which ancestry was an isolated idea from an idea of a God. This was distorted by Colonization. When people were colonized, their cultures were colonized too, and they were made to feel that there was something wrong with their way of believing.
I am trying to crystallize an idea of Blackness, and Inner Dimensions
looks into that. I'm trying to find these connections of navigating beliefs in ancestry and messengers. If you think of Christianity as using angels as our messengers to God, it's almost the way African spiritualism uses ancestors as messengers. We believe that people don't actually die; the body may die, but the spirit lives. This is not a new idea anywhere around the world. It's believed in South Africa that you can either believe in Christianity through Christ, or you can believe in ancestors, but you cannot believe in both. For me, this is a twisted idea, as it refuses ancestry a link to a god. Inner Dimensions
uses a hymnal idea, as well. Abdullah Ibrahim embraces the hymnal in such a beautiful way, too. You hear a unique South African aesthetic in the way we articulate the influence of hymnals in our music. If you listen to "Mannenberg," I don't think there is anywhere else in the world where Jazz is approached that way. So there is this drive within me to try to define what South African Jazz is all about. There is such a huge culture, and a broad repertoire, but I don't think we have a vocabulary yet to define it. These humble takes I'm trying to develop for myself are my way of trying to articulate a language we have. AAJ:
When you mention Abdullah's influence, that raises your solo piano album Reflections
. On that, there are echoes of Abdullah Ibrahim
's playing, and therefore echoes of that Gospel sound he has. But you also hear Bheki Mseleku
's right hand attack. It feels like the solo piano recording is a summation of the things you're talking about and an effort to lay a path forward. NM:
That's what I was trying to do. It is Reflections
on repertoire of my upbringing. When I reflect on that, Abdullah looms large, as does Mseleku. If you think of solo piano records, we don't have that many. Abdullah did some, Tete Mbambisa did Black Heroes
, and we have several others, but it is limited. Reflections
is a letter to Mseleku and his notion of a home and his celebration of friendships. On his Home at Last
album we see him play with artists like Morabo Morojele for the first time, and celebrating this idea of a South African Jazz community.
Regarding Mseleku's right-hand articulation, that is something that has always fascinated me about his playing. I know it comes from McCoy Tyner
, but I think Bheki Mseleku
developed it to a point that he owns it. It's a very beautiful thing, that he studied McCoy so much that he developed his own voice. That is not a new thing in Jazz; every Jazz musician studied someone else and then developed their own thing. So Reflections
is about me looking into the Jazz culture of South Africa and trying to develop this voice that speaks to what some of the influences are.
But I also have other piano influences. Randy Weston
is one of my biggest influences. I love how he tries to look at the Trans-Atlantic movement of cultures. I think that's important, to consider the origins when we think about Jazz in the United States. And I think Randy Weston
catches that in his music quite profoundly. You can tell that, when each phrase of his takes you to West Africa; while you think about Jazz, you think about the roots. And I love his disciples too, people like Rodney Kendrick
I think of contemporaries of mine, Kyle Shepherd, Afrika Mkhize, and in a way we are all
disciples of Mseleku, trying to define this idea of the African Piano. Although the piano is a Western-derived instrument, I think of things like the mbira or the kalimba. For me it's not a mistake that we sometimes call the mbira a thumb piano. In terms of how it is built, and how it is used, you can tell that the Western piano derives some of its mechanism from it.
AAJ: Randy Weston
is always clear on this. When he speaks of the Shona people and the mbira tradition, he is quick to note that they had a tonal system before Western Europe did. NM:
I've been researching where mbiras came from. I know ethnomusicologists dismiss this story as myth, and indeed a lot of African stories are dismissed and disregarded as myths. But older people in Zimbabwe tell the story that mbiras were not invented in a way that they were built by people, but rather they were brought by mermaids to the river banks of Zimbabwe, and that is how people discovered them. They go on to talk about the formulation of the mbira's tonal system, as representing a community. The low keys represent the elders, the wise men of the tribe. The higher tones represent the younger people that are excited and learning. Later, when I think about improvisation, I think about the right hand, always in search of new things. But I think of the left hand, composed and definite in what it's trying to do. Everything we play in our right hand is derived from our roots. And so when I play I think about the mbira and its story. AAJ:
All of these threads on the differing approaches to South African music and identities also play into your role as a producer. You've overseen a diverse set of projects by Sisa Sopazi, Tumi Mogorosi
, Lindiwe Maxolo, and more. So how does this vision translate to helping a different artist achieve their vision? NM:
I believe that Jazz is a shared memory. It brings me closer to other people's projects. Whatever they are trying to say is something I can relate to, because it's something we share as suggested by the music itself. When I am being called to produce these records, I don't know that I bring much beyond bringing myself into it to help try to crystallize the ideas that the artist have already.
I can relate to many of their stories. For example, in Images and Figures
by Sisa Sopazi, Sisa came to Jazz later in life. He didn't really have any background within Jazz, and he so he referred to images, people like Andile Yenana
, Bra Zim, Herbie Tsoaeli, people like that. So when Sisa related the story to me, it was easy to figure out how we could present this in a sonic representation.
Ultimately, it's a celebration of friendships. It's also an idea that Salim Washington
speaks of, Sankofa, this idea that to find our way into the future we have to explore our past. These kind of things make it easier for me to step in when it comes to producing music.