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Nduduzo Makhathini: Jazz Is a Shared Memory

Seton Hawkins By

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AAJ: 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 Mseleku—and 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 can—in the post-1994 South Africa—reconnect 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.

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