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Nduduzo Makhathini: Jazz Is a Shared Memory

Seton Hawkins By

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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.

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