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Nduduzo Makhathini: Jazz Is a Shared Memory


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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.

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.

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.

AAJ: How do we tie all of these concepts together and build a framework for understanding your latest album, Ikhambi?

NM: Well Ikhambi is also a search for identity, a restoration of crucial elements of my cultures and histories that have been forgotten. My core idea here is finding alternative ways of thinking through and about Jazz in South Africa within ancient African knowledge systems, towards a 'new' language. So I situate the themes and concepts mentioned earlier in what I do, as a tool to creating a familiar context for my music drawing from my upbringing. But most importantly what links all my work are the healing properties of music and Ikhambi is a more intentional effort to channel that vibration.

Selected Discography:

Nduduzo Makhathini, Mother Tongue, (Gundu Entertainment, 2014)
Nduduzo Makhathini, Sketches of Tomorrow, (Gundu Entertainment, 2014)
Nduduzo Makhathini, Listening to the Ground, (Gundu Entertainment, 2015)
Nduduzo Makhathini, Matunda Ya Kwanza, (Gundu Entertainment, 2015)
Nduduzo Makhathini, Icilongo: The African Peace Suite (Gundu Entertainment, 2016)
Nduduzo Makhathini, Inner Dimensions, (Gundu Entertainment, 2016)
Nduduzo Makhathini, Reflections, (Gundu Entertainment, 2017)
Nduduzo Makhathini, Ikhambi, (Universal Music, 2017).

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