For many, Jazz from South Africa is associated with the sound of the Exiles, of those faced with a system they could not change, who sought freedom of expression away from their country of birth.
We know too little about musicians like Zim Ngqawana, Andile Yenana, Herbie Tsoaeli and Feya Faku, but we know Bheki Mseleku and his music is delightful to our ears.
Now there are new sounds, varied and exciting, none more so than Nduduzo Makhathini, who has given us a huge wealth of music in a short space of time.
We asked Andy Hazell to talk with Nduduzo so that we could start to understand his creativity and direction. Here are their words…
Photo: Courtesy Simphiwe Mhlambi
AH: I understand that jazz came in to your life whilst studying piano at university. Can you talk about your musical influences up to that point?
Nduduzo Makhathini: Music has always been an integral part of my being. I am told that even as a kid I took long to start speaking, but any word that was sung to me I could sing back immediately so my early childhood development was filled with melodies. I also come from a very musical family, society and environment, my dad was a beautiful guitarist and my mom a keyboardist.
They were also churches everywhere, traditional ceremonies and different kinds of rituals that carried different repertoires of indigenous music, the Zulu people as a tribe are a very musical people with lots of different music genres from a cappella to drumming and traditional guitar music. But just the environment too is very musical, especially when you go to the more rural side of KwaZulu Natal where you can still hear birds sing, tree humming and the sound of flowing streams, so I am basically influenced by all of this.
AH: What was it about Jazz in particular that struck a chord?
Nduduzo Makhathini: In jazz I am mostly fascinated by the aspect of improvisation, the idea of a new world all the time. I love the fact that it allows me to define and redefine myself, I love the fact that it enables me to dissolve and become one with everything. I feel in many ways this sort of exercise or practice is necessary for all human beings hence there are churches everywhere, I personally believe that jazz stands for that too. Jazz is also a mirror of society where people can go and reflect on themselves, their history and sometimes jazz allows us to tap into the future.
AH: Which musicians inspired you?
Nduduzo Makhathini: My early influences were Bab’uBheki Mseleku and Bab’uJohn Coltrane obviously with uBab’uMcCoy Tyner as the connection, the reason I got attracted to them was because I always wanted to see myself in jazz music, I wanted to see my people and feel their dance in this music so they were and remain my link to this music.
AH: At what point did you decide to make a career in music?
Nduduzo Makhathini: Honestly I can’t remember. It sort of happened on its own, my musical journey has been a very organic one. I think this is partly because it’s linked to my gift of healing that was passed on to me by my ancestors, so in many ways I feel like this is what I am born to do, it is my contribution to the universal consciousness.
Photo: Courtesy Hugh Mdlalose
AH: Of all the great players you have worked with I’d like to ask some questions about one – the late Zim Ngqawana. From what I’ve read about him he seems like a wonderfully charismatic person as well as an incredibly talented and spiritual musician. What was it like to work with him and could you tell us a little about his character and what you learnt from him?
Nduduzo Makhathini: Working with Bab’uZim Ngqawana was really special, he had a big interest in my upbringing and that really made me feel very comfortable. When we played together he always wanted me to bring in my culture, my people and he was very fascinated by this.
About his character – he was a very humorous person. He didn’t mind laughing at the same joke for days, but on the other hand he was a highly focused musician, also very spiritual and rooted in his beliefs. He had a community based approach to music – he wanted us to be one. He wanted us to live together and play music all day and night. I think he was inspired by people like Sun Ra that also had a similar idea about how music should be approached and where it should be placed in society.
AH: Could you explain your own approach to music making?
Nduduzo Makhathini: Firstly I believe that music is always there, it doesn’t belong to anyone but the one that is ready to receive and open themselves as a channel. So this is basically the process for me, I would rather spend more time meditating and emptying myself of everything than trying to write music because when it comes I want it to flow through me.
Narratives are of course a big part of what I do, often the time I get narratives are in my dreams or I reflect on something that I experienced and all of a sudden the sound track emerges and I try to capture this as raw as possible.
AH: It seems to me that you must take a lot of credit for being able to share this gift/message with others, the musicians, some of whom are from different traditions and backgrounds (I’m thinking of the likes of Karl Martin Almqvist, Shabaka Hutchings as well as your group for Inner Dimensions as well as the listening audience. With the former, how important is it for you that your players understand where the music is coming from?
Nduduzo Makhathini: I try to share as much as possible about where I draw my inspiration, both with the audience, and the musicians I play with, because I believe music is always a result of something, music comes from the people, their experiences and their interaction with existence. Often I never really worry about the musicianship especially with the calibre of musicians that I am blessed to have around, I also believe that I get a lot of light from my ancestors with regards to personnel it’s never difficult for me to put a band together. It always gives me a feeling – a celebration of life, friendships and love.
AH: Six albums in two years is prolific by any stretch of the imagination. Was this by accident or design?
Nduduzo Makhathini: I am humbled by the amount of music the universe has borrowed me. I believe there should be a song for every situation, a song for every celebration so my approach is not confined by conventional ways of making music. I guess also being an independent recording artist has a hand in all this.
Most importantly I also understand that I don’t stand for myself alone, I also represent my ancestors so it is not by choice that I sometimes release so much music but it’s obedience to the great ones, the unseen, the one’s from phezulu emazulwini (the ones from the heavens) and the ones from the ground (abaphansi).
AH: The writer, Gwen Ansell talks about you as one of the new generation of “SuperMusos”, using social media and the internet in general for ‘marketing’ and making connections. Do you think that this is the way that the music industry is going and what are the positives and negatives?
Nduduzo Makhathini: I truly believe that if you are given a special message to share with the world, it is important that you study the people you have been positioned to serve. There is a special friend of mine named Eugene Skeef and he has this phrase that he likes using that say “sithunyiwe” which means “we have been sent”. This is how I feel about my existence – I am a messenger and I evolve with times in terms of how I communicate the message in the music. So if the people are on social media I go there, if the people are in the mountains I go there. Lately I have been thinking about how can one be more intentional about the music we play and my answer is to get closer to the people.
As far as the music industry is concerned, this is definitely the direction it’s going in and maybe it’s also not a bad idea to follow.
AH: With your latest album, Inner Dimensions, was the music created before your trip to Switzerland, and did the idea of a trio plus choir take shape in South Africa or Switzerland?
Nduduzo Makhathini: Inner Dimensions was conceived in South Africa in terms of its narrative, but imaged in Switzerland through a project initiated by Dr Veit Arlt of the Centre For African Studies at Basel University. This project was also supported by Pro Helvetia. The trio I worked with was a Swiss trio named Umgidi (a Zulu word for a gathering). The trio featured Brother Dominic Egli on drums and Brother Fabien Iannone on double bass. I strongly believe that there is reason for the project to have happened in this particular way, being away from South Africa allowed me a lot of time to reflect on our past and current situation as a country and I guess most of it was captured on this record.
Photo: Courtesy Lindo Mbhele
AH: What do you see as the “past and present situation as a country” and is this a similar message to your previous album Icilongo: The African Peace Suite?
Nduduzo Makhathini: Absolutely. Africans are people of song, people of a drum. I feel that there is so much that is going on in our country politically, this in someway is taking us away from the people we are and it almost feels like our purpose for existence has been reduced to that of constantly trying to resist the powers that control us. We have less time to deeply think about who we are because we spend all the time listening and watching media giving us all kinds of definitions.
I think music gives that chance to define ourselves, it gives us a chance to remember and a chance to think. Icilongo: The African Peace Suite is a prayer for peace, love and unity, this can be achieved if people could sing together.
AH: How did you work on getting the right sound out of the Once Voice Vocal Ensemble?
Nduduzo Makhathini: I just feel that these guys were ready and God sent them to this project. I first met with Sister Julie Fahrer, who was very optimistic about the project. She then brought along Lisette Spinnler, Githe Christensen, Christa Unternährer, Ines Brodbeck, Anna Widauer, Maximilian Bischofberger and Yero Richard Nyberg. Even on our first rehearsal there was so much light. It felt to me like we had similar beliefs about music and had the same amounts of commitment to it so that was perfect for me.
AH: What projects do you have on the horizon?
Nduduzo Makhathini: I have a couple of things lined up, though most of it is not confirmed yet. Towards the end of the year I am going to the UK for a week. I am planning to do a couple of performances with Brother Shabaka Hutchings and probably Bab’uEddie Parker whom I love very much. I am hoping also to be in Japan sometime next year and in June 2017 I’m in Switzerland again.
With regards to collaboration I am very excited about a project we did with Prof Salim Washington and his Sankofa Group and Omagugu’s Uthingo Lwenkosazane due for release soon.
As for my own recordings, I am currently working on my new project called ‘Ikhambi’ which I hope to record soon, in a couple of weeks I will also be in the studio recording my solo piano project and maybe I will also record Matunda Ya Kwanza Vol.2 at the end of the year.
AH: Lastly, and this is in part observational, it seems to me that the South African Jazz scene is extremely vibrant at present with so many other talented younger musicians – Lindiwe Maxolo, Mandla Mlangeni, Tumi Mogorosi, Kyle Shepherd, Thandi Ntuli to name but a few, as well as an older generation, the likes of Herbie Tsoaeli, Feya Faku, Andile Yenana, Carlo Mombelli, providing excellent learning opportunities for these young cats, that in some ways it surprises me that we are not talking about the scene in the same way as we (the non-South African audience) were during the heyday of the Exiles. Do you have any thoughts on this?
Nduduzo Makhathini: I am not too sure if I have an answer to this question but I do think it has to do with the emotional content in the music, I think the earlier musicians put a lot of emotions in the music they played. It may also be linked to the political climate of those days. Artists were seeking to be heard and everyone could feel the yearning in the music, as opposed to now musicians don’t carry that sort of responsibility, to be a voice of society, even though it still happens at some level. I also feel there is a uniqueness about South African jazz that created an interest all around the world and we are slowly losing that too in our music today. I try to keep most of these nuances in my music even though it’s not so easy anymore because of the music that is out there. But there is something very special about how South African musicians playing jazz in the seventies, maybe up till the early nineties. I personally feel that our generation has to be very conscious about retaining these nuances in the music we play today.
by Andy Hazell