Nduduzo Makhathini @ York

Photos: Courtesy Lucy Barker
To start with a confession. There was a time when I didn’t really enjoy live music. Even now I find that my experiences can be negatively impacted by so many factors, many of which are beyond my control. It could be a hard day at work, a crowded venue, or for the people in front of me to be chatting away, having unilaterally decided that I’d paid good money to hear them, not the musicians on stage. Over the years I’ve tried to not let these distractions affect me, but all in all, I still find it easier to connect with music through my headphones or via speakers at home.The days and hours leading up to the gig hadn’t exactly gone well. I’d been working long hours and would quite happily have gone to bed when I finished for the week. Instead, I had to scoot across London to get on a packed train up to York as me and seemingly the rest of the capital left for the weekend. At least a nap on the train succeeded in flushing out work from my thoughts, albeit that they were replaced by a general feeling of weariness. To test my resolve even further by the time we reached York it was raining. Absent-minded rain, not heavy, but the kind that stops and starts intermittently, as if the clouds couldn’t really be that bothered. Great!

These extraneous factors could not totally dampen a positive sense of anticipation. I first heard Nduduzo’s music at the end of 2014. Tracks like “Supreme Light”, “Same Mother” and “Thokoza” from “Listening to the Ground” really spoke to me. In the two years since there has been a lot to absorb; a total of 6 albums so far, released over 3 years. Yes, you read that right – 6. Prolific by any standards. There’s a warmth and emotional depth to his sound, an undeniably joyful, uplifting spirit that resounds from his playing, his arrangements and his choice of narratives. I’m reminded of musicians like Pharoah Sanders and South African forefathers Zim Ngqawana and Bheki Mseleku, there’s a palpable energy and spirit that shines through.

So all of this was running through my head as we got to our seats. The venue, the Rymer Auditorium in the Sir Jack Lyons Concert Hall is part of the University of York’s Music Department. It’s a compact, modern space. The set list consisted of music for his latest album, “Ikhambi”, which the group would go on to record the following day. Nduduzo has described this soon to be released album as being more directly concerned with healing, a narrative that was first apparent in “Listening to the Ground”, and is also evident in later releases like ”Icilongo (African Peace Suite)” and “Inner Dimensions”. This spiritual message, often encompassing traditional Zulu beliefs, has a political and social dimension to it as well.

Photos: Courtesy Minyung Im
Another feature of Nduduzo’s music is his willingness to engage with different musicians. Music from Ikhambi was first performed publicly in Johannesburg back in September 2016 with a wholly South African ensemble. This time round, except for his soul brother and regular drumming partner Ayanda Sikade, the rest of the group comprised of European musicians. Eddie Parker (flute) and Magne Thormodsæter (bass) have played with Nduduzo before, James Mainwaring (alto sax), James Allsopp (tenor sax) and Dennis Rollins (trombone) had not. No matter, that same spirit of community existed. This is what Jazz is all about after all; musicians meeting on shared ground, adding their distinct voices to a collective whole. Dennis Rollins may not have met Nduduzo before, but he, like the rest of the players could offer something unique in interpreting his creative vision. Nduduzo had chosen well. There was no distracting grandstanding, no magic tricks, histrionics or one-upmanship in the solos, just good, sympathetic playing that captured the spirit of the arrangements. At one point Nduduzo was sat on his stool, eyes shut, listening intently to his brothers soloing. You could tell that this shared experience was important, we often see musicians for what they give us but in that moment it was apparent that it was also about receiving.

This was the first time I’d seen Nduduzo play live. Softly spoken, he let his music do the talking, breaking only to introduce the band members or to explain the ideas and inspirations behind his compositions. As an ensemble player he’s unselfish working with and around the horns. There’s a serene quality to his play, by which I mean his style seems quite natural, effortless even. 

Photos: Courtesy Minyung Im
The opening tune “Amathambo” eased us in and helped us find our meter, before melting into “Ithemba”. This composition was inspired by the 1976 student uprising in Soweto, but as Nduduzo explained the issues then, around access to education, are still present, with recent protests over rising student fees as Witwatersrand University. “Ithemba”, hope in English, delivers an inspiring and uplifting a message as the title conveys. The communion between piano and horns, en masse and in particular through James Allsopp’s solo, builds a euphoric sense of happiness and positivism, just the kind of thing to lift my flagging, end of the week spirits.

To my ear “Umlahlankosi” has its roots in the gentle, lilting melody of “Sobantu”, a track off Nduduzo’s last album. It exudes a restful, easy charm, it’s a sunny Sunday morning tune. The mood changes slightly with “Impande”. Deeper, darker, more dramatic tones in a sea of light.

Photos: Courtesy Lucy Barker
The moment of the night came with the final tune,“Umakhelwane”, a song that Nduduzo got us all singing along to, eventually .. “Yehla Moya… Yehla Moya… Yehla Moya..Oyingcwele..” There, at that moment, the sense of communion with the spirit in the room was complete. All that tiredness from earlier in the evening had disappeared. For me this speaks to the healing quality of music, to energise, to positively influence and refresh.

I left the gig elated, humming “Umakhelwane” into the York night. And yes it had stopped raining.

Andy Hazell

Astral Travelling Since 1993