Linda Sikhakhane

Saxophonist Linda Sikhakhane first came to my attention through his work on Nduduzo Makhathini’s 2014 album “Mother Tongue”. Something about his sound immediately struck a chord with me. That initial impression was nurtured by successive collaborations, with his mentor Makhathini and others.

Linda’s debut album, “Two Sides, One Mirror”, embraced local and diasporic traditions, pointing the way to what might be achievable in terms of contemporary discourse between the two.

With the release of his second album, “Open Dialogue”, imminent, it felt like the right time to find out more about Mr Sikhakhane.

Photo: Courtesy of Siphiwe Mhlambi

Andy Hazell: Can we start with some background?

Music is quite central in our African culture and more especially where I come from. Growing up in KwaZulu-Natal… where heritage is the most significant thing that we all depend on, so music has always been an outlet for expression. Music comes through me in many ways, in ways of healing and storytelling. So basically I was exposed to a lot of music growing up and it’s a thing that one could not escape because music was central in rituals, celebrations and every communal gathering.

There’s a community centre in Umlazi township where they offer music lessons, Siyakhula Music Centre. So when I joined Siyakhula Music Centre I didn’t even know that I would pursue music as a career, but I fell in love with it deeply, just being around these young dedicated seekers was enough to inspire the journey.

AH: How did the Music Centre work?

Dr Brian Thusi [who founded Siyakhula in 1986] created a portal for many to have some insight in music. He’d present a speech every year expressing that this institution is not only for people that want to pursue music as a career, but it’s open for everyone seeking some knowledge in music and art in general.

The centre played a big role in nurturing talent, cultivating appreciators of the art and also taking care of the community in creating opportunities for disadvantaged students that could not afford music lessons in the city.

AH: And at that point what was your engagement with Jazz?

I would listen to everything that was brought to my ears, directly and indirectly. Dr Brian Thusi introduced me to a Miles Davis record “Round About Midnight”, that’s where I fell in love with John Coltrane. I could just resonate with his sound having picked up similarities in the music that comes from KwaZulu-Natal and modal music from Coltrane’s Quartet as I continued to follow him…

It’s the nuances, if you listen to maskandi music and hear how ‘izihlabo’ (sounds to locate where the musician comes from), I get a sense of that a lot in Coltrane’s music. If you go back to the music of Princess Magogo well known as ‘amahubo’ and how she navigates harmonically, it’s quite related to what Coltrane was exploring, and also how a rumble is central in Zulu music, you can never miss that on any album of Coltrane.

AH: That’s fairly deep music to be exposed to at an early age. What did you know about their impact on the US musical tradition?

Well at first I only paid attention to the sonics because I was really young, I just followed, but as I grew I started doing some research, studying their history and trying to follow in the chronology of this music.

Photo: Courtesy of Hymie Sokupha

AH: One of the things you spoke about earlier was about music being around you and being central to many occasions. When I listen to Nduduzo Makhathini [Linda’s mentor] I get the sense that these traditions are in danger of becoming memories.

Memory is an important point of departure, to know where we are going we need to know where we come from. To be honest, I was lucky to be under Makhathini’s wings, you know, it has helped me to realise that everything is connected, in the way that we practise our rituals and beliefs, it is the very same way we come to sound.

AH: At what point did you decide to commit your future to music?

I think I made my commitment when I was 16 years old, 15 to be precise so that’s like 2 years before university. So I just decided to myself that this is my path and I’m just going in.

AH: At that point, I guess you were performing outside of school as well?

Yes, I was. When I was in high school I had started playing with Dr Brian Thusi, playing in his band got me exposed to a lot of public performances. That’s when in 2010 or 2009 I first met Mam’Busi Mhlongo, we were playing a gig with Dr Brian Thusi at The Rainbow Restaurant and she was in the audience, Bab’Madala Kunene was also in the audience. It was just so special to meet Mam’Busi Mhlongo, she gave me a big hug and a kiss, those were really special times.

AH: Were you a bit more nervous when you saw she was in the audience?

Actually, I only saw her after the gig. She was a very lovely person. She showed me so much love.

AH: How did you view your time at university? Was it a formal or informal education, or both?

One thing that was special for me was being part of a community, you know. That’s where I met most of the cats that recorded with me on my debut album, the connection started at UKZN (University of KwaZulu-Natal). It was just fascinating to be around young people that were actually on the same path. But in terms of formal and informal, I wouldn’t say that going to university got me exposed to a formal way of learning, it was already formal at Siyakhula.

AH: In 2013 you were part of a musical exchange program with Virginia Commonwealth University, which resulted in an album, Leap of Faith. How was that for you, to visit America, the home of jazz?

It was great. It was a great experience, collaborations are always beautiful and also to learn about different cultures and where people come from. I think it was a special time and a special record was born.

AH: In 2016 you won the SAMRO Overseas Scholarship for Jazz, which opened up an opportunity to study abroad.

In my case, the SAMRO scholarship really helped amplify some of my dreams of going to America. I think it was a beautiful amplifier, but besides that, the reason why I entered the competition… was to be a part of a community, to perform and express myself through music… I didn’t have an idea of winning. When I was awarded this I was in shock you know, because I wasn’t really in it to win but I was there to make music, and I’m grateful for the opportunity, going to New York, and studying at the New School.

AH: Which beautifully segues into my next question. Why did you choose New School?

I chose New School because I knew that master Billy Harper was part of the faculty. It’s one of the main reasons for going to New York and the New School was the best place for me to be. It’s tailored in the way that allows a musician to be involved in the scene, and also looking at the alumni I was drawn to the school but more especially for masters Billy Harper and Reggie Workman, their so close to my heart.

New York was not just about me but also my people, I represent them everywhere I go, and being around these masters was really special. I was fortunate to be with people that have played with the greatest in history of jazz… it was special.

Photo: Courtesy of Richard Ryals

AH: Did you find that much was known about the SA Jazz scene, whether we are talking about the exiles or the current day?

No, I think they were mostly exposed to the exile archive, but things are starting to change now. Sometimes people would be shocked that I come from South Africa, some believed that I already sound like a New Yorker and have been in the city for some time. Things are changing though, we have more South Africans making connections with America; I think the bridge is getting stronger and stronger. With Makhathini signing to Blue Note, people aren’t just exposed to Nduduzo Makhathini but an entire South African archive, they are able to trace back to the music of masters Mseleku, Ngqawana, Mankunku just to name a few.

AH: How would you say that your time at New School has changed the way that you view your music?

Of course, being afforded the opportunity to be around these masters, that alone was life-changing. Being at the New School made me realise that it’s important to take yourself seriously, think about where you come from and what you stand for. As I said earlier on, the trip was not just about myself but it was to represent where I come from and my people. I think now I’m more deliberate in everything I do, even in titling the compositions and even how I present a set.

AH: How did you find the scene in New York?

I was being schooled all the time, whether at the New School or at a jam session; it was just one thing. I was really amazed by the fact that the scene in New York was so organised. Also being around people that have a similar if not the same mindset as me. As students we’d prepare ourselves for jam sessions at night, it was all connected, the school and the jazz scene in the streets. I was in a broader school in New York and jam sessions were one important aspect of this school.

AH: How do jam sessions work?

It’s all about the music, but of course, Americans have so much respect for these hierarchies, like a master and disciple, I was conscious enough to see where I fit and where I wouldn’t fit, as a musician and as a student. In some places, you would get to a jam session and Roy Hargrove would be playing so hard, and sometimes you would feel that maybe my contribution to this jam session is for me to sit, listen and learn, it was not only based on showcasing myself.

Sometimes you’ve got to look and listen and learn, I guess. We will come to your second album in a minute, but just to backtrack somewhat, before you leave for New York, you released your debut, “Two Sides, One Mirror”. Were these compositions written specifically for the album, or a showcase of your writing up to that point?

Yes, it was me until that point, because if you look at these compositions like, for instance, “Hidden Love” was composed when I was in university, and also “Closer to the Heart”. Some compositions were fairly new, it was an archive I had gathered in that period.

AH: A couple of years have passed now. How do you look back on it?

It excites me all the time because it’s like a portal to find new meaning and understanding. For me, it’s just an important documentation of a time.

AH: I guess we can’t leave the recorded side of things without talking about H3 as well, with Luyanda Madope. How did that album (Connecting Generations) come about?

H3 is a group of friends, myself, Sthembiso Bengu and Senzo Ngcobo. We were friends in Durban and moved to Jo’burg as a collective. But of course just a group of friends, not like an artistic group. We got to Jo’burg and Nduduzo Makhathini was like you guys can actually use this opportunity of playing together and start being part of sessions as a collective. He came up with the name H3 and we started playing gigs. Madope was one of those people who wanted to get us in as H3 and we recorded together.

AH: How was the move to Johannesburg?

Well, yeah, that move was a special one, an important move, there is a special energy in Johannesburg. It being a cosmopolitan city sets it to a very high frequency. We see many musicians in the States moving to New York, leaving their respective cities. For us in South Africa, Jo’burg is our New York.

AH: Let’s talk about your forthcoming album, “Open Dialogue”. If “Two Sides, One Mirror” was an archive, documenting your journey to a point in time, is “Open Dialogue” similar or was there a purposeful intention around this project? What was the inspiration and how did it play out?

This was a live performance as part of my senior recital at The New School and it was a very important presentation. A potent way of locating where I come from through song and also expressing all the energy that I’ve absorbed in New York as a student. So I guess this project just speaks about the dialogue that has been going on between the continent and the diaspora. These dialogues are always made for us to tap in to. Being on the bandstand was like exploring those dialogues in real-time, that’s how the album came about.

I had not planned to release this recital as an album. After the performance, which I shared with brother Nduduzo Makhathini and he just felt that this needs to be documented in the form of an album. We then took the project to South Africa to add more layers like percussion, a harp and vocals, to extend the dialogue and I think, you know, just the purpose of this album is to explore these dialogues that are constantly around us.

AH: You say that the idea for the album came after. What were you looking to do with the music?

To be honest, I had not envisioned anything in the post-production phase, but with the help of Makhathini who came up with all these ideas, I think he had seen something from an outsider’s perspective that helped grow the project. For me, my part of the work was done in terms of presenting the performance, Makhathini just dealt with everything. It was also interesting for me to sort of learn from this project now and just seeing all these possibilities and also reimagining this body of work as an important presentation.

AH: Let’s talk about the musicians you are playing with on the album?

I had Lex Korten on piano, an American pianist, then Zwelakhe Duma Bell on the bass, a South African/American bassist. Zwelakhe’s father is from South Africa, but he grew up in America; I have Alon Benjamini who’s from Israel and he’s a New School alumni; and I have Lesedi Ntsane who’s a South African trumpeter who’s been in New York for 8 years if not more and Redi Fernandez on flute, from Cuba, he was my New School cohort. So these are actually my friends and most of them I got to meet through jam sessions and at school.

AH: What do you think that Nduduzo (Makhathini’s) role was?

I think it was to embellish and enhance, more from a bridge standpoint and how you can think about these conversations, because, of course, the performance of this conversation was in real-time and how can we see the performance post the actual performance, so to embellish, enhance and just contribute to this conversation.

AH: Some basics about the album. How many tracks?

The album has 7 tracks.

The 2nd track on the album is titled “Umkhokheli” (Guide), a dedication to Princess Magogo. We are always guided by an ancestral realm and I believe that she was one of our guardians that evening. We also pay tribute to an important master, Bheki Mseleku. “Timelessness” on track 4 is a South African standard that Mseleku recorded in New York featuring Joe Henderson, Pharoah Sanders, Abbey Lincoln just to name a few. This song comes from an important album “Timelessness” which serves as a bridge between the U.S and South Africa, it was important for me to honour that because Mseleku has inspired the journey in a very deep way.

Photo: Courtesy of Mhlambi

AH: Of those, you chose “Codes of Light” as the lead single. Why?

It’s the track that stood out and you know it’s the first track that we played at the concert, it’s the energy that just stood out for us, we felt it would be the lead single.

I think just to see how the world has changed right now it just felt important to have a lead single but we couldn’t do much because it’s a live performance. With a normal recording, we would release maybe 3 singles before the actual album. I think it’s important to give people time to absorb the music. Dropping a full album with no lead singles can be overwhelming sometimes.

AH: That’s almost as much to do with the 21st Century mindset as anything else. I think it’s a great lead single, I really do. Can you explain the title and what the inspiration behind it was?

The title “Codes of Light”, speaks about codes that we all use in our everyday life. If you think of… if praying is your code of connecting to a higher spirit, if meditating is just a way of getting yourself together, that’s a code. So I’m just thinking about those codes as vehicles to lightness and receiving light in many ways.

Also realising that the song is in a 7/4 time signature, there is so much we can think about in connection to the number 7 as an ancient code. It gives a sense of totality, just like how the 7th day completes a week in our calendar. Music is a code that enables us to tap into an ancient time, it is a code of light.

AH: I’ve noticed on Facebook you’ve been posting some short snippets, reflections in nature. Is that very much the spirit of now, the coronavirus and isolation, this big world that we live in?

Yes, yes it is. You know lately, I have been thinking about the importance of collaboration. Of course with this Covid-19 we’ve been restricted from collaborating with people because of all these restrictions and social distancing… what are our alternative ways of thinking about collaboration and that’s why I often collaborate with space because you know space has its memory and it has so much to give. So even with playing these solo pieces, they are not just a monologue because I am inspired by the space.

AH: Sure, just as in the same way that we don’t have to see silence as an absence of anything. You’ve done a few online concerts, how have you found them?

This was a time for us to sort of think differently and also remember our purpose as musicians, why are we artists? It was a way of listening through the music, you don’t just perform the music because there isn’t any applause, no sounds coming back so it has been a way of really tuning ourselves and really digging deeper, where we find meaning through music.

It has helped a lot of artists travel even further than what they are used to and I think that has been a great opportunity for the music to travel and it has been a beautiful way of connecting the world.

“Two Sides, One Mirror” and “Codes of Light” are available now on most digital platforms. The new album, “Open Dialogue” is released on 6 November.

Andy Hazell