Modes of Communication – Letters from the Under World, soon to be released on 3 April 2020, is probably one of the more unusual offerings by this new Blue Note Label composer, producer, and pianist, Nduduzo Makhathini, who proudly becomes Africa’s and South Africa’s second jazz artist to sign on to this oldest running New York-based American jazz record label. The first artist was our own Mama Kaap, Sylvia Ncediwe Mdunyelwa who signed on in 1999 under Blue Note South Africa label for EMI Records.
Having listened to his previous 8 albums, produced in South Africa, I excitedly but delicately tuned my ears, in anticipation for that something ‘new ‘ in sound and tempo. Makhathini had already explained his spiritual purpose in bridging the trans-Atlantic cultural realms of music, and specifically jazz, between African spiritual traditions and the African-American musical experiences. http://www.alljazzradio.co.za/2019/10/19/pianist-nduduzo-makhathini-african-ancestry-meets-diaspora-jazz-a-trans-atlantic-connection-through-the-blue-note-jazz-label/ This purpose had brought him and other South Africans to launch the ‘South African Songbook’ with the Jazz at the Lincoln Center Orchestra in September of 2019.
This album enraptures. A thoughtfully crafted synchronicity of horns holds together choral harmonies without sounding big band-ish; each horn is allowed an individual freedom to express a song’s theme in solo improvisation. The three saxophones and one trumpet, when playing together, or rather sometimes digitally mixed together, are actually having a conversation, sometimes in 4/6 time; sometimes in a lilting ¾ time. This is when we hear saxophonist, Linda Sikhakhane, on his tenor and soprano saxes with trumpeter, Ndabo Zulu, not far away.
They are embellished by the very seasoned American alto saxophonist, Logan Richardson, who claims an impressive list of recordings on the Blue Note Label with other illustrious Grammy awardees, such as Pat Matheny, Max Roach, and a host of post-bop and some newer-age artists.
The young Logan had studied at the New School for Social Research in New York City where much later, in 2019, the young Sikhakhane completed his Bachelors degree in Music, thanks to a SAMRO Overseas scholarship and transfer of his University of KwaZulu Natal credits towards the USA Bachelors.
See him perform at age 22 years before traveling to USA: (https://www.youtube.com/watch?time_continue=14&v=2jPfiPg2sfY&feature=emb_logo ) which won him his SAMRO scholarship. Now, five years later, Sikhakhane has returned to his South African home to perform and rub off his talents onto his peer masters, as well as reflect and figure out what’s next. Even in 2017 during his studies, he managed to have his debut album, Two Sides One Mirror, produced by Nduduzo Makhatini’s label.
Makhathini’s journey of discovering and composing African ancestral themes means he is taking other young musicians along who have a like-minded spiritual bent on what guides and enables us. Besides Sikhakhane, drummer Ayanda Sikade shines in this album, with fast rhythms in undercurrents that scurry around Makhathini’s lower register piano chords which in themselves sound quite daunting. The opening track, ‘Yehlisan’umoya’ sets the mood, with Makhathini’s wife’s vocals, with calls to the ancestors:
It’s a long journey that we have to walk
Help shine your light
You who live in our dreams
Send us your guiding stars
Open all doors
To relieve us from all sicknesses
And our spirit can reach a hiding place
This happens to be Sikhakhane’s favourite song on the album. The horns have a masterful synergy, thanks to the composition style of Makhathini, in ‘Unyazi’ and ‘Umlotha’. One hears the distinct style of Richardson in the discordant ‘Umyalez’oPhuthumayo’ which matches a restless piano. ‘Úmlotha’(ashes) is one of the most moving pieces on the album which features trumpeter Ndabo Zulu showing his metallic expressions. ‘Beneath the Earth’ features Makhathini’s praise vocals followed by a chorus of wife Omagugu and their three children. Vocalist and co-author, Asanda Msaki , adds feminine texture to this Spirit-calling piece. The album’s notes say that the tune is also based on the musical style amahubo, an art form found in Zulu praise and lament songs, or ‘Zulu hymns’ as it is sometimes described.
Catching up with saxophonist, Linda Sikhakhane , before the album release, we remembered our chats in the then Grahamstown in 2018 when he was performing at the National Arts Festival’s Youth Jazz Festival. His days with that popular jazz education annual retreat go back to 2007 when he was a very young teenager. His ride with music explains his joyful nature.
“My family comes from northern KwaZulu Natal, so the reason I was attracted to the modern Jazz, like the music of John Coltrane, was because our traditional music is parallel to what modern music brings to the table. That’s why the music of Madala Kunene, for instance, is also so relevant to my ears.”
This album is special to the young Sikhakhane; he considers himself very fortunate :
“It really connects America and South Africa, especially to have Logan Richardson from USA play with us. Being on the Blue Note Label is special for us in Africa. It’s time for us to shine. This album is like a bridge for many of us. The whole world can now see what’s happening in South Africa and hear the roots of jazz coming from the likes of our past legends, like Ezra Nqkukana and Bheki Mseleku and many others. We have an important archive with so many important recordings, so we see the afterlife of the music itself as a way of healing through these sonic energies. That’s our contribution to the Blue Note Label, I think.”
And what’s in the future for this young man?
“I was accepted for a Masters program at the New School, but the plan was rather to come back home and figure out how to finance such schooling. It’s a Masters in Arts Management and Entrepreneurship. But since I’ve come back, I need time to reflect on what I’ve achieved so far.”
When the Corona virus safari ends its own journey, Sikhakhane and his peers will be able to get back to financing their art with live concerts. In the meantime, he has been writing film scores with a design company, Pacinamix, which had also assisted him with his New York finances. As a result of his past collaboration with the UK’s Shabaka Hutchings, he was scheduled to perform at a Hutchings-curated music festival in the UK recently. But worldly pursuits for this eager young saxophonist will have to wait for now, but will certainly find their place in a new world after Corona. Just watch!
Download his album, Two Sides One Mirror (2017) at CD Baby and Amazon. It features: Sakhile Simani on trumpet & flugelhorn ,Sanele Phakathi on piano, Nhlanhla Radebe on bass ,Omagugu Makhathini on vocals ,Sphelelo Mazibuko on drums ,El Hadji Ndong on percussion.
Producer : Nduduzo Makhathini
Engineer : Peter Auret & Luyanda Molao
Mastering : Oyvind Die Berg