SAMA 2017 rewards another son of the African soil with Best Jazz Album (‘Inner Dimensions”), but this isn’t about ‘jazz’ only. Pianist Nduduzo Makhathini’s 7th album to date continues to haunt us with the inner workings of what our soul journey to higher, spiritual dimensions should look like. He seems to know, in a deeply ancestral and real life, way. [See my interview with him below.]
This 11-track album, recorded in Switzerland in May 2016 with Swiss colleagues (the Umgidi Trio) Fabien Iannone on double bass and drummer Dominic Egli, along with a 7-person choir (the One Voice Vocal Ensemble), exudes innovative techniques meant “to go deep within the inner realms of our souls and find those melodies that bring about harmony, healing and hope for all people,” according to one of Makhathini’s YouTube interviews. By reaching the inner, we can than reach the outer universe everywhere else.
To do all this, Makhathini and his cohorts have developed artistic styles to accompany his sometimes contemplative, zesty, and freely unconfined runs on the piano. The range of styles include early South African jazz motifs, contemporary gospel and jazz choral, funky liturgical, accopella harmonies, indigenous African chants to Spirit, and freeflow improvisation.
What is different from his previous albums is the inventive use of vocals and choral orchestration alongside acoustic improvisation of his trio. These styles have successfully pushed ‘jazz’ to another level, what Makhathini calls God’s hand touching every soul that encounters this music. Appreciation of Spirit is tantamount, as in ‘At Your Feet Oh Lord’, a prayerful beckoning for blessings, which starts the album, and ‘Mama Africa”, pronouncing deference to Mother Africa’s ancestors. In “Sobantu”, referencing live jazz oozing from a vibey township near his Pietermaritzberg home as he was growing up, Makhathini displays his vast understanding of chord structures and changes as the same tune is repeated but in different 5ths and 7ths. As he deconstructs chords into singular runs that regroup back into chords, this song becomes reminiscent of early South African jazz styles of the Sophiatown era. Here, like legendary pianist Tete Mbambisa on his ‘Black Heroes’ album, Makhathini wants to guard and retain these sounds proudly produced by earlier maestros of township jazz during the apartheid era. Choral and gospel arrangements are diligently presented in “Lift Those Voices”, and in “Alphinah” where choral harmonies morf into a solemn, moving liturgical presentation backed by the trio’s playful jazz style in ¾ time, almost as a sing-along jaunt with a gospel twist. The album ends with three very differently styled Movements: I – about Compassion with English lyrics sung by the chorus which flows directly into Movement II that features the melodic mbira, traditional chants, and KhoiSan sounds emanating from this inventive concoction of voices and percussion.
Surprisingly, this second piece was composed by drummer Egli, a European who has captured superbly the dynamics of traditional South African sounds of the soil. The third Movement called ‘Freedom Chants’ breaks from traditional beats into a ‘free jazz’ vocal and trio mix. One is moved into another ethereal realm, maybe the final ‘nirvana’ in attaining spiritual awakening.
Thus, the most inner of all dimensions of our human existence is touched and elevated.
My clear assessment is that Makhathini’s ancestors are not angry; rather, they keep pushing their son’s consciousness one step further, something we can look forward with his subsequent recordings.
I chatted with Makhathini about his album and his reflections on winning the SAMA award:
CM: Does your SAMA award put pressure on you now to do other things in promoting music, etc?
NM: It’s great that one can be recognized in that kind of way; but some of these awards mostly belong to the record label, and not necessarily to the artist. So I went to the SAMAs more as a record label owner as I own my own private label, Gundu Entertainment, co-owned with my wife.
CM: When you become an award winner, you may be asked to do various things, like lead a band, or give workshops and master classes, etc. How do you feel about that? Wouldn’t these activities detract from what you want to do creatively, like write and perform your music?
NM: That whole development thing has always been with me. Even now, in my teaching at Tshwane University, I’ve been putting an emphasis on mentorship beyond the classroom, and how lecturers can inspire students further who feel they don’t have opportunities. For instance, I always thought I came from an insignificant city of Pietermaritzburg and wanted people who could mentor me. So if I can contribute to mentoring others in any way, I’m willing to stretch beyond playing the music . I recently did a TED talk, and am presenting papers at different universities on different subjects in order to expand beyond the piano. But it gives me more inspiration when I play my music – when I have more to say through my compositions, or just as an improviser. Then there’s a lot more I can project in the music as opposed to just playing the instrument. It’s great when we all can contribute to this communal consciousness and create something beautiful out of it!
CM: You’re producing many albums now. How is this?
NM: You know, it’s because I see in this country a great need for healing, and I talk about it. People think talk about healing is boring, so I try to push it to a less superficial level. This idea of democracy was initially a pre-mature wish here, even with the Truth and Reconciliation Commission and other events that centred around these notions of freedom. But I think of this freedom and truth at three different levels:
One, the physical level of physical brutality when people were beaten up and shot. Then there is the brutality of the mind which conditions you how you think about yourself, where you think less of yourself, feel you don’t belong, or don’t have a voice or say in anything. Then there is this third level, and more dangerous one, what bra Zim Ngqawana called the ‘vandalism of the soul’. If you’ve been brutalized by the first two, then it’s necessary that the soul be in a safe place to help correct or survive from these brutalities.
So in the work that I do, we think of our ancestors as souls, and they are often angry at having died not being fulfilled on earth, or not loving themselves. ‘Inner Dimensions’ was trying to tap into who we are. Even in pre-colonial times, did we have a name as Africans? What was our story? Now, our identity is trying not only to capitalise on the idea of ‘blackness’, but also on the idea that if you contribute to yourself, then you contribute better to the pages of consciousness, and towards this new idea of a humanity with a collective consciousness. But sometimes we forget that the building blocks for a healthy society are focusing on the inner way enabling us to make contributions to ourselves, our families, and communities and expand to become the universal message. So look at these small building blocks of consciousness in order to think in more universal contexts.
CM: Do you think this album is your best so far? And which album is your favourite at this point?
NM: I don’t have a favourite album. Each album has a special narrative; they become like different chapters with messages which are connected. No album is ‘better’ than another. ‘Inner Dimensions’ is one of the few albums where I use vocals and choir orchestration. It was also recorded in Basel in Europe which meant I had to connect with my ancestry in a different way. We believe in the African soil, so from a foreign land, trying to make those spiritual connections in a deep way meant I had to do a lot of meditation to make sure I was connecting to what I believe in.
From the album liner notes, Makhathini’s prayer calls to God: “…may your beauty be found in every space in-between the notes….” and “….may your invisible hand touch your people as they experience each theme on this record.”