Pianist Nduduzo Makhathini: African ancestry meets Diaspora jazz – a Trans-Atlantic connection through the Blue Note jazz label

He’s back home, with another mission, after participating in the elegant kickoff concert with the Jazz at the Lincoln Center Orchestra in New York City, celebrating 25 years of democracy in South Africa after Apartheid’s end. Jazz pianist & self-professed healer, Nduduzo Makhathini, was one of five South African instrumentalists and three vocalists to present their compositions at this illustrious opening evening on 12 September.

Nduduzo Makhathini receiving SAMA 2017 award

Nduduzo Makhathini receiving SAMA 2017 award

He had also signed onto America’s premier jazz Blue Note Record Label four months prior to the official announcement at these celebrations. American jazz legend Wynton Marsalis and South African-born Seton Hawkins (Director of Public Programs and Education Resources at Jazz at Lincoln Center) heralded in this ‘first’ collaboration between some of America’s most experienced jazz musicians in this LC Jazz Orchestra and key South African jazz musicians known for pushing creative boundaries.

Wynton Marsalis at 2019 New Orleans Jazz Billboard

Makhathini’s exploration of music as one form of the healing arts focuses on ‘inner-tainment’ (coined by his late Mentor, Zim Ngqawana) which directly contrasts with contemporary jazz struggles ‘entertaining’ still fragile audiences seeking some sort of spiritual release in music. For him, the passage across the Atlantic Ocean to Lincoln Center remains an important milestone: an opportunity to celebrate and draw up links between the African modes of healing through music (or African cosmologies) and the African Diaspora in America who, he thinks, may have lost spiritual and ritual connections with the African Ancestors.

When I noted how rigid and vibe-less the Lincoln Center Jazz Orchestra seemed when performing the works of (and with) the South African musicians on stage, important clarifications were made by Makhathini:

“The Atlantic was on my mind in this event. I see Jazz as a music of people in displacement. Even early South African jazz had to navigate around the pains and restriction of Apartheid South Africa; yet South Africans have all along been very aware of American jazz, but not visa versa. “

Makhathini, in fact, admitted that his jazz studies syllabus at the University of KwaZulu Natal (UKZN) borrowed heavily from American jazz history, and that there were few references to early South African musicians, like Chris McGregor and his Brotherhood exiled in Europe.

“There were no linkages, such as when Coltrane died, South African Winston Mankunku was emerging as a premier jazz musician at home. Similarly, pianist Bheki Mseleku influenced me during my Durban studies, yet he didn’t find that recognition or space to grow his music in South Africa, as he did find during his long exile in London.”      https://www.osirispod.com/podcasts/burning-ambulance/burning-ambulance-nduduzo-makhathini/

While South Africans found solace in some recognition abroad during internal displacements of apartheid, it has been only in the last two post-apartheid decades that artists have emerged from South African training institutions to find voice and patronage at home venues.  “While this creative emergence of South African jazz explored various types of fusions, rhythms, messages, and even healing vibrations from their cultural histories, the African Diaspora has not pursued these connections as forcefully,” says Makhathini.

Why? Makhathini feels that due to slave histories, “the Diaspora may fear that reconnection with ancestral pasts”, most likely because different spaces and cultural environments have been created in the New World. He has made it repeatedly clear that, based on African spiritual cosmologies, African performances invoke spiritual connections, adding chant, ritual, and body movement (dance) to express the communication. His superb interview with USA-based Burning Ambulance podcast (noted above) clearly details his philosophies. His study and admiration of Randy Weston’s legacy has taught the importance of reviving trans-Atlantic linkages between the various musical cultures, also.

Hence, Makhathini considers these trans-Atlantic meetings very reconciling for him.

“At the Lincoln Center in New York, rehearsals with their Jazz Orchestra were important moments. I would stand up and start to dance to get the orchestra to understand the vibe behind our South African compositions. My aim was to expose a deeper mode of remembrance.”

His albums, Ikhambi, and Listening to the Ground, contain fusions of how music becomes healing, how healing connects with listening in the African oral tradition, that one listens THROUGH sound, not TO sound. In Ground, it’s about ‘talking to the ground’, and listening to the Ancestors’ messages. 

Ikhambi album cover

So how can these spiritual and healing connections of Africanisms be infused into the Blue Note jazz label, now celebrating 80 years in the record industry in America?

Makhathini explained how African music uses echoes, drawing on repeated messages from the fundamental roots of African oral tradition. “The Yoruba traditions of Nigeria and even the roots of Cuban music cast echoes of ancestral vibration”, exemplified by Nigeria’s noted Afro-jazz fusionist, Fela Ransom Kuti in the 1970s whereby his notorious Lagos shrine housed the collective echoes of Yoruba tradition.

By joining the Blue Note Label, Makhathini hopes to bridge these trans-Atlantic waters, as a healing metaphor, to create culturally rich musical linkages between peoples of African ancestry who travel over those waters, not as forced migrants or slaves, but as collaborating professionals. The Label’s President, Don Was, seemed to echo this sentiment in his invitation letter to Makhathini: “You embody the artistry that has distinguished the label for the last 80 years and your presence on the roster is proof that the Blue Note ethos is alive and well!”

Makhathini has gleefully accepted:

“I hope to bring that echo of the past into the Blue Note label, so that a voice that has been silenced for a long time can be heard. When playing recently at the Blue Note Club in New York City, I saw the potential for this bridge. Naturally, I’m surrounded by healing vibrations. Healing gets channelled in my music. In my album, Ikhambi, I make concoctions for healing through the musicians themselves and their instruments. When we think about healing, we think of drum, chant, dance, and letting go. There must be a functionality of music in our lives. “

Ikhambi was recorded in the UK in 2017, with one South African (drummer Ayanda Sikade) and others from UK bands, some members who had played with Bheki Mseleku. The album’s songs are meant to restore that spirit of “family beyond kinship”, and connect with the Diasporic feelings, perhaps, of ‘not being at home’.

We enthusiasts, critics, promoters, and supporters are encouraged to watch carefully as this 21st century jazz-induced ‘inner-tainment’ unfolds under the sails of the Blue Note Label. May favourable winds curate Makhathini’s  exciting and transformative journey through trans-Atlantic waters.

Leave a Comment

Filed under Carol's Musings

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.