Pianist Nduduzo Makhathini’s voice speaks ‘Ntu’ through the fires of discontent

In preparation for his two live concerts in Cape Town on 1 and 2 October at Norval Foundation, maestro Nduduzo Makhathini spoke with All Jazz Radio about how ‘Ntu’ can address current fires of discontent facing youth in South Africa.

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A philosopher and healer himself, Makhathini’s illustrious background as a composer, arranger, and music producer has gained him award accolades, a sign-on to the notable U.S. jazz label, Blue Note, and academic growth that propels his style of improvisation further into the musical portals of African spirituality. See the 38 minute conversation recording below.

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In the backdrop of colonialism and slavery, with vestiges still existing today, Makhathini journeys into African cosmology to uncover that Spirit of Ntu which he draws from his immediate Zulu culture. In the context of the riots and killings recently in South Africa, the notion of burning fires which appears as a code for reacting against injustices from apartheid days, still continue in the society. “In my previous album (Letters from the Underworld), this regular burning was presented in the track ‘Umlotha’ (ashes) as a query about what is left from the post-colonial period. The ashes represent the things we refuse to erase from our memory.”

Regarding the recent burnings and looting in parts of South Africa, travel by members of the Standard Bank Youth Band to East London for practice was greatly disrupted. “So I talked to them about what sounds would come out of burning fires. I realized that we need to actually go into those fires to elicit the appropriate sounds they make! And to find the voice that speaks through these fires.”

To Makhathini, the post-colonial South Africa is an illusion, anyway. “We need to question what it means to live in a post-colonial Africa. The fires are symptomatic of people’s tiredness, people being promised post-1994 free education, free health care, housing… without these promises being fulfilled.”

We query: Why has humanity lost its sensitivity to people’s anger and frustrations ? One answer: “Ntu is about a restoration, about what vibration can be in our sound that seeks to restore our humanness.”

It’s like music therapy, addressed towards mental health issues and strong anxieties. There’s confused social and political messaging from youth who are desperate. The trick is: How does Ntu deal with the therapeutic aspects? How does the sound become therapeutic?

“Everything in the universe operates under some sort of logic or equation. Ntu is found in 4 areas of human endeavor: the people – the environment – in time and space – and in aesthetics, like music. These four conventions of Ntu represent the energy, that vital force that connects everything in the sound. A ritual is always toward a unifying energy. For me, it’s how the composer or sound producer deliberately aligns this vibration of Ntu which people can experience. Find a way of harnessing this sound in the way we channel our prayers.”

The sound. Thinking of jazz as an improvisational format, how would this sound, which acts as a vibration as well as a pleasant melody or rhythm, enter the body and change the listener’s mood, for instance? Think of First Peoples who combine sound with dance, rhythm.

“Ntu is a way of determining the essence of all things. So at the core of any composition or any manifestation are the same elements. Sounds and form are driven by a similar vibration. Bodies are listening for that tuning into center, for that vibration. Some sounds help us learn and know our essence. The intention in the sound is for people to go deeper within themselves, to a memory of our own essence. Sound assists this process because sound is the closest to the compositional vibration of any material. Take liquid. There are many experiments on how sound affects the movement or behavior of water . Those sounds are created from intention, and if musicians spend time seeking this clarity, then we end up living in this frequency of Ntu . Positive intention would have positive effects, so our relationship with intentionality is important.”

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courtesy: Jazziz

So take traditional forms of music, specifically the role of chants and chanting. When you’re trying to create vibration, is chant entering into your Ntu vocabulary?

“Absolutely. Sounds are reaching this point of resonance, of agreement. If you go to a traditional healer, particularly in the Zulu tradition, when they are divining, they keep chanting. If you are seeking help, you chant back in surrendering. So healing is that moment when we allow ourselves to tap into this vortex of energy that the musicians create. Chanting is beautiful – there’s a sense in which the planet chants, and everything around us is in a constant chant. It’s like with the chakras of the body – certain vibrations open up these energy points. Certain sounds trigger these chakras.”

Thinking practically, what about this disconnect young people are experiencing globally? There’s a cultural disconnect. How do you restore his or her membership, how do you restore his or her essence, by this creative force called ‘Ntu’? How does that work?

“We forget. When we were kids, we might act wrongly, and are reminded of this all the time. This essence of Ntu is part of the coding we all have – we define it in different ways, but might call it ‘conscience’. We say in Zulu, “I am because of the others.” At my University, a student is killed. Unbelievably negative things are happening around us. Why? Because we have forgotten our communal essence of being. Our (younger) generation is forgetting our core values; there’s a forgetfulness amongst us, at different levels – society, community, family levels.”

Perhaps because of a lack of compassion in our lives? A lack of harmony among us?

“Harmony is built into our being. We can see beauty, yet nature can be aggressive. We need to remember how to exercise compassion, forgiveness, and love. That’s our pure state. Rituals were for alignment when we go off-tune, which is why our ancestors set up all these rituals that were aimed at bringing harmony back to ourselves, environment, and communities. And sound can take us to that place of memory, to surrender, or re-member, and help us tune in to vibrational states that heal.”

All Jazz Radio flashed: Since we live in a digital age, your work might migrate to developing a ‘Ntu’ app for cellphones, so that we can tune in to good vibrations (laughter). So that youth could be mesmerized and absorbed by these sounds and vibrations! “I’ve been thinking about this technology and what it means to show up on these digital platforms as a sangoma, or healer, and wait for people to come to me. We need to reimagine the field as well. There’s a sense that we (healers) need to speak the current language.”

Regarding his concert coming up over the weekend, Makhathini was asked to speak about what he would like to accomplish, and about choosing his fellow musicians from Cape Town for the band. “ It’s always tough to select the music, but 80% will be taken from my upcoming album, ‘In the Spirit of Ntu’. It’s a new music, but some songs will come from my previous albums, like Listening to the Ground and Letters from the UnderWorld, since I see the continuum of songs and stories that culminate into my current work. Also, I’m playing with these young musicians, some at UCT school of music, with whom I’ve recorded. Mine is one long project, don’t you think?

Indeed, yes. The album, Listening to the Ground, was a pioneering work in 2015 that has maintained a continuum of that same spiritual theme in his music. But in terms of reaching the listener, some of his music is highly improvisational, and may not contain ‘nice melodies’. Some of it is discordant.

“But that’s fine. It doesn’t have to be hairy fairy nice music. That’s why I move between all of these things with a sense of wholeness, while tapping into all of these frequencies that are available to us. While there are songs I like that are coming from ancient times, I see them as codes which the ancestors wanted us to use to align with the cosmology. “

Maybe we need to talk about the ‘Ntu Swing’….. (laughter)


For the future, Makhathini plans to tour the European Shenghen countries next month, and tour in New York and USA in 2022, playing the same concert about Ntu in those places. No doubt, the Ntu ‘swing’ will predominate and become another important signature in South African jazz!

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