Thirty-year old tenor/soprano saxophonist, Linda Sikhakhane, remarked in 2018: “Jazz comes from a traditional perspective for me rather than thinking of jazz as an art form.” So let’s follow this thought, as All Jazz Radio caught up with him during his brief, but revealing Cape Town tour this July.
A winner of a SAMRO Overseas Scholarship, after studying music at University of KwaZulu Natal, and before that with the late Dr. Brian Thusi’s famed Siyakhula Music Centre in Durban, Sikhakhane headed for the New School for Social Research in New York in 2018. He liked the teachers there; hence, the choice.
After his two year program ended, earning him a Bachelors in music, he hoped to continue studying for his Masters degree. As happened, the touring Covid pandemic settled him, rather, back home in South Africa where he mentored with piano maestro, Nduduzo Makhathini, and featured in several of the latter’s albums. Having released his first album before New York, Two Sides, One Mirror (2017), his grooming back home helped him release An Open Dialogue in 2020 which also won him the Apple Music’s Artist of the Month (November) award, the first South African to win such!
It seems this soft-spoken Sikhakhane was especially destined to bring us musical joy blessed with a spiritual touch amidst otherwise hard human realities blasting South African society, like the riots of July 2021 in KZN and the silencing by the viral pandemic. But his energies were never silenced; songs for his third album, Isambulo , just released (July 2022) under the US record label, Ropeadope, (the first South African to do so) were cultivated after deep reflection on what his musical style is all about. “Isambulo means ‘revelation’. The album shows a journey of religious concepts about what freedom is all about, on physical, psychological, and spiritual levels.”
Now studying at Oslo’s Norwegian Academy of Music for his Masters in Music Performance, Sikhakhane will not only expand his musical horizons, but develop his philosophy of appreciation for ancestral teachings and the spiritual tools for living a good life.
Let’s talk about experiences of studying music overseas and what influences or changes help develop one’s ‘art’ or, as Sikhakhane would prefer to think, “one’s spiritual perspective”.
Jazz Curriculum: Honouring the Legacy
Sikhakhane admits that the jazz curriculum he found at the New School in New York was familiar since American jazz was imported into his UKZN music training. And besides the NY faculty members who enticed him to study there, the retention of jazz history in the curriculum impressed him:
“What is important to me is how the American jazz curriculum includes the history of jazz music, and that earlier renowned jazz musicians can still have a voice in the institutions. In other words, the Coltranes and Miles Davis’s are still alive in USA contemporary music, but the Barney Rachebane’s or Tete Mbambisa’s aren’t heard any more here in South Africa! “
Many South African musicians have complained to educationists that the elders and legacy holders are not being honoured in present-day curriculum. “One thing I’m constantly thinking about is how do we create a home within this curriculum, a home that would be safe for our music, for our thoughts, for our Masters? So my journey of studying is not only about gaining knowledge, but how do we create a home for these knowledge systems? It’s important that Bra Winston, Bra Molelekwa, and others not be erased. How do we archive them and document them for educational longevity?”
We can still buy CDs about the music of Miles Davis and Charlie Parker today as their music has been preserved. But in South Africa, we ask who is responsible for mapping out strategies for teaching jazz, and where is this music curriculum coming from? From what sources? Where would Sikhakhane begin if he were asked to upgrade the music/jazz curriculum:
“For me, the first thing to do is to honour the source. The institution receives students who audition but they’re already coming from another training, and siting their teachers. So the institution should honour where the student is coming from. At the New School, I was given the opportunity to choose my own saxophone teacher on the faculty. Likewise, if I was studying in a South African institution, I would love to be given the opportunity to study with (a non-faculty) Makhaya Mahlangu, but somehow there isn’t the opportunity. He’s not there. It worries me also that I went to University of KZN, but I couldn’t study with Mam Busi Mhlongo [Busisiwe Victoria Mhlongo] because she was also not in the curriculum. So after school hours, we attend those concerts of influential artists, but somehow they are not honoured as teachers in the institution.” LS would like to see the Barney Rachebane’s and the Tete Mbambisa’s brought into the classroom.
Preserving Longevity of the Music
“You see, they are teaching already, but not in the institution! I spent a lot of time with my mentor, Dr. Brian Thusi, learning from him, but when I graduated from UKZN, he’s not mentioned!”
Reference was made to Afribeat.com’s approach (http://www.afribeat.com): compile materials for schools that archive the legacy of noteworthy past and present artists, like the late Barney Rachebane, by publishing their CD recordings, books, and histories for piloting by the Department of Education in Gauteng schools and elsewhere. Also, these learning materials are made available to the public, as well. Recordings include, for instance, Amakholwa – Believers by singer Busi Mhlongo and Octavia Rachebane’s Episode 05: Re – Invention with Octavia Rachabane https://youtu.be/GeCnV6McMEo
While in New York, LS was drawn to Cuban music. How is it that such music has experienced longevity in spite of Cuba’s problems with sanctions and economic stresses through the decades? “There’s something about being dislocated. Dislocation creates a search for something that connects you to home, so the Cubans have been able to use music as a way to help them remember who they are.”
Future of his form of jazz? LS finds more of his voice as he moves about American, European and African sounds. “ Music for me is a tool for discovering and not to judge or be judged. I’m always looking to discover because this is a very innovative period and I’m paying attention to what is happening now.” So what is it about the saxophone that works for LS? “I’m trying to have my saxophone speak my language. My spiritual language, my history, my people. Zulu music. And the function of music itself. I’m thinking about all these things. My biggest goal is make this instrument understand myself and how I can translate whatever, my feelings, my spirit. Think about it: My instrument is conventional. The saxophone is played all around the world. But our influences are not the same. One example is Bra Winston Mankunku who really defines the sound of South African jazz and the saxophone. And we cannot ignore how space influences our sound – like being in Cape Town, one is exposed to the mountain, and the water…ecological beauties which can influence our sound.”
“When we speak about freedom, for instance, we talk about the physical, but not the psychological and spiritual side also. We need to deal with the totality of what freedom entails.” LS talks about ‘religious concepts’ which imply religious institutions, such as the Abrahamic faith traditions. But spirituality can belong to all. “I was brought up in a church, but my family has always been traditional, but also believed in practicing our religion in the church. Even religious concepts are spiritual because it’s something we believe in”. So how could he study overseas and write songs away from home, yet maintain a consistency and attachment to his traditional Zulu music forms?
“My studies and my music journey, I believe, belong together. So I don’t become a different person when I’m studying….It’s all connected. Take for instance my song, ‘uNongoma’, a place in KZN where my family comes from. The word stem means ‘mother of music’. It speaks of longing, the male vocalist is quivering, chanting, speaking about longing for his father. He is missing his father. I wrote these songs away. For my previous album – most of the songs were written while I was in the USA”. Clearly, Sikhakhane is culturally deeply rooted, and in Makhathini’s vision, ‘Listens to the Ground’.
The Isambulo album
Sikhakhane’s 6-week residency in 2021 in Basel, Switzerland, gave him reflective time to produce and record songs on his latest album, Isambulo. “ Most of my band members are from Switzerland except for the singer Paras, the percussionist El Hadji Ngari Ndong, and singer Anna Widauer from Austria, and all band members were working with my residency. We could not perform in live gigs, so I concentrated on recording, instead. Nduduzo Makhathini had recorded his Inner Dimensions album there so we knew these musicians from these connections.”
Isambulo promotes a respect for tradition, ancestral learnings, and longing for the spiritual. It sets the mind and heart into reflective, sometimes daunting, sometimes contemplative, but always upbeat moods. It seems certain notes and chords tweak certain areas of the body as well. Just listen to your own reactions. Sikhakhane’s style of projecting soft long notes entertwined with fast-paced runs and wailings touch various emotional and contemplative levels of our being. One just needs to listen soulfully with eyes wide shut.
The album starts with a rework of LS’s 2017 single, ‘Inner Freedom’ which takes us on a meditative journey one slow note at a time. ‘Gog_uIdah’ is his prayer to his grandmother when she passed away, but did not resignate until years later when the song emerged in his Spirit. An awakening. Other subsequent songs feature a frantic, energetic, sax keeping pace with fast beats of the drums and bass. Vocalist Anna Widauer presents lyrics in English that talk about procrastination and our lazy tendency to just wait-and-see in ‘A Day Passed’. Next, in ‘Ikhandlela’, a subtle samba rhythm entices the tenor sax to join in a joy, an upliftment. Fabien Iannone’s double bass casts a different slow mood compared to his style in other album songs. Appropriately ending with ‘Hymn for the Majors’, Sikhakhane continues this lower register meditation with more joyful pulses and reflective moods, obviously honouring the musical Masters that went before.
His home knowledge systems clearly embolden his musical achievements so far. We look forward to more of the Sikhakhane therapeutic sounds for the weary souls out there!
Streaming of Isambulo album is available on all major music platforms. A delightful video in the House on the Hill series tells us lots more about how Sikhakhane has informed and cultivated his music. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=dPrUAB-iAJI (Nov 21, 2021). Produced by Language 12.