“Our subject is not music as an abstract art, but music as a force which affects all who hear it. Music – not as entertainment only, but as a literal power. Whether we are within audible range of music, its influence is playing upon us constantly.” – David Tame, The Secret Power of Music
Towards a much more in-depth essay on Nduduzo Makhathini’s Work
It is written that in a beginning there was the word, so to avoid any sense of confusion or misinterpretation, let us start with a definition of one of the words that will be used here.
Although this brief review of the work of a very exciting and quintessentially focused artist will lean heavily on the cultural/spiritual aspects of the production and reception of the music, we would like to begin with some disclaimers regarding the sound popularly known as jazz.
The music itself is considered by its listeners and producers as being one of the freest mediums of artistic expression. But the terms jazz as well as the connotations of what was considered ‘free-jazz’ or even ‘African jazz’, do not fit comfortably in the contexts of many of its listeners and most especially its practitioners. Nduduzo Makhathini himself considers himself an Improviser. While improvisation is nothing new in the art-form, there is distinctive shift of perception when an artist decides to define himself in terms that are distinct in word and sound.
The erudite and prolific Afrikan-American composer/trumpeter Wadada Leo Smith has an elaborate explanation on what he prefers to call Systemic Music or simply Art Music (insert reference link).
The fact is definitions are rather unwholesome as well as increasingly unnecessary as ways of describing many practitioners of this kind of music. The fact remains that considered in relation to many other modes of musical communication, the sound formerly labeled jazz is quite unique and there are specific traits that compel us to categorize or distinguish it; despite the remonstrations of many generations of its creators and some of its audience.
With all this considered, let us look at the following definitions and see how they may assist in a common or layman’s analysis of the multifaceted and layered sounds of Nduduzo Makhathini.
Listening to an artist who considers himself a healer and a conduit of Spirit requires much more than an ear for good or quality entertainment. In the words of a famous South African radio advert, you must “Listen with your Soul”.
Firstly, I will dare to call this “sound we revere”, an elite music. But what does this word elite mean?
“Elite or é·lite
[ ih-leet, ey-leet ]
(often used with a plural verb) the choice or best of anything considered collectively, as of a group or class of persons.
(used with a plural verb) person of the highest class: Only the elite were there.
a group of persons exercising the major share of authority or influence within a larger group: the power elite of a major political party.
a type, approximately 10-point in printing-type size, widely used in typewriters and having 12 characters to the inch.
representing the most choice or select; best: an elite group of authors.”
Pianist Nduduzo Makhathini might be the first person to refuse to be ‘labelled’ an elitist in any shape or form; but how far can producers of art control their own sphere of influence or even their reception by the listeners and the industries they operate in?
The option of using the word elite to describe both the perception of what is called real jazz as well as the character and psychological state of its producers is quite deliberate. It denotes the difference between the elevated and pristine state of the music as compared to the run-of-the mill/mainstream or what is termed popular music today.
Fans of this music have always been the vanguard of any society, the ones whose taste for other modes of artistic communication and expression have been more discerning compared to the average enjoyer of music.
It is as if jazz is an actual language on its own. The musicians may be ordinary artists pursuing a music that gives them joy; but after all the work is done and they have communicated their message, it is up to us to enjoy it and allow it to take us wherever it does. The music of Nduduzo Makhathini uniquely takes us deeper into ourselves, exploring both our ancestral heritage as well as our place in a universe populated by various often unnamable forces. In other words, the music transports us into realms that lie just beyond the mundane, causing us to strive for better or clearer reception, to receive the messages of the Ancestors as much as we are compelled to offer our prayers for the present and future.
As stated in one of the essays in my book Rock ‘n Rule – jazz is an intellectual choice. This does not mean it is not to be enjoyed solely within its recreational or fun contexts, it simply means that it has a built in quality of endurance, a deliberately created permanence that the band members all contribute in communicating.
While not being deliberately exclusive, it is not overly inclusive either. Despite the fact that Leo Smith calls it the most democratic art-form, referring to how each member in the band strives to be as honest and harmoniously participatory, there is still individual freedom within the perimeters of a seemingly boundless ‘system’.
It is an elite sound; a bespoke cultural phenomenon and each audience member has a unique approach to how they appreciate it.
Questions of influence, power (spiritual and economic), control, reception and receptivity must be considered when dealing with a sound that has for a long time been considered proto-classical.
While the African-American roots of what is considered jazz today are worthy of reverence, there has been considerable work done to support the notion that what is called jazz is truly a unique amalgamation of Afrikan idioms, tones, cultural cadences and harmonics developed through exceptionally Black American styles using European instruments. Ironically, artistes such as Makhathini are creating a language that shatters the elitism while keeping the tradition distinct. It is a mode of communication that brings in the listener through a shared narrative, while offering a sense of education.
The difference between Western or European classical music and jazz/Black American Music goes beyond the point of fixed composition, improvisation, and individual interpretation of the musical score. The people who have developed the sounds of jazz/BAM far more than anyone else are a people who have imbued the music with their unique cultural and ancestral flavors.
There is an distinctive disciplic succession in the way the jazz/BAM tradition has been handed down from one generation to another via a plethora of compositional and improvisational styles and Afrikan and Diasporic contributions can be considered as much influential to the development of today’s artists as the mainstream and readily quotable names from the United States of America.
So much of this music exists outside of the mainstream and popular canon’s that have been controlled by Eurocentric and America-centered tastemakers that many generations of artists and listeners have been robbed of the omniversal/omnispacial nuances of this music.
Just like there has been a hegemony of religious, cultural and economic dogma that was deepened by the advent of globalization, there was been a deliberate attempt to either ignore or only pay lip-service to musical contributions by Afrikan artists in the sphere called jazz. The induction of Southern Afrikan pianist/Healer and storyteller Nduduzo Makhathini into the Blue Note jazz stratosphere is a fulfillment of many musical prophecies.
The sheer breadth of sounds that make up the album Modes of Communication: Letters From The Underworlds, make it clear that Nduduzo was very cognizant of the fact that he is carrying the hopes and dreams of past, present and future contributors to this auspicious tradition. The songs range from the clearly ancestrally or spiritually inclined narratives, to the gospel nuanced as well as the socially conscious.
The socio-political aspects of the narrative cannot be ignored as the artists are deliberately compelled to confront the Black condition with fervent intentionality. While the act of communicating at a universal level is important, each member in this group is perceived as chanting or conjuring up something that can potentially healing towards the global African race, to heal the social ills before we can be ushered into the proverbial imagined race.
While there are many great South Afrikan artists who could have been elevated to this position much earlier, it is a highly significant that the forces that be, have begun with a powerful artist such as this one.
Let us briefly look at the musical output that has led to this moment …
- Mother Tongue (Gundu, 2014) with Sakhile Simani, Mthunzi Mvubu, Linda Sikhakhane, Ariel Zamonsky, Benjamin Jeptha, Ayanda Sikade
- Sketches of Tomorrow (Gundu, 2014) with Sakhile Simani, Mthunzi Mvubu, Jonathan Crossley, Ayanda Sikade
- Listening to the Ground (Gundu, 2015)
- Matunda Ya Kwanza (Gundu, 2015)
- Icilongo – The African Peace Suite (Gundu, 2016) with Sakhile Moleshe, Justin Bellairs, Shabaka Hutchings, Benjamin Jeptha, Ayanda Sikade
- Inner Dimensions – Umgidi Trio & One Voice Vocal Ensemble (2016) with Fabien Iannone, Dominic Egli, Lisette Spinnler, Jule Fahrer
- Reflections (Gundu, 2017) solo piano
- Ikhambi (Universal South Africa, 2018)
- (Universal Music (Pty) Ltd., 2020)
- Mbuso Khoza: Zilindile (Winner Best Contemporary Jazz 2013, Metro FM) Lindiwe Maxolo: Time SAMA Best Jazz 2013
- Tumi Mogorosi’s Project Elo
- Sisa Sopazi’s Images and Figures
- SAMA Best Jazz 2014 Nominee Xolani Sithole: Limitless Produced two of his own albums: Mother Tongue and Sketches of Tomorrow.
- African Time – Herbie Tsoali
- Movement – Ayanda Sikade
- Uthingo Lwenkosazana – Omagugu Makhathini
There are many more collaborations and work that can be mentioned here, but for the sake of time and space. Let us call this part one. Donda! We are grateful for your channeling of the messages from your Ancestors unto our realms. May we all learn to discern the languages of the Ancients as well as the tones of the present and future yearnings. The music belongs to all.