Words of Power, Sounds of Peace

“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)

Albums Produced

  • 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.

An End!!!

The Communal and Intellectual Properties of Afrikan Cultural Aesthetics (part 1)

A conversation that turned into an argument on Facebook today, which was about the lyrical prowess of US rapper Jay-Z really got me thinking about Black aesthetics in a general sense. The debate was sparked by someone who said that they were alarmed at how much praise that Jay-Z gets for displaying a skill that he neither invented nor is he superior in it. Since rap music is part of the highly competetive segment of Hip Hop culture, many die-hard fans are quite picky about who really is the best at a specific aspect of rhyming. It was Mos Def aka Yasin Bey who once rapped, “This thing called rhyming/ is no different from coal mining/ We’re all on assignment / to un-earth the diamond …”

You see, the whole argument was really about the use of something called ‘the double entendre’; it’s just a fancy way of descibing an ambiguous turn of phrase or saying something with a double or triple meaning. In the art of storytelling called Rap, there are so many gimmicks and stylish ways that the artists use to stand-out, be unique and basically become ahead of their peers. It is a great feat that after more than 40 years of its existence, despite commercialisation and so many practitioners pandering to capitalist/materialist interests, Hip Hop artists can still be distinguished through their work ethic, skills and excellence. Jay-Z happens to be one of the most successful artist/entrepreneur in the game at present. I do not wish to get into the merits of demerits of whether he is The master of the double entendre or not, suffice to say that there are hundreds if not thousands of less commercially successful MC’s/rappers out there in various languages, who can boast of being the masters or even geniuses in the same game. Someone in the Facebook debate even mentioned Aesop Rock and I later mentioned the recently belated MF DOOM. The rapper Mos Def whom I quoted above can also be mentioned among the top experts in the art of story-telling, but we can mention many others beyond the shores of the USA. The late Ben Sharpa as well as The Hymphatic Thabs and Supa Mpondo are some of the South Afrikan luminaries that come to mind and so does Yugen Blakrok.

|When Blakrok rhymes, “immaculate entanglement …chromosomes have relapsed the hidden element/ chosen matriarch walks with the ghosts of elephants …” – ( Metamorphosis), it may require someone who either understands her mieliu or simply has a grasp of the semiotics of Afrikan cosmology to decipher her meaning. On Morbid Abakus, she raps quite succinctly , “A Neo moving counter-clockwise, til this cipher is complete/ False prophets are the first to seek the shelter of cocoons /Like a newborn retreating back into its mothers womb/ out of this world I search space like quantum physicists/ scaling the mountain like Moses only to find out where the lizard lives/ I crash imbecilles and elevate seers/ My order is psychics that levitate above fear…”

The music is not particularly designed for the clubs or for mainstream audiences entertainment, it is like some forms of what is called jazz, only for ‘Heads’, or those among us who enjoy art-music. It is a proverbial and actual music of the spheres. Of course, not all music can be described as art. Some of it is specifically created with the profit motive in mind, and a vast amount is made for the sole purpose of mind-less entertainment. For those who art fans, the lines are clearly drawn and heated debates have always ensued between purists and hedonists. The latter being part of the mass population. It is no surprise at all that less discerning listeneres who are mostly spoonfed their art, would attribute mastery to artists who are either mediocre or predictably over-rated. The music of the spheres is not found on radio stations and the television broadcasting is owned and controlled by people who have no interest in cultivating a culture of provocative or regenerative thought.

The purpose of this essay though is really to engage with how many of the cultural aesthetics found the the art of Hip Hop are not only traceable to earlier expressions from jazz to Mbhaqanga to the Blues as well as more traditional Indigenous performative arts, but that the intellectual property really does not belong to persons but to the entire Afrikan community as well as other members of humanity who are eble to embrace it and therefore reproduce it. It is during this stage of reproduction that the complex socio-political and economic dimensions manifest fully.

It is very important that as Afrikans engaged in the preservation of our creative economic production, we remain aware that there have always been forces that thrive on distorting and destroying what we create. We may enjoy some moments of frivolous entertainment and even self degradation/humiliation now and then, but there are still spaces of sacredness and conservation. Traditions in musical history as well as cultural life are establish for a reason, they are the stuff that guides us and restores our confidence that our lives have more meaning than the stuff that can be bought or sold. Our resistance to erasure is not a resistance against natural progression of change, we know that culture is dynamic and that traditions must adapt to contextual realities, yet we also are aware that without institutions there will be no systemic or functional best practices.

Note this passage from Frank Tirro’s book Jazz, A History: ” Jazz became a symbol of crime, feeble-mindedness, insanity and sex, and was under constant attack from the press from the early 1920’s on …. it is ironic that we preserve, study and enjoy a music today that was felt to be insidious and lascivious only yesterday.”

Perhaps the obvious question from this statement is who exactly considered Black music in those terms? What was the contextual or even pychological background of the critics at that particular time? It would emerge that the so called taste-makers or opinion makers of that era were the same ones who later began reproducing the music albeit a poorer version of it and constructed a whole new branding of it complete with their own prefered stars as well as the very identity of the sound. Somehow someway, Afrikan people are still able to withstand all this negative onslaught against our creativity and emerge shining forth with boundless expressions of pure Soulful, Spiritual genius. Perhaps the best and only way to preserve our creations is to find ways to remain our authentic selves, undilited by the whims of trends, brands and opinions. We are not just here to create content and cater for the gullible masses, we are here to make life and art rhyme so eloquenly that no one can dare to copy or fake it without sounding inauthentic. The same agents who have created a Hip Hop industry that lacks Soulfulness and spiritual harmony are the same descendents of the people who attempted to stifle the organic grouwth of what they called jazz. There is an undeniable Afrocentricity to the art-forms in question here and they cannot be alienated or removed from the very politics or sociological being of the Mother continent. Note what David Tame writes albeit simplistically in his book The Secret Power of Music, in the chapter Jazz and The Blues:

On the physical level the rhythms of jazz, like their parent sounds of Africa, literally forced the listeners to do something rhythmic with their limbs. The faster the tempo, the more the emotional tension created. . . -When pulsation and syncopation are the rhythmic foundations of the music at a dance hall, the movements of the dancers can invariably be seen to become very sensual and oriented around the loins. Such rhythms actually posses the capacity to force the subtle energies of the body downward into the region of the anatomy, therefore increasing the outpouring into the bloodstream of sexual hormones. Once such biochemic and more subtle forces have been concentrated on the loins , they must find some manner of expression.”

In part 2 of this essay, I will explain through a Fanonian and Cesairean approach just how racist these statements are. Racism camouflages itself within the cloaks of anthropology and white pathological paternalism. This is the sense of cultural delusion of supremacy that thrives on making sweeping judgements on matters that white intellectuals and even colonised Black writers know very little about. In prepaation for part 2 I woulod advise the reader to seek out Aime Cesaire’s Discourse on Colonialism, Notebook of A Return To The Native Land as well as Frantz Fanon’s Black Skin White Masks.


A New World Emerges Glistening

None of us can control every situation we find ourselves in. What we can control is how we react when things turn against us. I have always seen failure as a challenge to pull myself up and keep going. A struggle is only one step in the long path we walk and dwellinjg on it only postpones the completion of our journey. Every person who has ever achieved anything has been knocked down many times.” – Wangari Maathai, Unbowed, One Woman’s Story

The future is now drawing us in faster than the past can hold us back. An obvious consequence to this scenario is the end of the conservative, the traditional and the archaic, plus the naive notion that somehow we can return to childhood, to the fantasy of any creation myth, like the Garden of Eden. But nothing will stop the evolutionary momentum. The conservatives and the traditionalists are on the verge of extinction and the institutions associeted with them can sense it. ” – Mike Kawitzky

Real and sustainable economic empowerment aims at evening out the spread of wealth across the demographic spectrum and not to perpetuate its skewing. The implicit mandate of any government anywhere is to economically empower the citizenry.” – David Magang, Delusions of Grandeur, Paradoxes and Ambivalences in Botswana’s Macroeconomic Firmament

We need new creation stories. We need stories without queens, kings, serfs and imaginary monsters or gods. Yes, there will be fantacy and magical realities and even so called false-positives. Archetypes are the stuff of our human experience, both good or bad and everything else inbetween, but our new stories must be based on truly new inventions, where old habits have been proven to be obsolete and not useful. Royalty is one of those habits. A dirty habit which is held aloft by demagogues, just as nationalism is. Politics as well as money or fiat finance are the other unfriendly ghosts we ought to exorcise if we are truly serious about the pursuit of happiness, prosperity and mutual wellbeing.

So many ages have passed unto infinity, history fills a space and time that we can neither fully grasp nor accurately tell. We relate to the past merely because we have been there, it is part of our old skin, a presence that is always shifting, snakish, moving with us as we grow into the next moment. We also relate to the past because we are connected to it through ancestry, our collective evolution as a species is as cyclic as it is relational. It may not always be fair or even rational, but it is relational. “Every little action, has a reaction …” Bob Marley

Afrikan Warrior Teacher Dr Baba Buntu says that we are ‘relational beings’, meaning that humanity is in a cosmic relationship not only as homosapiens and the various human families/races that are within it, but that we are interconnected with everything else both visible and unseen. We relate. As racial relatives as well as beings with common histories.

All of the earth’s peoples have their creation stories, and some view them clearlly as part of their particular folklore and mythologies, while some cultures hold a more myopic view, the fundamentalist opinion that their own stories are realistic or truthful, that they are a universal truth.

There are certain cultural motifs or systems that havce transcended these differences. These tendencies, whether based on basic instincts or our part animal /part systemic intelligence that keep us needing certain kinds of leadership so that we can feel secure as groups or ‘tribes’, are in fact part of what keeps us competing instead of relating. Kingship is one of the outmoded systems that almost every nation has either had or still holds on to. The purported divine right of royalty is by far one of the most fantastical of all human inventions. That a certain group of members of the race is somehow preordained to rule or ‘lord it’ over others. It is quite amazing just how this institution has managed to last well into the 21st century.

As much as kingship faces a myriad of challenges, it appears that new intelligence and peoples traditional habits remain at an impasse. The political systems such as constititutional democracies, communism and even so called monarchial democracy and feudalism all appear to be alternating forms of the dictatorship of some by others. While there may be many other ideas from scientific socialism to arnarchy and federalism, none have shown any significant success as allowing humanity to gravitate to our natural states. Peace, equity and justice are still very much a struggle to achieve, even in most developed or technically advanced countries. Dominant ideas still find more expression than individual or even communal liberties.

In the United States of America, which is known as the land of the free, there is as much injustice if not more, than in any other dictatorship. A semblance or pretence of freedom is sold to citizens as part of an American dream. Yet, both government and corporations have created a system wherein the profit motive has become more powerful and influential than the vote or peoples actual choices. In simpler terms, it is money or wealth, not merit or service excellence that determines leadership.

In his book More Together Than Alone, the power of community; Mark Nepo writes: “In America, our sense of self-reliance is so embedded in our “Live free or die” ethic that, when we mean to honour what we’re been through as a society, we often re-enact the conflict. For example, there are annual re-enactments of the Civil War battle at Gettysburg ( July 1-3, 1863) rather than annual healing conversations about race. And there are annual re-enactments of the Revolutionary War battles at Saratoga ( September 19 and October 7, 1777) rather than public forums on the deeper meanings of freedom.”

What this warrior writer of ‘new ideas for new ways of living’ states here reminds me of something I have always questiond regarding the history or story of the people known as AmaZulu. These famous nation within the Republic of South Africa has long been famous for all the wrong reasons. The Zulu is almost always defined as a warrior and even the women are defined as sturdy and rock-like. It is a stereotypical image that many Zulu’s and South Afrikans have embraced unquestionangly.

These are the toxic stereotypes that are repeated and performed in the arts as well as in various other national and even global spaces, they reinforce a narrative that traps the people into a cycle of psychic as well as actual violence. It also also diminishes the value of the many other beautiful attributes of this culturally rich people.

New storytellers understand that complexity is as importance as simplicity. It is the healthy tension between the two that creates an atmosphere of inventiveness. When we tell stories of peaceful warriors rather than two dimensional kings with killer instincts, we allow the quiet to be articulated as clearly as a sounded bell. Surely we are more than the sum of our conflicts. People are more than the minions and subjects of their rulers or kings.

In Southern Africa, traditional leadership has been afforded a place in the globally acclaimed constitution or the Bill of Rights, yet traditional leaders hardly have any power to make any significant decisions among their constituents. The very government that is in power through the ballot still receives instructions from global powers and funders in making decisions that directly affect citizens. It is as if the proverbial pyramid of power has remained intact beyond the collapse of colonialism or imperialism.

While one appreciates the schemes of geopolotical macroeconomics, and that no country is an island, it is important to still ask the questions of whether anything is still sacred, whether soverignty is a reality or a thing of the past?

The people of the land called Afrika are as diverse as we are uniquely gifted. The land is rich in every conceivable natural resource. Our endowements, on a human and environmental level should mean that we should not be beggars or the wretched of the earth. The so called resource curse seems to follow us despite the many global conferences, United Nations and other institutional policies that are aimed at ensuring that human rights and planetary justice is observed, yet neither traditional leadership, Indigenous Knowledge practitioners nor socio-political elites have been able to clarify just how we can trascend our state of collective wretchedness.

Our story is not one-sided. We are as wonderfully creative and industrious as anyone else, if not more, given our experiences and circumstances. Afrika influences the world in uncountable ways. Our story is a story of rising each time we have been brought down low, resilience and tenacity are part of our narrative. Reinvention is in our DNA, it is all a matter of finding the right catalysts to activate it. Yet, we still need to do more. We need to unlearn many of our old habits. Some that have been acquired through the colonial traumatic experience, and some that are part of the deadly past. Yes, the past is both life-giving as well as death laden. We must move as a people that has discerned just what we can use and what we must discard if we are to thrive in the brave new world of this here future. There are institutions that have already been formed which work on how to use history in a positive or proactive way. We will need them to refine their data and methodologies. We are always telling new stories and there are industries that thrive on distributing those stories through various media internationally, let them be cognizant of the impact of such stories on the collective psyche of the new world’s children. Let us guard against poisoning our children with the debris and violence of our messy past. While it may stroke our national egoes to tell stories of our own blodied heroes and struggle stalwarts, it does not make the world a more peacable place to pollute fresh springs with our muddied feet.

How is ‘China’ helping to transform ‘Africa’? The need for a more sophisticated debate


How is China helping to transform African economies? There are many different narratives cast around in public and policy debate: China as the new imperial power, China as the radical developmentalist, China as just like any other donor/foreign power. None are very convincing. A report synthesising a number of research projects has been published recently, titled Africa’s economic transformation: the role of Chinese investment, and aims to get beyond the rhetoric and gain a more sophisticated, empirically-based analysis based on substantial UK-funded research efforts over recent years.

Based on detailed studies from Angola to Zambia, the report covers a range of Chinese investments from infrastructure to technology to manufacturing. Agriculture and land-based investments don’t get much attention, but some wider lessons can be drawn. Overall, the report argues that Chinese investments are not exceptional, but have certain patterns. They generally focus on the productive economic sector and that although…

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