© 2023 WBGO
WBGO New Record Spine Header
Play Live Radio
Next Up:
Available On Air Stations

Take Five: Sounds of South Africa, from Tumi Mogorosi, Thandi Ntuli, Linda Sikhakhane & Bokani Dyer

As WBGO looks ahead to our 2023 trip to South Africa, here are five new tracks by South African jazz artists who are pushing the art form forward.

Tumi Mogorosi, "Wadada"

For American jazz listeners, Tumi Mogorosi may be most familiar as the polymorphic percussive heart of Shabaka and the Ancestors, the acclaimed Johannesburg group led by British-born multi-reedist Shabaka Hutchings. That's just a partial framework for understanding Mogorosi's artistry, which finds fuller expression on an ambitious new album, Group Theory: Black Music, just out on Mushroom Hour x New Soil. Featuring peers like alto saxophonist Mthunzi Mvubu and trumpeter Tumi Pheko, it's a statement of purpose that connects ancestral memory with the streamlined feel of modern jazz.

That convergence resonates from the first moments of "Wadada," a piece dedicated to the late writer and professor Bhekizizwe Peterson, whom Mogorosi knew as a mentor. The hard-boppish melody, stated in unison by Pheko and Mvubu, comes underscored by the wordless cry of a nine-person choir — a sound that may remind some listeners of the work of Kamasi Washington, though Mogorosi has his own set of references. "There’s this idea of mass, of a group of people gathering, which has a political implication," he reflects in a press statement. "And the operatic voice has both a presence, and a capacity to scream, a capacity for affect. The instrumental group can sustain the intensity of that affect, and the chorus can go beyond improvisation, toward communal melodies that everyone can be a part of."

Thandi Ntuli, "Amazing Grace"

No account of South Africa's new jazz generation would be complete without a nod to Thandi Ntuli — a pianist, singer, guitarist, and composer just shy of 35, both ascendant and still emerging. Like her uncle Selby Ntuli, known to South Africans as a guitarist in the instrumental soul group Harari, Thandi has a flexible relationship to genre, though she isn't a dabbler. On her impressive new album Blk Elijah & The Children of Meroë, you'll hear distant echoes of Stevie Wonder and early Return to Forever alongside a distinctly present and contemporary style. Among the album's most appealing offerings is "Amazing Grace" (no relation to the Christian hymn), which features Ntuli's soulful vocals multitracked against a percolating Latin groove.

Linda Sikhakhane, "Isambulo"

Tenor and soprano saxophonist Linda Sikhakhane is no stranger to discerning New York audiences — as a product of the jazz program at the New School, where he was mentored by the likes of Reggie Workman and Billy Harper. I last heard him at Dizzy's Club with his countryman Nduduzo Makhathini, who co-produced his sterling new album, Isambulo. Just out on Ropeadope, the album (whose title is Zulu for "revelation") features Sikhakhane in a range of searching settings, drawing from the vocabularies of John Coltrane and Charles Lloyd, among others. The album's title track, which tumbles forward in free tempo, puts Sikhakhane's soprano in a slippery tandem with Matthias Spillmann's trumpet, against a rhythm section of pianist Lucca Fries, bassist Fabien Iannone, drummer Jonas Ruther, and percussionist El Hadji Ngari Ndong.

Bokani Dyer, "Ke Nako"

Pianist and composer Bokani Dyer has been a talent to watch for over a decade now, and his current stature is beyond question. He has the language and understanding of a traditionalist — at the North Sea Jazz Festival last month, I heard him play an acoustic trio set of the highest caliber — but he's also a kind of futurist, as he demonstrated on the recent pandemic-era album Kelenosi. Here's another recent statement, "Ke Nako," from the essential South African compilation Indaba Is. The soloists are Sisonke Xonti on tenor saxophone and Ndabo Zulu on trumpet, followed by Dyer himself. Dyer also contributes vocals, alongside Siya Mthembu and the aforementioned Thandi Ntuli.

Nduduzo Makhathini, "Mama (feat. Omagugu)"

Finally, it would feel like an oversight to conclude this edition of Take Five without a nod to Nduduzo Makhathini, the pianist and composer who has become a spokesperson for the jazz traditions of South Africa in our present moment. His album In the Spirit of Ntu not only deepens his achievement as a bandleader; it also inaugurated a historic new label imprint, Blue Note Africa. "Mama," one of the album's more meditative offerings, features a vocal by Omagugu Makhathini, the composer's better half; perhaps you remember their contribution to Jazz Night in America's pandemic series Alone Together. The song, a drifting ballad, is their tribute to a departed mother. At one point the lyrics, in Zulu, translate to this sincere sentiment: "Oh! Mama is a blessing to me / I always thank you / Now, now you have left me / May your soul rest in peace."

(A previous version of this article erroneously identified the lyrics above as Xhosa.)

Nate Chinen