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‘I've always wanted to find a sound that would bring me home’: Nduduzo Makhathini’s invocation of collective memory

Nduduzo Makhathini
Nduduzo Makhathini

Earlier this year, I had the privilege of a hearing the acclaimed South African pianist, Nduduzo Makhathini, in Cape Town, South Africa. The setting was a beautiful rooftop space, and the sun was just setting when we, WBGO members and friends, who were part of the 2024 Soul of South Africa tour, were treated to a private concert with the pianist. HIs music is known for its depth and spirituality, influenced by his Zulu heritage and his upbringing surrounded by music and rituals. Hearing him play in his home country was deeply spiritual and enlightening. His new release, uNomkhubulwane, is due to be released June 7 on Blue Note Records. Nududuzo Makhathini is a true innovator in the world of jazz, weaving together his Zulu heritage with the rich tapestry of the genre. In this interview, we delve into his creative process, his influences, and his vision for the future of music. Listen to our conversation, above.

Interview transcript:

Lezlie Harrison: Congratulations on your upcoming album. You are joining a very long and impressive list of South African jazz musicians that our listeners may be familiar with, like Abdullah Ibrahim, Bheki Mseleku, just to name a few. It was an absolute pleasure meeting you and hearing you in Cape Town in such an intimate setting with vibraphonist Stefon Harris and Wayne Winborne. It was a brilliant conversation. I learned at some point on your musical journey, you discovered John Coltrane's A Love Supreme. Talk about that moment and how it helped you evolve into this wonderful musician you are today.

Nduduzo Makhathini: I think it's important to mention that, for the most part, this art form that we love so much that we call jazz tends to enunciate from this brokenness. It tends to enunciate from this kind of displacement and it produces these formulations of refusal in a sense. As someone who's a practitioner of the art form, I've always wanted to find a sound that would bring me home, in a sense. Something that would invoke this collective memory. And, of course, the violence of curriculum and studying music in South Africa and elsewhere is quite another topic.

As someone who was already steeped in musical traditions, steeped in ritual ceremonies and repertoires connections between repertoires and function, repertoires and the calendar, and cosmic things, I was looking for something within the jazz practice that would invoke this kind of total experience of music-ing that connects the world, history, spirituality, what we see around us and also speaks to challenges of Black biographies. I spent a lot of time in the music library looking for stuff. This one evening, I landed on A Love Supreme and of course this was the first jazz record I would listen to from the beginning to the end without skipping anything.

It was like such a complete piece. And strange enough we should talk about the suite that I've created now. This idea really came from culture and of presenting things in which the repertoire itself Has a connection. It speaks to each other in a concept of a suite. I read the liner notes and I started to follow closely the works of Coltrane and came to realize that he was always thinking about this utopian faraway place that we think of as home and making connections sonically to transcend this hijacked agenda of displacement. The connection from the onset was musical, but it led to other things that assist the music to have a much higher vibrational depth.

You said something that I really dug about how the ancestors left their DNA in this art form.

Definitely, as though our ancestors knew that there would be these catastrophes—slave trade, coloniality, apartheid. Somehow the art form kept this DNA, so that one day when we cross over the Atlantic, and we have a choice to cross over from either side of the Atlantic, we'll always kind of recognize this shared memory via the sonic. I've been thinking a lot about how this sound emanates from an echo and this echo moving from two axis of the Atlantic. There is a way in which this echo has a code that we all know it's a Black code. For me, it's really incredible to see collaborations with Stefon Harris or Wynton Marsalis and all of these people that are coming to the continent. Again, we are going across and collaborating. Every time we play together, we realize that there's a shared memory. There's something that we instantly recognize in the sound that is a legacy. It's a gift left to us by our ancestors so that we don't forget who we are collectively.

You have put that collectiveness into your new recording. It's a suite. It emerged out of what you call a mother song afforded to you during an initiation process to became a healer. Speak a little bit about the birth of that suite.

I think for the most part, what I'm trying to deal with artistically is an amnesia that has hit the continent greatly. But I guess an amnesia that is assisted by all of these catastrophes are mentioning and part of the challenge in post-colonial zone or at least the global south, as it were, is that while the agenda of decolonizing is ongoing, there is a sense in which this delinking from the colonial library, as it were, challenges us because we don't know what the indigenous library is.

In this moment when we check out of this coloniality, there is this question of our own memories and how they are violated. There are glimpses of things such as creation stories that we absorb through upbringing. This project really emanates from a creation story, a creation myth of the Zulu people that tells us that humanity broke off the reed through an instruction of Umveli Kala. Umveli Kala is God and the concept of God, as it were, initially is a genderless concept of God. And God gave birth to the daughter, uNomkhubulwane. And uNomkhubulwane really governs creation, production, creativity, harvest, death. According to this creation myth, everything that we see around us is a result of uNomkhubulwane having granted us access to whatever that we tap into.

I thought it will be important, especially at a time where this kind of maternal energy or the feminine energy goes through many layers. First being Black and being woman and then still being women in society. There's a sense in which this aspect of the maternal energy has been kind of violated both by coloniality and by extension, the aggressiveness of Black men too, which we have to confront.

This idea of uNomkhubulwane is a way to kind of move towards the center and think about what does it mean for man to be recreated? What does a new man look like? What does the new humanism look like? In order for us to to tap into these higher realms off of consciousness, we'll have to consult the spirit of how the suite really comes together.

That's beautiful. You mentioned something in that conversation that I heard about it not this being higher than entertainment. It's Inner attainment. Speak about that a little more.

That came from my teacher who was a great saxophone player and who had worked with Max Roach. A very important alto player from Chicago, Ernest Dawkins. He was really interested in Ra’s Afrofuturism and this possibility of creating another world. And so as Sun Ra puts it at the beginning of his documentary there was so much trouble in this world and we decided to create this other planet in my work, I call it an elsewhere. So entertainment was a way to kind of bring together indigenousness and kind of futurism in a sense that Black sounds were not really originally for entertainment, but the way to transcendence. This commercialization of sounds has led to this trouble of entertainment. But given the troubles and the collapse in Black biographies, I sense more and more that Black people don't actually need entertainment. They need something deeper. There is a struggle and the temporality of entertainment. Black people are looking for something permanent, something that connects with the world that is free. In seeking this freedom, we tap into a modality of inner attainment.

Nduduzo Makhathini - "Libations: Omnyama" (Official Video)

This is why your record is so important right now. Your music is so important right now. Speak a little bit about your blending jazz with your Zulu traditions and how does this fusion take the music to a new direction, to the future?

Two sort of responses or reactions happened when people were encountering African American jazz in the continent and particularly in South Africa. One was people were really inspired by this music and they just wanted to sound exactly the same. And they wanted to jazz up the same in South Africa. If you look at the archive in the 1920s, jazz musicians in South Africa looked identical to what was happening in New Orleans or elsewhere in the U.S. The other thing that is more of a focus for me is that of memory, that when we hear this music, not only does it inspire us, but it also invokes something that is older within us.

I think that really speaks to the ways in which I've been thinking about the fact that some of the most ancient memories of Africa will be found in the diasporas. For instance, we always think of African Americans, when they come here, they’re coming to the motherland. Of course it's true, but we always assume this kind of authority over Black knowledge as the continent. I think there is an opportunity to rethink such as a standpoint and to consider what happens when someone is displaced from their own knowledge systems, they hold onto the very glimpses and this holding onto the glimpse would essentially suggest that some of the most ancient knowledge of African peoples would reside in Cuba, would be in the U.S., through the fact that like those people were displaced, and there was a challenge and so whatever little they could remember, they wanted to keep sacred. Some of the sacred practices included the blues, the Negro spirituals, then jazz.

Now coming back to your question, I found that within the Zulu-ness much more ancient folk styles of amahubo [translated as worship songs of the Zulu people] carry what I call now the jazziness. Which means the ingredients that would emerge on the other side of the Atlantic during slave trade are some of the core ingredients of African music anyway. But African music that Africans themselves have forgotten and taken for granted. This connection between jazz and Zulu music is kind of an invocation of collective memory via what I call jazziness. which is the existence of the jazz DNA before the name came about, before slave trade, this thing that the African people have been trying to hold on to.

This is the connection. It's about how African American jazz is now becoming an echo that is sounded back to the Calabash that has lost so much. In sounding, then the resonance becomes this modern music that we call Zulu traditional music and jazz and whatever we call it.

It's very spiritual for sure. I had it on this morning and I want to play this every morning. It's my morning ritual for now. Thank you for getting my day started. Speak a little bit about the musicians that you chose.

I’ve been very conscious of collective memory and I started thinking about this kind of pyramid with Cuba, the U.S. and South Africa. This triangle and how it brings an awareness of the number three, which is a number of completion in Yoruba cultures. It’s a number of divinity in the number of uNomkhubulwane. I feel that in a way, uNomkhubulwane chose these musicians, and in spending time with Francisco Mela, I realized the connections between Cuban music and South African indigenous music via what we call a triplet, which is a concept for expanding the bar lines or kind of disobeying bar lines in the music, a kind of shifting from a colonial ideology or Western ideology of music-ing as like residing within these lines. What does it mean to play these lines?

Of course, Zwelakhe [Zwelakhe-Duma Bell le Pere] was born in the U.S., but his mother is from Jamaica and his father is South African. And so Zwelakhe started coming to South Africa at the age of 15 or 16. His dad brought him to me because his dad used to come and see me play. And he said, “I have my son here. He's a double bass player, but he's just starting out. And I would like for you to play with him, except I think you might have to bring another bass player to do the gig and let him play one or two songs.” We played two songs and Zwelakhe showed me his fingers. He said they were sore. So I was like, “Okay, you sit down.” But needless to say that in three years of Zwelakhe coming to South Africa, I started recording with him and, of course, the rest is history. He's one of the most important bass players in the U.S. as we speak. That really adds to the vibrational depth of the music, the level of trust. And of course, Mela played with McCoy Tyner for 10 years and McCoy Tyner is one of my greatest inspirations. There is that connect too that I think orchestrated everything. I'm just following.

This conversation has been edited for brevity and clarity.

Lezlie Harrison is her own personal renaissance. Her constant state of evolution and growth brings with it, gifts for those those paying attention.