the most refreshing jazz now comes from South Africa

Keyboard player Nduduzo Makhathini, one of the exponents of modern South African jazz.Statue of Hugh Mdlalose

The most refreshing sound in jazz in recent years has come from South Africa. London tenor saxophonist Shabaka Hutchings proved it, for example, when five years ago he played his acclaimed album Wisdom of Elders on the North Sea Jazz with his band Shabaka and the Ancestors made up of South African musicians. Keyboardist Nduduzo Makhathini played an important role on that album. It is the same Makhathini who is helping to spread the South African jazz variant further with his album In the Spirit of Ntu, which was released earlier this year.

on In the Spirit of Ntu the best of two musical worlds come together. You hear echoes of spiritual jazz as played in the sixties by American bands like John Coltrane and Pharoah Sanders. But there is also traditional South African folk music, especially in the sung parts. Makhathini’s clattering piano playing is dominant. His tones often fall hard like metal pipes from the sky. He can also play very empathetically. Solid block chords in the style of pianist McCoy Tyner, one of his great examples.

Shabaka Hutchings mixed his musical vision of South African jazz with British elements in particular, giving London jazz a huge boost. Makhathini, 39, has a similar mission, he explains over the phone. ‘My friend Shabaka and I share the same dream: to show that we have developed our own jazz variant in South Africa, where traditional African folk music and classical American jazz form a spiritual alliance.’ He calls from East London, South Africa, where he teaches jazz history and composition at the University of Fort Hare. At least if he is not going to play. ‘Composing and making music is my priority, that’s what I prefer to do. I have a feeling that this is also the right time to come to the fore. ”

He had to wait a long time for that moment. Makhathini had already released eight albums himself when he was signed by the famous Blue Note label in New York in 2020. ‘I played in a club there and got a contract. That said, I think I played Shabaka’s record and that he always came to play a match when he was around. ”

In 2020, Makhathini released the critically acclaimed Modes of Communication – Letters from the Underworlds, followed this year by the even better In the Spirit of Ntu. That album will go down in history as the first album by the new African jazz-oriented Blue Note Africa. In addition to working as a performing artist, Makhathini will also work as a consultant and talent scout for Blue Note Africa. ‘There must be as enthusiastic jazz scenes in Benin, Nigeria and Ghana as there are here. I hope to be able to help the brand discover and guide it. ‘

The role of mentor suits him, he likes to excite young musicians. He himself has greatly benefited from the lessons he received as a student of the pianist / composer Bheki Mseleku (1955-2008). “In the beginning, I had no intention of studying jazz at all. At home there was a piano on which my mother gave me my first lessons. I enjoyed it and wanted to continue my studies, so I applied to university. I first found out in the classroom that I had signed up for a jazz program.

I liked it. Makhathini spent days in a row in the well-stocked music library. The classical sixties quartet by tenor saxophonist John Coltrane touched him deeply. “When I looked at the front page of A Love Supreme and saw a poem printed, I felt like I was touched by something higher. I notice that many people find it difficult to accompany texts that are spiritual. But I immediately understood what he meant. It gave the music an almost religious added value. Laying a deeper layer has also always been important for my own music. ‘

Makhathini has learned ‘infinitely much’ from Mseleku, he says. About South African musicians like Abdullah Ibrahim and Hugh Masekela and the many compatriots who emigrated to Europe, such as pianist Chris McGregor.

“What has always hindered the development of South African jazz is that everyone with talent and ambition tried their luck elsewhere. Not surprisingly in a country where Apartheid dominated for so long. Chris McGregor was white, but his belt was black. That man could hardly play here. Even now, when conditions are better, many musicians are moving to New York or London. ‘

Nduduzo Makhathini: 'Spirituality is not a dirty word, I do not think music can do without it.'  Statue of Hugh Mdlalose

Nduduzo Makhathini: ‘Spirituality is not a dirty word, I do not think music can do without it.’Statue of Hugh Mdlalose

Makhathini himself traveled to New York in 2005 to, as he says, in practice see what he had learned. “Then it started commuting back and forth between the continents,” he says. The pianist learned to play a lot together, formed several bands, but returned to his homeland with some regularity. ‘I understand American jazz, I feel especially attracted to the spiritual side. But I also cannot live without the music of my own ancestors, which can still be heard everywhere. Song lines, endless rhythmic repetitions and the vitality that is the core of the Ntu philosophy that underlies my music. Ntu is basically a holistic philosophy: we are all influenced by each other, everyone has a spiritual side. I want to find them and reveal them with my music. ‘

Big words that, according to Makhathini, are in no way understood by everyone. ‘It is not necessary. Music itself can do its job. Listen to Coltrane or Shabaka and you will hear their story without words. Spirituality is not a dirty word, I do not think music can do without it. It is on the rise here in South Africa, but too few people notice it. I see it as my job to get our music heard as much as possible and to make connections to other jazz forms. ‘

The album In the Spirit of Ntu Makhathini made in South Africa with – for him – partly new musicians. It’s a fine selection of what the country has to offer in terms of jazz, but it’s actually a coincidence. Originally, Makhathini wanted to record his album in New York, with his countrymen and with American musicians such as saxophonist Logan Richardson. ‘Then we got the omikron variant of covid here, so that party was canceled. They saw us coming, a group of South Africans from the hearth of the pandemic. I do not think.’

Getting the American musicians to Johannesburg was not an option either, because ‘half of South Africa was in riots’. Many mainly black South Africans live on the poverty line and suffered the effects of the corona crisis. This led to discontent, rebellion and looting.

So Makhathini formed his own band and took the increasingly intense sound with him In the Spirit of Ntu on. Steaming with energy, Makhathini’s wife Omagugu moves in Mother an ode to his recently deceased mother, and eventually oppressive if Makhathini’s constantly repeated piano chords just don’t stop. †Senza ‘Nina continues in ntu, it seems like two songs with the same piano chords. But in reality, I just couldn’t stop playing. My band thought: we’re done, but I kept going. I closed my eyes, was in a trance and only realized after five minutes that no one was playing. Quite magical, such a moment where you forget everything for a while and really are in another world. Then you have briefly touched on the essence of jazz. ‘

NDuduzo Makhathini plays in Missouri on Friday, July 8 at 22:30.

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