Makhathini’s prolific pianism

Forever in the lab: Nduduzo Makhathini has released seven albums since 2014. His eighth will be released in two months’ time. (Delwyn Verasamy)

Forever in the lab: Nduduzo Makhathini has released seven albums since 2014. His eighth will be released in two months’ time. (Delwyn Verasamy)

On a Sunday night a few days ago, I had the luck of turning on the radio as strains of Nduduzo Makhathini’s At Your Feet Oh Lord filtered through the airwaves. A slow piano dirge that opens the album Inner Dimensions, it promises a gradual build-up but delays this, as if forcing you to bear witness to the faded life of a loved one.

The album, a collaboration done in Switzerland, is subtitled Umgidi Trio and the One Voice Ensemble.

The title [At Your Feet Oh Lord] is suggestive of one entering a different realm, even more so when, about a third through the song, the One Voice Ensemble enters the fray, harmonising over the melody as if preparing a fallen hero for the path of ascension. It is here that the song soars and then plateaus again in preparation for one final rite, in the form of a jubilant vocal send-off.

In a jaded world where so much comes at us at full speed but little is properly digested, it felt as if — after all the times I have seen him on stage — I was, for the first time, hearing Makhathini as opposed to merely listening to him. So tempered is the experience of listening to music that it feels like setting has a lot to do with how the sound is received.

In the case of Makhathini’s prolific output, the hundreds of songs he has written function as medicine stocked up in a dispensary, waiting to pounce on any ensuing ailment. Or, to use his outlook, the songs are part of a holistic wellness chamber accessible to all who gravitate towards it.

On that Sunday night on the M1 highway, perhaps I felt this inexplicable pull and an irreversible pang coursed through me.

This year, Inner Dimensions won Makhathini a South African Music Award in the best jazz album category, after nominations for Listening to the Ground in 2016 and Mother Tongue in 2015. Accolades do not strike me as important for this composer, producer and band leader.

As bass player Banda Banda stated on air during their appearance on Kaya FM DJ Nicky B’s World Show on Sunday night, it is more about being in tune with the message than celebrating the messenger.

Conscious of this, and in keeping with this tradition in jazz, Makhathini’s canon is full of odes to places and people, perhaps as a way of forging connections and empathy among people who may never get to meet each other.

Mother Tongue, for example, opens with Maqongqo, a brisk, celebratory song that fades out before hitting the two-minute mark.

I pick it purely because I only ever went to this mountainous settlement near Pietermaritzburg once — in the dead of night — and woke up to its full, breathtaking beauty in the harshness of a winter morning. And then I was gone, never to see it again.

That hike, filled with precarious walks along high, narrow mountain paths, stayed with me for a good while before receding into my memory bank. Makhathini’s brief ode suddenly brought the place back to life, forcing me to reckon with its history as a pivotal site of battle for the soul of the Zulu kingdom in 1840.

Since 2014 Makhathini has released seven albums, with another one called Ikhambi coming in two months. Over the course of his career, he has written hundreds of songs for other artists and produced about 50 albums for others, most notably Thandiswa Mazwai’s Belede, a recording in which he plays piano alongside drummer Sidney Mnisi and bass player Herbie Tsoaeli.

Over and above this, Makhathini teaches music at the University of Fort Hare, is a recording musician managing his own music career, is an avid sideman as well as a family man helping to raise three children with his wife, singer Omagugu Makhathini.

“For me I see music as ukwelapha [the healing arts]. So for as long as we have these turmoils going around the world and people are still struggling for freedom, there is a need to write a song.

“I don’t think so much about how the music will eventually get to the people, in terms of the release dates,” he says.

“Sometimes it takes a lot of energy … but all these albums are just responses to an inner voice that speaks to me, the messages I get from the ancestors but also responses to what is happening around me and an urgent need for healing which is at the core of me being an artist. It is trying to play my part in this idea of a new humanism that we seek for.”

I got a glimpse of this in the song Sobantu, another tune off Inner Dimensions named for a township near Pietermaritzburg, the city where the artist grew up.

Speaking about the township’s history on air, Makhathini was generous, mentioning both his active seeking out of the litany of unacknowledged “hippest cats” who lived in the township (among them guitar legend Themba Mokoena) and the rapport that Bishop John Colenso developed with the people of the area who bestowed on him the name Sobantu.

The sonorous, marabi-like blues number may immediately bring up yet another salutation, From an Old Bag of Mkhumbane, named for another guitar mecca where Makhathini’s grandfather was born. Healing and sonic cartography is at the heart of Makhathini’s practice. He has recently completed a thesis on the life and work of exiled
South African piano legend Bheki Mseleku.

If one gets the feeling that Makhathini is channelling the entire diaspora yet remaining rooted in a specific cultural milieu, put that down to Mseleku, who taught the young Makhathini at the Durban University of Technology’s music department during a period when the musician had returned from Europe.

“I just think ubab’ uMseleku grew up listening to the same kinds of music I was listening to, having come from KZN [KwaZulu-Natal],” he says.

“Izangoma, all the different ceremonies and rituals that come with their repertoires and all of that. He was the most natural influence that I first heard, but ubab’ uAbdullah [Ibrahim] also contributes in defining African jazz piano. He has written so much music and we grew up listening to it. Someone like Moses Molelekwa as well, who died really early, but I thought his contribution was quite big.

“But I don’t only look at those people when I think about my piano playing. I look at other keyboard players who are not necessarily directly linked to jazz music but have managed to expand the language of keyboard playing in South Africa.”

Makhathini considers “Black Moses” Ngwenya from the mbaqanga group Soul Brothers
as having given organ playing in South Africa a completely new vocabulary.

Another performer Makhathini celebrates is late accordion player and jester Vusi Ximba, whose rambunctious, lilting style he channels in the song Igagu, off 2017 solo piano collection Reflections. “The vocab of South African pianism is also partly defined by all the other stylistics within South African styles of playing the keyboard.”

Very much a physical player, Makhathini hunches, almost contorting himself around the instrument, but the sound he produces is often self-controlled rather than unhinged ecstatic abandon. Some criticism of his album Listening to the Ground is that Makhathini does not solo enough on the album, aiming instead for a cathartic “dissolving” into the music.

As a neophyte to his rapidly expanding canon, I suspect it may be this tension between the strictures of the instrument and Makhathini’s flowing spirit that, in part, gives him his unique, contained sound.

“When we started trying to make sense of Western classical instruments, then we really came across bigger problems in terms of like almost colonising these instruments and trying to figure out what they mean to us,” he says, after telling me how umakhweyana was designed for women as the string bow resonator sits neatly on the breast.

“I had to find my own way of defining that instrument [the piano], as opposed to a person in Europe who can say this instrument was built by my grandfather so it is part of our legacy.”

Makhathini’s body language on the instrument is often suggestive of a man literally at war with the instrument and, at the same time, of a man aware of its possibilities as a divination tool. He duels, teases, caresses, coaxes and implores it.

“This whole idea of packaging ubungoma has been really in my mind a lot,” he says. “I thought of it as amathambo [bones]. You know, isangoma masibhula [when a sangoma divines], silahla amathambo phansi [they throw bones on the floor].

“This is how I see the instrument as well, because it uses ivories. So I started thinking about what ivories are and what indlovu [an elephant] represents to my people amaZulu. When someone says ‘wena wendlovu’, it means the highest. Being isangoma and using the ivories ukubhula [to divine] has to be one of the most progressive things to have happened to ubungoma in a long time. This is how I see the instrument.”

On June 17 Nduduzo Makhathini will join American-Jamaican pianist Monty Alexander and the Harlem-Kingston express, South African pianist Thandi Ntuli and American vocalist Kurt Eiling in the second iteration of the Durban International Jazz Extravaganza at the International Convention Centre. Visit ije.co.za

Kwanele Sosibo

Kwanele Sosibo

Kwanele Sosibo studied journalism at Durban's ML Sultan Technikon before working at Independent Newspapers from 2000 to 2003. In 2005, he joined the Mail & Guardian's internship programme and later worked as a reporter at the paper between 2006 and 2008, before working as a researcher. He was the inaugural Eugene Saldanha Fellow in 2011. Read more from Kwanele Sosibo

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