Ayanda Sikade is not a tall man in stature. In fact, on some bandstands, he seems to disappear behind the drum kit and then into the music. Perhaps in defiance of this physicality, the man is nothing short of a towering figure in contemporary South African jazz history; the gold standard for intuition, elegance and creating a safe and unobtrusive space for the collective to thrive.
I’ve taken to calling him the silent assassin, a magician capable of sounding ubiquitous and absent all at the same time.
His album Movements, a 10-track snapshot of his deft touch, profoundly expresses his unique place in South Africa’s jazz scene, in which he harnesses the energy and contribution of others into a cohesive whole. Here, the drummer is neither timekeeper nor overlord but bone, flesh and the very air that all the musicians breathe.
Take your pick, but an instructive, recent example of Sikade’s approach, I would argue, is also to be found in the elaborate opening song of collaborator Nduduzo Makhathini’s album Ikhambi. A huge part of what gives Amathambo its interpretive power is how Sikade is able to sketch its premise in real time, as if he were a painter, not so much within the band as parallel to it.
“I think it goes back to how I started playing music, from the beginning,” says Sikade at his home one evening. “The instrument is only available when there is music. So, your approach towards music is not being an instrumentalist, as in, ‘I will just play these drums and master the drums’, as if there is no music. The drums play the music, so there should be music first, and then I play the drums.
“Everything I do is influenced by the music. So whatever I’m doing, I try to play within the music. So, the drums become the saxophone and the piano.”
Although Sikade — a University of KwaZulu-Natal alumnus — can read music, he prefers not to, at least not in the conventional way. His sensitivity and attunement to his surroundings come from listening to musicians’ contributions by ear before retaining them in his memory.
“How I play with everybody in the band, it’s because I’m listening to everything that is going on,” he says. “To have an impact on the sound you need ears, because you must listen to what you’re doing.”
According to Makhathini, who is credited as an assistant producer on Movements, Sikade’s philosophies are, to a large extent, drawn from those of the hugely influential Zim Ngqawana, the master thinker, flautist and saxophonist who recruited the pair into his fold a few years before his death in 2011.
“Ah man, there’s a word for it; ubaba Zim used it a lot. Ukuhlabela,” he says, over the phone at OR Tambo airport. “This idea yokuhlabela. In music there are melodies that can be written on charts, but there is something that happens beyond, where a musician brings their experiences to the music and sort of embellishes the melodies. It also comes from Zionist church traditions. uSikade really uses this a lot and it is something that he says quite a lot to his horn players: ‘Sibali, awuke uyihlabele [could you make this melody your own]. I think that’s part of what Ayanda took from bra Zim.”
As Sikade tells the story, he was at Zim’s beck and call when the elder left his teaching post at the University of KwaZulu-Natal, helping to recruit other young gunners to form a new nucleus around the mutating swirl of Zimology.
The informal camp Ngqawana set up on a plot in the south of Johannesburg, called the Zimology Institute, included the likes of Makhathini, Sikade, pianist Kyle Shepherd, bassist Shane Cooper, Sakhile Moleshe and horn player Mthunzi Mvubu.
“Bra Zim, for me, he was able to take out that excitement about playing music and replace it with seriousness,” he says. “You could just be serious about music and be content. You could basically die after playing a gig sometimes. The way you feel so content and ready. You don’t want to eat, you don’t want nothing. You are fine. That’s the best time to cut out in the world.”
Despite its June 2018 launch, Sikade’s album was recorded in March 2010, with a line-up that included Herbie Tsoaeli on bass, Makhathini on piano (and Fender Rhodes electric piano) and Mvubu on alto and soprano saxophones. Other players include trombonist Malcolm Jiyane on two selections, Sidney Mavundla on trumpet (on Ilungelo), Nhlanhla Mahlangu on tenor and soprano saxophones as well as Feya Faku on his own composition, titled Blues for Abadala.
The eight-year lag between the recording and release dates has something to do with Sikade’s reluctance to parade himself as band leader, perhaps an understandable position for a drummer. But it is also mired in controversy and, perhaps, disputes of a philosophical kind that tainted its recording process. Without becoming bogged down by the specifics of it, the end result was that, for three years after the recording process, Sikade could not bring himself to listen to it.
But assistant producer Makhathini played a significant role in coaxing Sikade to appreciate the momentousness and quiet, seismic force of the project.
Sikade fell back in love with the project over the course of private listening moments, some in the presence of Makhathini and others during phone conversations. “The ear learns to appreciate,” says Sikade.
Over the course of the 10 tracks, there is little not to appreciate. There is Sikade, channelling his major influence, Elvin Jones, with an even more subtle show of power in a drum solo at the tail-end of Blues for Abadala.
There is emotive yearning for home in Zimkhitha, the emotional edges tempered by the nostalgic tones of Makhathini’s touch on the Fender Rhodes, only to be stirred up again by Mvubu and Mahlangu’s solos.
I tell Sikade that in the initial moments of popping the music into the CD player, there was something about the song Zimkhitha that tugged at me, knowing full well that the title bears the name of his family’s last-born.
He launches into its creation story. “When we thought ukuthi i o’lady was done with children, then uZimkhitha came,” he recalls. “And I just loved her a lot. So Zimkhitha was born while I was in Natal (which was one of the big transitions in my life, hence the title of the album, Movements). I came alone with no friends, no one. So, sometimes I would miss home and I’d think of Zimkhitha, playing with her. I had this beautiful tune I used to play on the piano that I used to like; I just thought to name it after her.”
Movements holds fast to Sikade’s ideals of honouring his place within the jazz idiom, while tipping his hat to the contributions of locale and the wider South African heritage and culture.
It is a distinct celebration of the modal approach as the shrinker of cultural differences.
But if you are looking for a drummer who leads from the front, who is boisterous and showy, this is the wrong stage. Sikade disappears into the spirit of the music, allowing compositions and innovations by much of the personnel he handpicked to join him in studio to come forward.
The result is an articulate album, with back stories for days and a devotional reverence for the past, present and future.