While trumpeter Ndabo Zulu was studying at the Norwegian Academy of Music (from 2017 to 2019) and building on the idea that would become his opus, Queen Nandi The African Symphony, he followed a train of thought that led him on a quest that is gestured at, as opposed to concluded, by his album.
In writing and performing the material as part of two sextets, one Norwegian and the other South African, Zulu noticed distinct differences in approach, intensity and accuracy — differences that, once acknowledged, meant that he had to centre Nguni musical orchestration, thereby enabling it to have a deeper conversation with the idiom of jazz.
Zulu considered the influence of colonialism: how it promoted staff notation and the tonic sofa methods, thereby annulling and subsuming indigenous musical approaches.
“So, I wanted to start an ensemble that could potentially be an orchestra — with instruments like the piano, the trumpet, and the saxophone — which would include instruments from the Nguni culture,” says Zulu when we meet on a balmy Thursday afternoon in Pretoria, alluding to the fact that his mission is far from complete. “With every research [project] you have a timeline and with every timeline you have to bite as much as you can chew.”
The ensemble that recorded the opulent Queen Nandi, therefore, should be seen as the foundational steps of a project that ultimately seeks to wrestle jazz from its oft-touted association with Western classical music.
Recorded with a group that twins drummers (Ayanda Sikade and Sphelelo Mazibuko), pianists (Nduduzo Makhathini and Afrika Mkhize), horn players (Zulu and Linda Sikhakhane) and percussionists (Njabulo Shabalala and El Hadj Ngari Ndong), Queen Nandi is as celebratory as it is excavatory. In this ambitious project, co-produced by Derrick Hodge and Nduduzo Makhathini (who also directs the project), there are other, significant role players as well, including vocalist Zoë Modiga, bassist Shane Cooper and trombone player Siya Charles.
In the album, Zulu’s debut, he aims at a form of musical storytelling that incorporates Nguni ritualistic drumming within primarily jazz compositions, while simultaneously honouring oral storytelling.
“All of that 1-4-5 stuff came with the missionaries,” he says. “It’s a cadence that comes from the West. So the music we are playing now has to move with the times already. We were not gonna start from scratch. So the influences that I come with right now — they come from everywhere”. Through the employment of amahubo, praise singing and idioms (precisely, izaga), Mbuso Khoza imbues a historicity to the proceedings. “We need the vocal and the linguistic part of things for people to understand what we were trying to bring to the table,” says Zulu.
All these role players, guided by Zulu’s intricate compositions, create a dramatic atmosphere to the project, where each part propels the narrative premise.
“The musicians know how to complement the music,” says Zulu. “We all know our strengths and weaknesses because we treat the bandstand as a communal space. So when I write the music, I can immediately hear how each musician should be playing on which section of the album. I’m not gonna force it now because it is my album.”
Although Zulu plays on seven of the 13 tracks, the unity with which the album unfolds neither stifles nor foregrounds his role as band leader.
As to why he chose to tell the story of Queen Nandi, Zulu says, “I’ve never heard of someone, at least in the Nguni culture, who was called a queen because her son was called a king. And Shaka took a lot of advice from his mom, and she took her son and ran with him to exile, wahamba wayohlala naye ekudingisweni, and came back with him when he rose up
“And when Queen Nandi passed on, Shaka was so devastated. Some, if not all, of his strength came from his mother,” Zulu says. “For me, Queen Nandi is ukhokho wami [my ancestor] because nami ngowakwaZulu, so I thought what better way to commemorate her. Everybody knows about Shaka but not everyone can speak of his mom.”
Despite the presence of spoken text, the album bears no traces of a linear, biographical tale. Instead, through Khoza’s vocal intervention, as well that of Modiga on the expressive Ucu Olum’nyama, we are able to imagine the sociopolitical context and the emotional texture of Queen Nandi’s world. One layer of how this is achieved has to do with the indispensable role bestowed on the drums.
In the album’s liner notes, Makhathini speaks of the drums as evoking the true spirit of umgidi, or a ceremonial celebration. I witnessed this at a performance at the Untitled Basement in Braamfrontein, during which the hard-driving music on Nandi’s Suite gradually gave way to ecstatic drumming, seeming spontaneously to invite the audience into a dance-driven ritual.
“Even with another part of that Nandi’s Suite [the opening track], I am bringing a time signature that is quite unique to the people,” says Zulu.
“I’ve noticed that in most of the gigs that we have played, when we get to the part of ‘uShaka akashayeki’ [uShaka is untouchable] people come to the front basine [a style of Zulu dance] and figure out when they get to the front that, actually, ‘ngiyabimba mangisina [I am out of step], what’s the reason?’ but it’s the five.”
“Isigubhu masingena [When the percussion comes in] makes it sound so natural, but we have the five in our music, so I bring these small melodies, [as a way of storytelling] because the album itself is called Queen Nandi The African Symphony.
“Nandi is the main theme of the [whole] thing — even the last song is a duo of the Rhodes and the trumpet, [but] it’s still the same chord changes.”
Judging from the manner in which audiences are responding to the music, Zulu may have inadvertently created a sound that is crossover-ready without even trying.
“There was research done in 2009 [by King’s College, London] and it proves that music is embedded in our DNA. So if I play a song and ngifaka isgubhu kuyona [add percussion], you can’t help it. In most places that we play, a lot of the people are not huge jazz followers. I quite doubt that when we pack up a place it’s people that collect jazz, no. It’s people who have just heard there’s a live concert, it might be good, let’s go check it out, but they find themselves enjoying the music.
Queen Nandi The African Symphony succeeds in rerouting a conversation in South African music that has sometimes been skewed by geopolitics. In the liner notes for the project, Makhathini makes the observation that in comparison to other regions, such as Cape Town, the Eastern Cape and Sophiatown, the Nguni idiom has never quite had its moment.
With a powerful debut that, by and large, rallies the best that KwaZulu-Natal has to offer, both in terms of musicians and the rich oral history, Ndabo succeeds in changing the terms on which that conversation is had, in the context of jazz and beyond.
Better still, as a work of historical text, the album begins to advance a historiography of a figure who is often referenced but seldom emerges from the platitudes so readily bestowed on her. Zulu’s quest to establish a platform for Nguni musics that will see them notated out of their erasure, though, is just beginning.