Dawn is yet to break when photographer Siphiwe Mhlambi makes his way to Soweto. He parks his car by the roadside and leaps over the metal barrier to conduct a recce of the area below. This, he has decided, will be the location of the day’s event, a photoshoot for Nduduzo Makhathini’s forthcoming album. It’s the ninth the acclaimed pianist and composer will be releasing in a career that has enabled him to associate freely with luminaries in and outside Mzansi’s jazz scene.
Makhathini is not hard to miss. A distinguished figure with a fully realised beard and a mpandlana that peeks out of his permanently behatted head to marvel at his sonorous laughter, he arrives some moments later, and parks his vehicle not far from Mhlambi’s. He carries a change of clothes over to the location of our office for this morning.
A train makes its way towards Jozi on the tracks above as the flow of early morning traffic intensifies. Soweto is waking up, as is the sun that is threatening to break free from its slumber shortly. The photoshoot commences: Makhathini positions himself on the rocks in accordance with Mhlambi’s directions. Later he’ll immerse himself wholly in water.
By his own account, Makhathini’s a regular cat from the hood. He doesn’t like origin stories much —the ones that demand of Africans to construct heart-wrenching, rags-to-riches narratives. And this is where the puzzle lies. A cat who can be a present parent to three kids, obtain a master’s degree while heading up the music faculty at the University of Fort Hare, gig frequently in and outside the country, produce albums for other artists — that’s not some regular shit.
But wait until you check out his incessant social media activity and read his thoughts on healing, rendered as recollections on his personal blog, and then you’ll realise that “regular” is an obscenely misplaced label for him.
Have you seen him play the piano? Pantsulas were found gnashing their teeth at the free-flow of his foot routine. Even Thelonius Monk can attest to the fluidity, the ease with which he taps the floor while improvising.
But Monk is gone. As are Bheki Mseleku, Zim Ngqawana, Moses Molelekwa, Cecil Taylor and Randy Weston. McCoy Tyner remains the only one alive of his great line of teachers.
An attempt to grasp Makhathini fully implies an attempt at understanding the regular hood dude whose family went on an exodus from eMaqongqo to eMbali because of the ANC-IFP fratricide that threatened to result in a stillborn rainbow nation before 1994.
This wasn’t the first time factional violence had erupted. The Battle of Maqongqo in 1840, for instance, was how iNkosi uMpande eventually came to rule AmaZulu following his defeat of his brother, iNkosi uDingane, who was murdered while fleeing towards Eswatini after the massive defeat of his troops.
Improvisation is how Makhathini realises his gift of healing. And if the understanding is that he also was affected by the violence of the 1990s, then it should stand that the process of ubungoma is as essential for us as it is for him; that improvisation is how he finds healing, in the same manner that we do when we listen to his music, or watch him perform it as ritual.
‘When I was given the gift from a young age, it was given through water. According to how people read it, I actually drowned,” says Makhathini, speaking from the SABC’s M3 recording studios. He continues: “The elders in the village said, ‘It’s impossible for someone to drown for a long period of time, and come back with an empty tummy.’ So already, at that point, I was taken to the underworlds. So this record is my second visit to the underworlds.”
Makhathini has assembled a stellar cast of musicians to assist in realising Modes of Communication, forthcoming from the Blue Note label early next year. Our chat happens on the second morning of a three-day recording marathon.
The latter half of day one, photo shoot day, was spent setting up recording mics and performing ancestral rituals at the studio in preparation for the work ahead. Special guests came and went over the course of the musical feast. Among them were bra Ike Phaahla, a renowned broadcaster and supporter of acoustic jazz from days long gone; Bokani Dyer, a kindred spirit whose own journey deserves a heavy nod; bassist Zwelakhe-Duma Bell le Pere’s father, who regaled the sessions with tales of picking up his son from school in New York City; and Makhathini’s three children, who accompanied their mom, Omagugu Makhathini, to record her feature on a joint called Yehlisan’umoya.
An established artist and teacher in her own right, Omagugu’s role in the success of her partner’s career is paramount. The volume of projects Makhathini has released since signing to the Universal Music Group has declined — only one album, Ikhambi, since 2017 — but his productive streak since his 2014 debut as bandleader, together with the accolades that resulted from that work rate, are due to the central role his wife played. At one point, they were shipping more than 5 000 copies of each album from their home, released under their indie imprint called Gundu Entertainment.
His wife, Omagugu Makhatini, has featured on most of Nduduzo Makhathini’s albums. (Siphiwe Mhlambi)
During the conversation in the drum room located in a corner of the studio, Makhathini says: “The thing about Omagugu is that she’s such an amazing singer and someone so great — an amazing spiritual being and a master, actually. She’s sacrificed so much of her time contributing to my work. [Modes of Communication] is my ninth record, and she is on almost [all of them]. The kinds of contributions that she brings are just so enormous. It’s something so special.”
Omagugu’s voice — warm and inviting, gracious and full of love, classically trained yet seeking to challenge academic codes of vocal projection — paints artful hues on songs such as Love Story from Sketches of Tomorrow. It lights up the music notes with high-pitched flair on King of Kings and tones down the mood a few notches on How Sweet Thy Sound, both from Listening to the Ground. Her vocal range is Sarah Vaughan-meets-Busi Mhlongo. The latter’s influence is realised on Yehlisan’umoya, in which Omagugu’s approach rattles generously with a gravity-defying, gratuitous grumble that recalls the original Urban Zulu’s incantations in song.
That Makhathini played on umam’ uBusi Mhlongo’s last album before she departed from Earth suggests a profound connection. And although he may be associated with the “jazz” label, the improviser points out that his aim is to transcend that barrier.
“I think genre was brought [about] by the coloniser trying to understand their people. The compartments were necessary for them, but not for us,” he says, after a night during which the diligent Afro-soul voice of MXO features on a radical interpretation of Emaphusheni.
The hymnal adaptations serve as a reminder that even when we express ourselves within the confines of worlds that other us, our modes of worship are brought into question — from iZayoni, to Maria ’Mabasotho and more. We are a people who don’t perceive ourselves as being greater than the messages that guide us.
This approach to composition has gifted Makhathini the range to produce outer-bounds work with changemakers like Msaki (she makes a guest appearance on Modes of Communication); Linda Sikhakhane and Ndabo Zulu, who form the horn section together with United States-based saxophonist Logan Richardson; and Umle, whose isi-Xhosa town fellow twist Makhathini describes as “speaking to abantu ekasi”.
From left to right, Linda Sikhakhane, Ndabo Zulu and Ayanda Sikade with Makhathini. (Siphiwe Mhlambi)
Makhathini was a session musician before his solo exploits writ large his buoyant compositional abilities. His early years in Jo’burg were spent earning income as a studio session musician and, at one point, as a member of Lebo Mathosa’s band. He also spent time at bra Zim Ngqawana’s Zimology Institute, and got to tour and appear on a number of recordings by the bandleader. He is the one playing piano on arguably the most important recording of our time: Bra Herbie Tsoaeli’s African Time.
‘The ideas of a commercial world are problematic when you’re dealing with these kinds of themes,” Makhathini says in reference to creating work beyond commercial imperatives. “This further speaks to some of the ideas around major record labels, for instance, being with [the Universal Music Group] and the kind of language used. I’m basically creating an archive, and the archive doesn’t need commercial success. When the San people were making rock art, they didn’t think about commercial success. They were documenting a story; they were creating an archive. So in terms of ‘How do I then live through my craft?’, the ancestors take care of that. The kind of light that has been shining towards the work for [the past 10 years] has been special. I have enough.”
Another figure who features on most of Makhathini’s albums and in his live performances is Ayanda Sikade, the Mdantsane-born drummer with whom he connected in the early 2000s while still a student at Technikon Natal (now the Durban University of Technology).
Profound connections: A composite image of Ayanda Sikade (left) and Nduduzo Makhathini (right). (Tseliso Monaheng)
During his two-day run at the Market Theatre in June last year, when he chose material from ubab’ uBheki Mseleku’s songbook, Makhathini narrated a story about how Sikhakhane and Zulu admired how Sikade and himself complemented one another musically. Seventeen years of playing together will do that.
This camaraderie extends beyond the bandstand. They communicate emotions through grunts and half-completed nothings. Sikade’s methods and mannerisms are exacting, domineering, while Makhathini plays off of that emotive tempo, filling in the grunts with knowing stares, shaking his head as though solving a taxing problem during the village imbizo at the local chief’s kraal. A “whoooo”, often followed by lively, heartfelt laughter, is never far off when the music slaps hard enough.
In between recording sessions, the band convene in the listening room for a playback of what they’ve just laid down. Sometimes discussions are about what can be improved on for the current take of a song; other times, after a democratic decision to move on, the discussions are about the form that the song will take. Beneath the Earth, with Msaki, inspires a monologue about transcendence and life on “the other side”.
“When I did Shwele from Icilongo, yaz’ iyangkhalisa because this is a code to a very ancient time, this scale,” he says, referring to the part he’s just sung on the song. “If you can go too deep, you might not come back, even. It might be the last thing you sing in your life. Kuthiwa, ‘Wa vele wathula; akaphindanga wakhuluma, akaphindanga wakhip’ ivoice’. What if that world opens? Will there be a need to sing? Will there be a need to play? There won’t be. I’m always willing to really let go and not come back. We talk about it with Sikhakhane. Someday we’ll be on the bandstand and we’re playing, and we’ll be gone. The audience will be sitting there, watching, and there’ll be no one on the bandstand.”
He’s deadly serious. Yet within that seriousness, within that perceptible ingenuity, within that broad academic scope underpinned by even broader ancestral messaging, Makhathini is an underrated comedian. It’s in the raucous moments following his innocuous declarations, when laughter wants to let loose, that true learning occurs. This ability to activate broad touch points to communicate one idea is what makes him a leader in this current era, and a figurehead of the generations that he’s inspiring. But, as he told SAfm’s Michelle Constant, the morning after his Market Theatre showcase, during which he read an excerpt from his thesis on the late, great master pianist Bheki Mseleku, he is not interested in being thought of as a leader.
“When ubab’ uMseleku was around at Technikon Natal, he was not one of the contract lecturers there. But he was a master, and we were his disciples. I think that somehow, as a disciple, you carry a bigger responsibility. So it’s beyond yourself. In terms of the jazz culture, even in the US, it’s important to always echo the voice of the ancestor. But it also connects me with a lot of what I believe as well about us drawing from the ancestry realm, and ubab’ uMseleku is definitely one of the ancestors that shone so much light to this music, and I draw a lot from him,” he said.
He deems it an honour whenever someone picks up McCoy Tyner, or Bheki Mseleku, or even Moses Molelekwa in his playing.
Musicians give the notes character. The vocalists give the lyrics meaning, through how they inflect, how they direct us the listeners through the notes — fraught with intense, layered, complex messages — and force us to appreciate the nuances. They simplify and decode as much as they build, complicate, solidify.
The music is also a dance: it’s Nduduzo dancing is’pantsula as he waves his hands in a moment of deep meditation, caught as he ever is in a revolving cast of different-shaped bones. The keys, the ebony and the ivory, represent ritualistic codes presented before the ancestors. The ancient spirits. The ones before before, when time was but a construct, and reality a continuum; a conversation between the living, the dead, the living-dead, and the liminal space that Makhathini (the healer), chooses to navigate through this music.
Modes of Communication is experimentalism through the pedagogical definition of a jazz that is free. Seeking. Finding. Erasing. Restructuring. It’s performative, as performative as the writing you are reading, the set of words on paper, arranged to please, to sway to the music and the thinking behind it. To obey and dictate at once. Then again, it’s collaboration: the letting down, the giving in, the contributing to. The selflessness is a given, almost. There are no prearranged notions, assumed outcomes, even if that’s what the notation may suggest.
Gontse Makhene joined the recording as a late addition, on the morning the record was being completed. He arrived bearing gifts, toys. He also came with a storied past. He shared these stories, he communed, he feasted, retrofitted into the scope that had been crafted, and brought out its more nuanced elements, until, eventually, all the modes and the nodes, all the notes had a solid base and a constant guide beyond the root of La Pere’s bass and the stroke of Sikade’s tough skins.
Sikade: you should see how he moved in the listening room; how his own contributions seemed, to him at least, meagre in comparison to the giants he was inadvertently guiding as the time-keeper. But keeping time isn’t what Sikade is preoccupied with. He’s like Max Roach in that way. His playing, distinctive and assertive, also functions as the cheerleader by the roadside, urging marathon runners — the horn section — to soldier on; to reach their highest heights, to surpass everything they knew up until that point.
What Makhathini does is to take all these contributions and guide them through the assembly line. He does this with grace and lets the finished product swallow us whole.
The mythical underworld and the cosmic interplanetary are in constant communication. These are the modes we speak of when speaking about this offering.
“Let’s go straight to the gig; we’ll do sound check as rehearsal,” are the words Makhathini says before heading back to Soweto for a show at Just Badela.