/ 5 June 2022

A new wave of jazz is blowing through Mzansi

Considered: The Covid-19 lockdowns gave Thandi Ntuli (above) time to reflect on her music – and self-reflect – using yoga as a way to achieve this.

Each generation of Mzansi jazz musicians has felt the need to pay homage to the ones who came before. Take Hugh Masekela: before he became the globe-trotting heavyweight whose sonic exploits landed him at the top of the American charts in the 1960s and a township jazz icon who set the 1990s on fire with hit after hit of reworked kasi folk vibrancy, he was a young cat who came up the Marabi ranks, touring with renowned jazz players of his time. After forming the Jazz Epistles, Bra Hugh found his way to the United States with Bra Todd Matshikiza’s King Kong cast. Then, at Miles Davis’s insistence, he found his voice and soared.

Throughout the 1990s, as Jonas Gwangwa, Miriam Makeba and others were also returning home after spending several years in exile, Bra Hugh found a new cast of players such as Moses Taiwa Molelekwa, who joined him on a countrywide tour. Yet, we forget how much ire Molelekwa faced from the “is it jazz?” people when he unleashed the still-fiery Genes & Spirits, ushering in a new sound that fused traditional jazz structures with drum and bass and kwaito. It is undeniable that he was a pathfinder for South Africa’s new wave jazz artists. Molelekwa died of suicide 21 years ago. 

The past decade has seen an influx of new artists. The pattern has been the same as their predecessors. Post-pandemic, the sound of Mzansi’s jazz and improvised music front-runners is inching towards something new, exciting, something revolutionary and refreshing.

Nduduzo Makhathini’s Modes of Communication (2020), released under the US record label Blue Note Records, was to be his initiation to the American market. But all plans were thwarted by the pandemic, and it ended up being a soft launch instead, amassing sizable numbers on streaming platforms such as Spotify. One of the lead singles from that album, Indawu, sits at about 665 000 streams, a first for the artist who wants to build a community outside of genre considerations. 

Nduduzo Makhathini’s latest contribution to the world of jazz is ‘In The Spirit of Ntu’ and the album’s opener, ‘Unonkanyamba’, uses Chopi rhythms. Photos: Siphiwe Mhlambi

His new album is his 10th and was released on 27 May, eight years after his debut offering, Sketches of Tomorrow (2014). He has already toured in the US (New York and Los Angeles) and Europe (Germany, France) to promote it. Titled In The Spirit of Ntu, it’s a body of work “situated on feminine energy”.

“The thoughts that inspired the album were really stemming from my long-time search for locatedness: what does it mean to live in a place that has histories — disrupted histories? Where do we go? What are some of those erased histories; where are they; how do we find them; who is there to guide us? The follow-up question was: if we were to find this place where our ancestors danced, what would it mean to play those places? What would it mean to project sound from that kind of cosmological situatedness,” says Makhathini, in a WhatsApp voice note a few days before his album’s release. 

His search led him to Ntu, a concept that underpins all living things. 

“All living things in an African context, based on the Bantu people, have what they call [a] vital force, and that is Ntu. Everything has spirit assets, and that is what really governed the relations between nature, people and sounds. It’s really about being aware of where we are, of our own notions of time; being aware of our own relationships between us and the environment; it’s about being aware of all the disruptions, and refusing to collapse our own philosophies within those conflicts and brutalities that we’ve experienced,” explains Makhathini. 

The album’s opener, Unonkanyamba, employs Chopi rhythms he was introduced to while working on guitarist Jimmy Dludlu’s History In a Frame record. 

“This is about the Earth and how it’s regulated … energy-wise. She’s a mystical being. She governs water. She works alongside uNomkhubulwane (the Zulu goddess of rain, nature and fertility), the moon and, of course, they all work closely with the sun,” he says. 

Makhathini says that they used to associate inkanyamba (the deity of tornadoes taking the form of a black snake) with masculine energy, “because of the power when it arises, or when it emerges from the ground. But the more I think about it, there’s an energy of birth there. So I decided to put the ‘No’, which relates to the feminine: uNothando, Nomagugu. I put that as a prefix, just to question how we always associate power with masculinity”. 

The second single, Senze’Nina, is based on a mother. “Senze-nina, re-create us, is referring to the mother, going back to the womb, seeing the disruptions and how [we as] men have lost something of essence that pushes us to commit all of these brutalities and pain to our sisters, our wives, our daughters,” he says. 

But Makhathini is not alone in this revolution of evolution, he is part of a growing group of daring, ambitious and intentional jazz musicians in South Africa. 

In Johannesburg, at a gig held at the Untitled Basement on 20 May, pianist, composer and producer Bokani Dyer was joined by Bonj Mpanza on vocals, Leagan Starchild Breda on drums, Sthembiso Bhengu on trumpet, Keenan Ahrends on guitars and Sibusiso Sibanyoni on bass. It’s the first time he’s presenting music from his forthcoming project, Radio Sechaba, on which he’s been working for the past three years. 

All that jazz: Pianist, composer and producer Bokani Dyer’s latest project is ‘Radio Sechaba’, which is about nation building and personal freedom. Photo: Siphiwe Mhlambi

In the interim, he released a solo album, Kelenosi, launched it at the Untitled Basement in August 2020, and appeared on the Indaba Is (2021) compilation released on the United Kingdom-based Brownswood Recordings label. 

“[Radio Sechaba] is basically a project that is looking at the idea of nation building, [and] where we are at right now as South African society; and also to lend a voice on issues that I feel need to be addressed more. It’s basically music that’s looking at community, about love — for self and for others — and also about personal freedoms,” he says during a brief chat at a rehearsal a day before the show. 

Among the songs he mentions are the dancing and prancing Mogaetsho, which is a menacing, tongue-in-cheek condemnation aimed at the corrupt government officials who have done, and continue to do, acts that go against the notion of community-building in his project. 

In true Dyer fashion, the compositions are brilliant. But so is the songwriting, which is so powerful that it’s hard to deny him a spot as one of the greats from this generation of music heads. Check Mogaetsho, on which he sings: “O filwe maatla ke batho, ba go tshepa go supa tsela/ go rileng mogaetsho, nkare khumo di tlhakantse tlhogo/ balatedi ba timetse/ go rileng mogaetsho [You were given power by the people/ they trusted you to lead the way/ what’s happening my guy, it seems material possessions have got to your head/ the people’s faith in you has waned, what’s happening my guy?]” 

Resonance follows immediately after his speech. It has a driving Afrobeat that wouldn’t be out of place if performed at the Kuti’s Kalakuta compound in Lagos. Sample lyrics: “Stop looking out too far, try listening within/ follow the resonance of truth, live in liberation/”. Bonj’s harmonies augment the emotional effect of the bridge — “Who are you living for?/ What are they asking for?/ Trying to be everyone’s favourite weighs you down everyday.” 

It sounds like one of those tunes that a lot of people will resonate with due to their simplicity.

It would be unjust to not consider the impact of Covid-19 on the music releases emerging at the moment, as well as the innovations and sound directions composers and performers of improvised music are making. But is it jazz? Should anyone care? And what is jazz, anyway?

Thandi Ntuli recorded the follow-up to her sophomore album, Exiled, in February. She broke down some of the production decisions and the events around its making, during a conversation on the second day of recording.

Considered: The Covid-19 lockdowns gave Thandi Ntuli (above) time to reflect on her music – and self-reflect – using yoga as a way to achieve this.

“I think of Exiled as my initiation album because that’s when I really started becoming aware of my processes that feel good for me. They don’t always stay the same. In this particular moment, [pre-production] has included a lot of [music-making software] Logic work myself. I’ve got a little setup at home that I’ve been wanting to have for a while, but Covid helped me speed that up. That’s kind of helped me to think like a producer, with less rehearsals with a band and all that. But it’s also been challenging to work that way, because sometimes you get used to the ideas that you put on the computer, and then you’re just trying to make a band to sound [like that]. That’s something that I realised and it made me pull back from that version, and try to go in with a clear mind,” says Ntuli. 

She also spent lockdown focusing on her yoga practice, which has no doubt shaped her general approach to life and music.

Ntuli notes “that lockdown helped me reflect on how things had been up until then. Artistically, I was getting to a place where I was feeling stuck in terms of practising [and] writing. For a long time, I couldn’t listen to jazz. Not because I don’t love jazz, I think it’s because I was just like ‘am I doing exactly what I wanted to do?’ It just got to that point where I was reflecting hard and asking myself questions, and working it out. [I also] did a lot of work on myself, facing myself in ways that you never really get to when life is on the move and you’re busy and you’re distracted. It was good. I did a yoga teacher training course for three months and it was intense. Yoga has a way of revealing yourself to you, so it was really like ‘hey girl, this is who you are, watchu gon do ’bout it?’”

The musicians who play in each others’ outfits are lending South African improvised music its gravitas. Ntuli has in her band Shane Cooper, on whose Mabuta project Dyer plays keys. The group’s new project, a funk-laden odyssey infused with influences from other work Cooper has been doing, notably his experimental project Happenstance (with Gontse Makhene and Cara Stacey featuring on the list of collaborators) and Quarantine Collabs, which featured his old bandmate Ronan Skillen, as well as Sisonke Xonti and Guy Buttery. Building and expanding this community has been essential in shifting the mentality that jazz can only have one sound, and nothing more, anything different is deemed as sacrilege.

As Cooper told the Mail & Guardian recently, the building blocks on the new Mabuta album, Finish the Sun, were riffs built off “inspirations of various music from Africa. The chords are built around that [African music] inspiration, even without me thinking too much about where it comes from necessarily, all the time.” 

If that ain’t jazz, then I don’t know what to tell ya.