S2E6: Nduduzo Makhathini: An Instrumental Healer

January 25, 2023
IFC's Makhtar Diop and South African pianist Nduduzo Makhathini engage in a conversation on music, history and culture.

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In this episode of Creative Development with IFC, Makhtar Diop is in conversation with South African pianist Nduduzo Makhathini - the first African artist to be signed by the iconic jazz record label Blue Note. From Coltrane to African cosmology, the two engage in a thought provoking conversation driven by their mutual appreciation for music, history and culture.



Makhthar Diop: Hello and welcome to creative development with IFC. My name is Makhtar Diop, I am the Managing Director of the International Finance Corporation. Today, I have the great pleasure to welcome Nduduzo Makhathini. Nduduzo is a highly acclaimed South African pianist whose music is deeply inspired by his Zulu heritage. He has been called the most influential jazz musician from Africa and the future of jazz. A prolific composer, Nduduzo has recorded 10 albums since 2014. He is the first African to be signed to the iconic jazz record label, Blue Note. And the first artist to launch an album under the label’s, new imprint, Blue Note Africa. He is also a researcher and educator, at South Africa’s Fort Hare University, where he heads the Music Department.

Nduduzo Makhathini: Happy New Year.

Makhtar: It’s a pleasure for me to have you, and thank you very much for joining us. It’s a huge pleasure. I listened to your music and was just amazed by what you have done. The spirit is very, very powerful. Personally, I'm a jazz lover. So this is something that for me was a pleasure to talk to you today.

Nduduzo: It means a lot. You know, whenever you put out an album, you’re always hoping that it reaches people's hearts. And for me, I love to hear about how it reaches. It's always a very heartwarming thing for me to hear, because I believe these sounds in themselves come from a very deep part of our being and they go back to find homes in other people's deepest parts of their hearts.

Makhtar: Nduduzo, you have been the first African musician to sign with Blue Note. And now you have made history again by being the first one to be on Blue Note Africa. I think it was something that was due for a long time in recognition of the great works of the elders - (Adullah) Ibrahim, Dudu Pukwana, and all the elders who have inspired African jazz and South African jazz. So tell us a little bit about you. Your story is quite fascinating.

Nduduzo: I think in as much as I love being on stage and playing the music, I have a very deep interest for the underpinning thematic materials, and for those themes to find expression as well, parallel to the performances. But to talk about what are these things that are inherent in these sounds, for me is equally important. So thank you for opening this conversation. And like you said, my name is Nduduzo Mhakhatini, I come from a very small town in Pietermaritzburg, I was born in a place over the mountains called eMbhubu. And during the difficult times of so-called Black on Black violence in the 80s in South Africa, we moved to a place called eMaqongqo. So that was pretty much the rural, my kind of rural background. And I would land eventually in a township. But for me, all of these modulations and transitions are important because on the one hand, the rural side really allowed me a much deeper relationship with the music - that was kind of devotion music and sacred music. So, this is my early encounters of music. And music was always understood in its context, and its vibrational depth in the context of ritual. So those are many years of my life in the Zionist church, in the sangoma ceremonies, hearing the Shembe music and all kinds of like, kind of Zulu indigenous sounds and folk music. And of course, I would develop an interest later to go study music in, I think it was year 2000-2001, to enroll formally in a jazz program. And of course, many things were happening in this moment. On the one hand, I had a thing that I was seeking, which was this relationship between music and a way of life - particularly as it connects to spirituality and cosmology. But the program was presenting, on the other hand, a syllabus which really did not put any emphasis on what we were doing as a way of life. It was a study in a very raw sense. So I guess this is my background, you know, on the one hand the very rural, anchored into this kind of conflict with modernity.

Makhtar: Yeah, it's quite impressive. You know, one of your reference points is the 1964 A Love Supreme album from John Coltrane, where McCoy Tyner is playing piano. And this record has been a landmark not only for jazz, but a lot of people outside jazz, like Santana played that music because of its inspirational and spiritual side. This album, as we know, has three parts; one is called acknowledgment, the second one is resolution, and the third one is pursuance. Listening to your music, I see these three steps as the acknowledgement of your cultural heritage, of cosmology, of Zulu culture; the resolution of it in your music in a way, which is not straight ahead bebop, but much more a mix of what the elders have done in South Africa and in jazz. And now a pursuance of it by taking it to the next step. Does it make sense, these analogies that I am making between your music and A Love Supreme?

Nduduzo: It is super profound. I had never thought of it the way that you are thinking. But a lot of what underpins my music is this trilogy. It is invoked in how I understand ritual practices, in how I understand Bantu cosmology. But the beautiful part, after this pursuance, that comes, is this notion of a Psalm. And I think Coltrane was entering this other dimension when he spoke about Psalms. And some of the fundamental understanding of music as it regards to Zulu folk music is what we call Amahubo, which directly translates as Psalms. So while we're looking at these three movements, I think Psalms becomes the first one and then into - so you are born into the music - and then into this acknowledgement. That acknowledgement for me will relate to the gift of healing and the necessity for one to acknowledge the gift in order for it to start doing the work, which then becomes that resolution, and this endless journey of this endless pursuit. So you've just really opened my mind to a whole other way of thinking, thank you. Thank you for invoking Coltrane. Not only sonically but also his process and what he was thinking. Thank you for that.

Makhtar: I'm happy that, you know, it was useful to you because I am also a big fan of John Coltrane. He is my favourite jazz player. So I’ve listened a lot to his music, along with Miles (Davis) and Thelonious (Monk) and others. And I was hit like you and a lot of people by this album, A Love Supreme, this suite. And also, you know, listening to “India”, “Tunji” all this body of work of. But let's come back to you, because you are taking that spirit in an African context, but also in an international context, because I think the spirituality that was coming from this era or the time in the world, was largely influenced by India, by what was coming from India, you know, and African American spirituality. Abdullah Ibraham brought something like that on the scene from South Africa. But one of your mentors, I understand was Bheki (Mseleku) and Bheki was the next step after the precursor work. So tell us a little bit how Bheki, McCoy Tyner, Dudu Pukwana, all these influenced you to take you where you are today.

Nduduzo: Yeah. Well, thank you. (Bheki) Mseleku - I don't think I would ever have sufficient vocabulary to express my gratitude to our encounter. It is true that part of the main kind of reference point, particularly in the 60s during the Civil Rights Movement in the United States, people were looking for other ways to free themselves. There was a sense in which the whole transatlantic story emerges out of this great sense of loss, this great sense of displacement. And in this moment of displacement, you start to wonder about notions of self; who am I, you know, where is home? And this difficulty of answering the question of home leads to other questions about what you believe and how you perceive the world. And of course, in the 60s in America, a lot of these great masters and innovators of the music started to have devotion names and conversion names. And I remember McCoy Tyner had a name Suleiman Saud, Art Blakey, everyone took up a name either in Eastern religions or Islam. And of course, these histories are not only influencing South Africa at the time, but they are kind of dialoguing as well, which is a part that we never actually speak about. In the 60s in South Africa, they are various forms of displacement as well; in terms of the forced removals, we have the Sharpeville massacre. There is an urgency for a black body to be visible, as it were. And I think we cannot speak about music, particularly improvised music, and not talk about those kinds of socio-political contexts. Because this is what was really driving these kinds of affinities between the US and South Africa. But something interesting, as you mentioned Dudu Pukwana, something interesting starts to happen when there is another form of displacement through exile. People in the 60s - interracial groups were not possible - and this group, the Blue Note, was one of the key groups that went over to London, they spread over Sweden, and (Hugh) Masekela, (Miriam) Makeba they went into the US. So a big part of the South African jazz sensibility starts to emerge and is constructed outside of South Africa. This is a very interesting part as well. And when I speak to a lot of friends in the UK, they always talk about, for instance, how people like Dudu Pukwana, Bab’ Mongezi Feza, Louis Moholo, Bheki Mseleku, inspired them parallel to the African American innovations. So I think all of these discourses are connected. And it puts a very big responsibility on us to move these legacies forward. But also to tell as much as we can, the stories of our foremothers, of our forefathers, of our ancestors, that have created and contributed immensely in this art form.

Makhtar: In your body of work, we see a lot of creativity and creation in times of confusion and conflict. Actually, I'm using your words. You say “a time of confusion and conflict, a period of burning, fire, riot and massacres” was the time when things were happening. But at the same time, this is also a time when we saw the most beautiful pieces of work, which are calling for healing. And that junction between conflict and healing, that dynamic relation between these two processes - can you comment about it at this time, where we still have on our continent, some conflicts, which have touched a lot of people’s emotions, but at the same time, some powerful healing processes that have been put in place, that allow people to transcend this conflict that they have. And it seems that music and your music contributes to this type of effort.

Nduduzo: Well, thank you. I believe strongly that the constructions of forms of spiritualities, maybe one can say religiosities, that built in the continent came from this feeling of wonder. And it was ‘wonder’ on the one hand because our early ancestors were just watching very closely what was happening around them, studying the cosmos. And that's why for instance, in the Basotho cosmology, they speak about Badumedi, that there were studies of the stars. In the Nguni people they referenced this notion of Umveliqala and like this emergence of this, this being that gave birth to existence. And then singing became a way of keeping intact or keeping this relationship between humans and surroundings. Because it was understood that in the process, people do get out of tune, just like our instruments go out of tune every now and again and they have to be re-tuned. So the conflict forms from our ‘out of tune-nes’. And of course then the sound comes as a response. Particularly if we understand it within a ritual paradigm, that it is a ritual to remind us first and foremost. And I think, of course, when we think about notions of healing, I think a lot of it has to do with re-membering these paths that are pushed apart. And healing becomes this force that remembers everything together. So for me, that's how I've been engaging this notion of healing in my work, that it's, it's not an abstract idea of healing, but it comes out of the very notion of being - as a structure that should have some relationship with the external world. And we go in and out of tune. And so I read these difficult times as this ‘out of tune-ness’. And the music is trying to bring us back to focus. And In the Spirit of Ntu - was really one of those albums that focused on: what is this thing that stays in tune within our being? And I started to think about the Bantu people, and how they moved over the years. And what are some of the legacies or some of the things that we've kept with us that point to this direction of being umuntu, or being this being who is sensitive, who is listening, who is kind. And I came across this notion of Ntu, which is actually ‘vital force’ that argues that our very beginning emerged out of this force.

Makhtar: This is very powerful. I never thought about ubuntu the way you described it. And I never thought about conflict as an instrument which is not tuned and needs to be tuned. This is fantastic. Actually I will steal somewhere, somehow your expression. You know, what you say about the exiled South African musicians, how they influenced us. People like me actually were influenced a lot by them, even though I'm an African in West Africa. Before getting to know the musicians inside South Africa, the first people you were hearing were (Abdullah) Ibrahim who lived in Senegal at some point. You had Dudu Pukwana, you had Hugh Masekela, you had Miriam Makeba, and all those who gave you the vibe of the continent. And you say ‘I want to know more of this part of the world’, which was at that time not easy to know about because of apartheid. But I can tell you that they influenced actually one of the most famous fusion bands in Senegal called ‘Xalem’ - largely influenced by the music of Hugh Masekela. He was really their mentor. And I think that maybe Mandela is the political leader who is most sung about in Senegal. So just to say that this power transcended really the border of South Africa. And I would love you to be able to travel in the continent. Because unfortunately, the way it's happening now, the best talent are maybe more known outside the African continent than within the African continent. And I hope that one day, you will have an opportunity to share the powerful music that you have to people in other parts of the continent. Any project on that?

Nduduzo: That's very important work that needs to be done. And I think out of the Pan-Africanist notion was that of like black solidarities, across borderlines across you know.. And you bring in Baba (Hugh) Masekela, who was a very good friend of mine. And in one of his interviews, he speaks about how recent this creation of the borders, how recent an invention that is. And that it has become so real to us, that going over the border, there are these problems of xenophobia and all of these different challenges, just by an invention that was created by Europeans to exercise control over African people. But it is true that these borders are really believable. I have toured a bit of the continent, not as much as I would want to. But this one time, I was really lucky to visit Dakar in Senegal. And the experience of being in Goree Island of course, is you know, it was very emotional. But also something that touched me about people there, was the religiosity. I remember driving in this cab, and we were rushing to soundcheck and the driver just pulled on the side. He said “It's time to pray”. And in the car, there was not just only South African musicians, but American musicians as well. And you can imagine what was happening. The American musicians were like “man, you gotta..”. And this guy pulled on the side, very gentle. And he started to do these libations. And we saw other cars as well stopping behind him and it became a thing. It was observed for a period. And then people started to move again. This was one really profound thing I saw. And I started to see of course, like the West, North Africa, and how this indigenous-ness is a thing that really still holds very much. And as you go South, a lot of the things are lost. So they could be a way we could help each other by blurring these lines of these borders. And in that same experience in the evening, I went to the concert, of course, and then later on, the great Randy Weston was going to play and the President came to the concert, and everyone stood up. “Oh, wow, the President is coming to watch a jazz concert”. And then when Randy Weston came in, the congregation stood up again. So this was… For me, I started to think wow, man, you know, like the level of respect that people have for this artform. And of course, the great Randy Weston was advocating for the origins in Africa, even that of American music, he always pointed … He had a home in Morocco. And he had really this strong connection. So yeah, there is a big project that still needs to be done, that I would call internally in the continent, and I am prioritizing that project very much.

Makhtar: This is such a profound and great, great, great, great conversation. Randy Weston and the work he did with the Gnaoua people in Morocco, which are the black people in the south of Morocco,has been a landmark work for jazz. But I think you are holding the torch really high. And we are very proud to see you doing what you are doing in the spirit of the elders. Because in African culture, in jazz, in other forms of art, elders are important because they inspire us. And we acknowledge what they are giving us so that we can pursue their heritage. So IFC, we are financing companies in the private sector. But I do believe fundamentally that - and it’s one of the reasons I have this series - is that art, society, forms of consciousness, and economic development all are interlinked. And if we don't breach those links, we will not be able to get the development and the comprehensive, the inclusive, the peaceful development that we hope for. So I am very, very thankful for you for taking the time to discuss with me about your work. And I hope that next time you tour in the US, I will be able to come and listen to you. Hopefully in the Washington area. Definitely I will be following if I'm not travelling, I promise I will be in the audience.

Nduduzo: Thank you so much. And it's truly an honor to have this time on this platform and to speak to you. Thokozani. Siyabonga.

Makhtar: Thank you for listening. Creative development with IFC is produced by Lindy Mtongana, Aida Holly-Nambi and Maeve Francis for IFC. If you enjoyed this episode, please share it with your network and tell a friend.