A sit down with the Jazz pianist at UJ Weekend of Jazz
I’m sitting inside the UJ Arts & Culture Centre, waiting to interview one of the greatests Jazz Arts of our time, Nduduzo Makhathini. The sound of Groovin’ (On a Sunday Afternoon) plays in the cafe outside the theatre where Nduduzo and his peers play more sombre melodies during their sound check. It’s golden hour and the sun’s rays stretch out from behind me and illuminate the doors of the theatre where drummer, Ayanda Sikade, bassist Nhlanhla Radebe and others enter for sound check rehearsals. The sound of Jazz is timeless, but for our generation, a new dawn shines upon it. Nduduzo, who is very deliberate in introducing jazz with new perspectives that highlight the spirit of our time, is one of the many jazz artists propelling the newness and beauty of Jazz for millenials in South Africa.
Last weekend, the UJ Arts & Culture Centre hosted a group of young Jazz artists making waves in the music industry. An organisation known as Jozi Unsigned and the University of Johannesburg partnered for a second annual UJ Weekend of Jazz which honours and celebrates jazz music with young people at the centre of the project. On the Saturday evening, Nduduzo, gathered together with some of jazz’s brightest and best and bloomed before the stage with an electric performance of songs like “Amathambo” and “Mama Africa”.
When I ask him what it means to be a part of events like the UJ Weekend of Jazz he says that it’s more than just entertainment. “I just find it so necessary to be involved in these kinds of engagements as more of a kind of cultural work as opposed to just being a gig. With these kind of events, yes it’s entertainment, but it’s also about the cultural work that needs to be done in our society,” says Nduduzo.
“As a practicing Sangoma, I use the piano to divine. So it’s the throwing of the bones, sometimes I’m just spontaneously playing something that comes as a form of divination,” he says, explaining his connection to music and its attachment to healing. Nduduzo’s music is well known for its take on healing, especially spiritual healing in the context of a decolonial project. It’s a deliberate attempt to heal from the traumas of colonialism through creative and spiritual efforts. In his music he takes on significant themes that speak to expressing music with African cosmologies and spiritualities in mind.
The colonial period and slavery really managed to decentre ‘izinto zabantu abamnyama’ and assumed a kind of very hegemonic position that took the centre and broke ours. So what we’re doing is about amplifying our points of connection and showing that there are other centres.”-Nduduzo Makhathini
In his piece, “Amathambo”, Nduduzo and his band capture the essence of a story about a young man whose hopes and dreams wither in the age of modern society, only to be revived after an encounter with a spiritual healer. The vocals in the song call upon the Sangoma’s bones to come together and be read – a process which deeply connects to Nduduzo’s spiritual and musical quest to not only tell (African) stories through music but to heal with music too. The keys of the piano are his bones, while he takes centre as spiritual healer in search of the connections that used to bind communities in Africa before colonialism. It is an insight writer and thinker Ngũgĩ wa Thiong’o called a “cultural bomb” – a series of events that involved western colonialists isolating people of Africa from their history, identity, language, land and their unity. In his very deliberate attempt to use music to mend the effects of this “bomb”, Nduduzo’s music becomes a source of healing, restoration and spiritual growth.
“Jazz music came as a search for home, language, identity and all these things. I’m a lot about finding these points of connections and affinities. In our music, we’re trying to find the centre. The colonial period and slavery really managed to decentre ‘izinto zabanto abamnyama’ and assumed a kind of very hegemonic position that took the centre and broke ours. So what we’re doing is about amplifying our points of connection and showing that there are other centres.”
“People are thinking about how to bring in our cultures into the space of music. In my work I’m thinking about rituals and how music becomes a space for rituals.
Indeed much of creative work and artistic endeavors today are intent on focusing on these other centres. In the age and era of wokeness, Afrocentrism, and Afrofuturism, creativity and art are focused on questioning whiteness, white supremacy, and western ideologies that assume authority in society. In popular contemporary art, young musicians like Sho Madjozi, Dope Saint Jude, Msaki and others are shifting the focus from Eurocentric forms of art to African ones that embrace local languages, heritage, fashion and normalising it in mainstream media. Nduduzo and his contemporaries are definitely not exempt from this movement.
“People are thinking about how to bring in our cultures into the space of music. In my work I’m thinking about rituals and how music becomes a space for rituals. I also think about Ubuntu and how it projects this communal idea on the bandstand. Everything is shared, you can’t do everything on your own. I don’t wanna say it’s about relying on the next person, but it’s more of a realisation that we kind of need each other and this manifests on the bandstand in the same way it does ekasi or in the rural areas where there’s a kind of structure of communalism.”
When you watch Jazz artists performing on stage the exchange between the instrumentalists is just as visible as the call and response, harmonization and synchronicity between the instruments themselves. The communication between the musicians is as tangible as the feeling the music inspires on the bandstand.
Nduduzo mentions that while the music can inspire healing, we must also encourage conversations around the music, because that is something that is lacking. “Young people are up for this music but I think what is lacking is the culture of music appreciation. We need to engage on these things. On my socials, I try to use that space as a space for dialogue about the music.”
By unifying elements of space, art, language and spirituality, musicians like Nduduzo are building on the decolonial project in artful ways that shine a new light on the way young people are thinking about creativity. Creativity seems then, to not just be about entertainment or making a living, but also about enhancing our way of living and how we see ourselves as black people in Africa. When we continue to engage with music in this way we allow for a richer and more fruitful way of consuming art.