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Nduduzo Makhathini Interview


Junio, 2024

Texto: Begoña Villalobos

Fotos: Concesión del entrevistado



It has been an honor to interview Nduduzo Makhathini, South African pianist, composer, healer and philosopher. He has announced the June 7 release of his third Blue Note album, uNomkhubulwane. The transcendent three-movement suite, which pays homage to the Zulu goddess uNomkhubulwane and explores Africa’s tragic history of oppression, features Makhathini’s trio with bassist Zwelakhe-Duma Bell le Pere y and drummer Francisco Mela.


In&OutJazz Hello, nice to meet you.

Nduduzo Makhathini Great to meet you, too. Thank you so much for having me. Thank you.

In&OutJazz Thank you. Thank you for being with us. It’s a true honor. It’s a true honor for us to have you here with us.  It would be really awesome to have you here in Spain because it’s been… Man, like, first of all, congratulations for your work and for you, for your albums. We’re willing to have a little talk now with you about it. So, we could start, right? Okay, let’s go.  So, first question would be…Since you’re a Blue Note artist member, which is great that they are supporting you and your work, how has recording for Blue Note been? And what has it meant to you? Like, what does it mean for you to be a Blue Note artist member?

Nduduzo Makhathini Well, you know, I think it means a lot of things at different registers. On the one hand, I am quite aware of the lineage of innovators in this art form that have recorded for Blue Note. So, I think it means a lot for my work to kind of, you know, fall into the later articulations of what the future of this sound might look like and how perhaps future generations of jazz musicians will consider how jazz can be annunciated from various geographies, such as South Africa. On the other hand, there is this kind of question about, like, you know, the quote-unquote invisibility of jazz practices in South Africa that starts at least in the late 1920s. Already in South Africa, there were jazz recordings. And also, South Africa, unlike many other locations outside of the U.S., has a really strong culture of jazz that follows the different kind of periods, you know, whether it was big band style, swing, you know, we have bebop, we have post-bop, we have modern jazz…

In&OutJazz You guys got all the tradition going, too.

Nduduzo Makhathini We’ve got all of those traditions, and not only that, but these traditions, they are recorded, and they are available. But so there’s a sense in which the invisibility of the jazz aesthetic in South Africa is troubling. So, and for me, so when I got signed to Blue Note, one of the things that I intended was to expose these cracks, to expose the fact that even though it’s exciting to be the first Blue Note artist to be signed from South Africa, but it’s also an opportunity to speak about, where I come from, in terms of the lineage. So I’ve used of my interviews that were meant to be talking about celebrating the fact that I’m the first Blue Note artist from South Africa, I use that time to educate about what, who I follow in the footsteps of.

In&OutJazz Yeah, definitely. That’s so great, so great, that you are kind of speaking out for your tradition. That’s good.

Nduduzo Makhathini Exactly. So this has led to a response from Blue Note, which is the creation of Blue Note Africa, which is a specific response to the gap that I’ve exposed.

In&OutJazz Great news. Yeah. Thanks to you, man.

Nduduzo Makhathini Yeah. Well, that’s, yeah.

In&OutJazz It is, it is definitely great. It is, it is, that you, that you can, give a hug to all the tradition that went on. And it’s, and keep, keeps going on in South Africa, right. And, and that Blue Note has listened to you and has, you know, has agreed with you to, to speak out for all this tradition together. That’s so great. And we are all celebrating it.

Nduduzo Makhathini It is beautiful. And I must just say like, you know, the leadership at Blue Note is really special as well in a sense that Don Was, who’s the president, is quite an open-minded person and such a lovely person. And I think it helps that he’s a musician himself. And so he, was it earlier this year or last year, but I invited him to come to South Africa. And so we did a little tour here where I was showing him the different annunciations of this music, like how it sounds in Cape Town, for instance, informed by Kuma and how it sounds in Devon, informed maybe by Maskanda music and, you know, the different Kwella styles and how it sounds in Joburg, informed by Marabi styles and the different… all of these dialectics, it’s not just the same everywhere in South Africa, but each geography has found a way of articulating its own cultural and folkness into the practice. And Don Was really loved it. And we’ve since become really good friends and he produced my last album as a result of this amazing friendship and a sense of trust and this brotherhood that we share.

In&OutJazz Man, how great, how great. We are happy to listen to you and these words that you are sharing. Now to move on, we would like to know, since the album was recorded in August, right? How did it go and what’s the name of the album and when will it be out? You know, like tell us.

Nduduzo Makhathini Man, I must just say, you know, speaking about this idea of community and brotherhood, the project is a result of just like how we’re thinking about Africa and the diasporas and jazz practices. So here we have someone from Cuba and then we have someone from the US, and we have someone in South Africa. So this kind of triad of like looking at like how we can kind of remap a different story around jazz that maybe changes the narrative of aggression and violence and people being taken to the Caribbean or to the US as slaves. But what does it mean to have a different story of transatlantic connections? What does it mean to think of the transatlantic as a space of healing as opposed to the waters that were used as transportation into slavery? So, what does it mean to have an opportunity to rearticulate the Atlantic for black music? So, this is one thing that became quite evident and how collective memory was really a focus point where I’m playing something and Francisco Mela is like, “you know, in Cuba, we call that this” and I’m playing something and Zwelakhe is like, “you know, in the US, this is what we call this”. You know what I mean? So it was really a work of memory. And the title of the album is called Unomkhubulwane, “who is the rain goddess” in the South African context. I’m going to type it here later just so you get the spelling for the title of the album. And the rain goddess is really a symbol of abundance. There’s a sense in which when people think about Africa as a continent or its legacies, black traditions, they always refer to it in this position of lack, you know, poverty. And all of those things. But on the reverse, Africa is really this space of abundance. So, we’re thinking about the rain as a symbol of abundance. We’re thinking about harvest as a symbol of abundance, but also as a counter narrative to how the world has portrayed the African soil. So, we’re thinking about these symbolisms and how we bring them into the space of music making as a way of restoring pre-colonial memory and how those kind of symbolisms, would inform the ways in which we create music. And of course, the rain goddess is also a symbol for the maternal side of things that all the troubles that are going on in the world is because we’ve gone out of tune. We’ve gone outside of the womb. So, what does it mean for the womb to be the ways in which we inform through water, a way of purity? And so in a way, what is going on in the world now requires for all humans to imagine again, this abundance, this water, this maternal energy that gave back to us all. And in remembering that, there is a hope that we’ll kind of be in tune again and respect environment, respect people around us and have a kind of strong sense of compassion, and love and understanding of space sharing around the world.

In&OutJazz How truly beautiful, really, all the concepts and all the, you know, faith around the album. This is what, in my opinion, makes music such sacred thing, you know, dialogues with everyone and everybody all around the world because of all of these intentions. If it wouldn’t be. If it weren’t for the intentions and, you know, the message that you want to give, it would, yeah, music wouldn’t be the same, right? And on the other hand, music is such a great instrument and, you know, a medium to put on a dialogue with all the world, you know, which is so powerful. I’m so great that all those things that you were talking about our, you know, surrounding all the, all the, all the music that you do and all your, you know, this, this last album that you, that you did.

Nduduzo Makhathini Man, I think you are, you are stealing my words. Because that is so accurate. And these three words that you are mentioning are very important for my work. You started by speaking about sacredness. Then. Then you spoke up our intention and then you spoke about dialogue, dialogics or dialoguing. These are the most important pillars for my work in the fact that like, I speak of it in the context of rituals. And rituals are seeking the sacredness. And, and, and that informs an intention that of course gets injected into the sound. I’m thinking in two ways about this. Either the intention is injected in the sound or the sound is a result of an intention.

In&OutJazz Nice.

Nduduzo Makhathini So the sense in which, when we conceptualize it’s again, this kind of conceiving an idea and the sacredness surrounding the water, the, the concept of a womb really, for me, liberates a lot of what I’m thinking in this work. So, so then the music becomes a result of that intention and the path becomes annunciation of something that has a pre-existent essence. Yeah. And, and then of course, when it lands and it’s, it’s shared with people, then the intention then is to dialogue that music are not conclusions in themselves, but some of them are critical questions that require audience to respond.

In&OutJazz There you go.

Nduduzo Makhathini Some of them are suggestions about where humanity can go. The sound become a place where we project how we want the world to look like and trio as a symbol as well is very strong in, uh, African, uh, mythologies and, and, and philosophies when we look at like the child, you know, we have a concept that we call the triadic nature of being, which is a way in which we think of ourselves as being here, in the past and in the future, all at once. The ancestry practice as like continuities of the past, but also the future as in anticipating the ones that are to be born and clearing our intentions so that when these next generation is born, the world is a better place. So all of the things that you are invoking are so fundamental and they hold a very important part of my work.

In&OutJazz Yeah. Yeah. Yeah. It’s so beautiful to hear. Yeah. Yeah. Yeah. It’s so beautiful to hear you speak about all these things.

Nduduzo Makhathini Well, it’s great to have a conversation with you.

In&OutJazz Yeah, definitely. We were also, um, uh, thinking that the, the trio that, uh, is involved in your, in your album is a great trio. Um, could you tell us more about the band and the band members, Francisco Mela and Zwelakhe Duma? And, you know, have you had a nice musical and personal connection with them? How has it been? How is your relationship with those guys?

Nduduzo Makhathini I don’t know who these guys are. Well, I, I absolutely love these guys. There is just like, a dedication that is so fundamental for us all. And the trio requires that as well. Like, you know, in a trio setting, we don’t really have a passenger. Everyone has to kind of like drive the ship, you know? And, also it helps that I have personal connections. Zwelakhe is someone that I’ve mentored for many years. I met him when he was really little. And, and there’s a symbolism in there because he was brought to me by his father. And his father kind of put a responsibility on my shoulder. Look after this child. He’s, he’s amazing. Look. You know, so, it’s like it’s so deep because for me it also speaks to the ways in which like we conceptualize family and mostly from like histories of black people where the father is often an absent figure and there is a way in which coloniality of course created that problem whereby the fathers had to work in the mines because the migrant labors the mothers were left alone and that created a serious dysfunction in the black home. And so, for me there is a deep symbolism there is a deep symbolism surrounding this group of men that really think about family as an integral part of music creation. And of course, Franciso Mela is a father, he’s a teacher and someone who has worked with great such as McCoy Tyner, Joe Lovano, William Parker and a lot of other people. So it’s very balanced in this way where Zwelakhe is like pushing things into like some kind of futuristic direction and Mela is really grounded in some kind of traditions whether from Cuba or from the jazz as it was for the masters and innovators of this music and I am bringing something really ancient that comes from Africa from pre-colonial memory and while I’m situated within the jazz sensibility as someone as well who comes from great teachers here in South Africa such as Zim Ngqawana, Busi Mhlongo, Bheki Mseleku…etc. So, there is a number of things that we’re bringing to the table that kind of makes a very important dialogue about where we see the future of this music go. Especially how the future of this music would eventually have a kind of holistic outlook that doesn’t only focus on the U.S. but honors the contributions of U.S. musicians, but also that tends to be holistic in the way that it’s listening to an entire universal discourse around this music.

In&OutJazz Yeah. It’s really beautiful to see how each one of you brings like things into the dialogue that takes place between you guys that brings up music that is always new, that has always something to say to all of us also listeners who become an important part of your music, in a way where we also entered that dialogue in the precise moment where we are listening to what you guys did. So it’s so great that you guys are together making music. it’s beautiful.

Nduduzo Makhathini Man thank you so much. It really, it means a lot for us and it’s good that you mentioned the listener because it’s a big part of what we’re doing. It’s uh you know. I’ve been thinking a lot about where do sounds go? It’s a broader question. Where do sounds go? When the sound is annunciated, where does, because I believe that a sound is life and it’s got an afterlife, and it continues to echo in people’s consciousness. So, for me, the audience is not an audience in a conventional sense of people watching, but is a collaborator in terms of thinking about the futures of each and every note.

In&OutJazz Yeah. That’s so cool. And you guys also take part in an educational relationship between we all, where we all want to build up a better world after all. So that’s cool. We were also about or wondering what your compositional approach was for Trio. Because Francisco Mela was saying that your music is always, “well concentrated and free”. So, what are your thoughts on that?

Nduduzo Makhathini Yeah. So, you know, I’ve been thinking about music making processes in the way that I was brought up, you know. So there is a fundamental idea of improvisation that jazz has kind of cultivated that. That means departing from the thematic materials. In a sense that you play the song and at a particular bar, the form is finished and then you have to start soloing. So while for me in the traditional context and in the folk context, improvisation is a prophetic place that takes place when we surrender into the compositional material. So in other words, improvisation in my kind of thinking becomes a process of the unfolding that is not worried about improvisation, but is so committed to the thematic material that in the interpretation of the thematic material, the improvisation is not an effort, but a thing that we reach through the intensity of the music. A different concept, you know, it’s a, it’s not so much a jazz concept, in as much as it’s based on a ritual theory in Africa, and how music underpins ritual proceedings. So what I have done is I’ve wrote very short compositions that I call in my work, energy fields. So energy fields are musical ideas, that are very short, that are always geared towards producing freedoms. And so it moves from the known to the unknown, to the new knowing. So these three phases are very important for me. The known being this submission to wanting to surrender, to wanting to let go. So I bring this composition as a, invitation to, to fly it with the band. We, you know, so everyone has to check in. Everyone has to study that little piece as a way of, you know, accessing your boarding pass. And once we are all in there, then we take off. Then a different concept of grace allows us into this unknown place. And when we return, we have a different understanding of the theme that we played in the beginning. So that’s what I call, I call the new knowing of what, what we knew at the beginning of the song. So that is really a concept that I’m developing with the band, but also a big part of my scholarly research projects as well, that are based on the understandings of ritual as a way to harness improvisation in jazz.

In&OutJazz That’s, that’s so cool. It makes your music so powerful and deep. In fact, last question, because we’ve read in some interviews that people describe your music like a deep and profound music and you as a like a thinker and maker of a deep music. And, and we also, we’re reading a lot of, opinions about your music, as a music where freedom and improvisation take place in a deep way. You know they don’t really know how to describe it. They always talk about deep, you know, some, something really deep, no, right. So we would like to, yeah, considering all these concepts that you were talking about right now, would you tell us that there has been an evolution between your other albums and this last album, or are they separate things?

Nduduzo Makhathini Yeah. Well, firstly, I don’t know what they’re talking about, everyone that is saying things hahahaha.

In&OutJazz Oh, great.

Nduduzo Makhathini Well, it’s true. Part of the idea about folk music in Africa is that it’s a nomadic music. So, it’s, it’s a music that annunciates from a place and it gets on an itinerary and through walking, whether in the wilderness or to the next village, the music becomes a way of gathering stories as you walk. So, in other words, this idea of being in motion is a way to understand the depth of the music. So, in other words, it’s not stationary. And so, it produces theories and concepts that are in motion. And that’s where the difficulty of describing then comes. Yeah. So, what really, what I’ve become aware of is this music falls in a realm that I call fugitive aesthetic. Fugitive in a sense that everything you say about it is already too old to describe it. So, from the moment you say it’s already, yeah, it’s, it’s so in this fugitiveness, the music itself refuse for us to say anything about it. So, it’s just to put us in this realm of the unspeakable. And I think this is where the music is really annunciating. It’s, it brings us to this moment of the unspeakable that there is nothing profound to say about it because it’s refusing everything. So, I put most of my energy in cultivating a way of tapping into this unspeakable. So, I’m not concerned about producing vocabulary in as much as I’m concerned about how this music puts us into no words. So, if it’s really, it brings us to no words. So, and of course, each project that I’ve done is different. And I think this one focuses on the concept of the womb, the concept of purity, the concept of abundance, whereas the previous one was focusing on ontology, the concept of being, the concept of the universe and how beings have a relationship with the universe. So, each project for me is a chapter within a book that is difficult to write.

In&OutJazz Wow, man… Nduduzo, our friend, our big friend.

Nduduzo Makhathini Yes!!!

In&OutJazz This has been, this has been such a nice talk with you. It’s been a pleasure to hear you and to hear about how you feel and how you think about music. And you were saying now the unspeakable, that’s the most interesting thing. That’s where music, becomes something really high, you know, where we, we should stop talking about it and start just, you know, really enjoying it.

Nduduzo Makhathini Experiencing it.

In&OutJazz Yeah, there you go. There you go. Which is, which is something really powerful. I think that the, the musical experience. So yeah…

Nduduzo Makhathini You guys must still write about it hahaha.

In&OutJazz Yeah, there you go. There you go. We are, we are so, so happy to have had you and, and last but not least we would,

In&OutJazz Thank you very much.  Yeah, we would love, we would love, we would love to get some, we would love to get some pictures of you so that we can later on, when we write an article about you or whatever or post anything, it would be nice to have some pictures of yourself. To try announce everyone here in Spain about your work and your art and your music, man. So, if you can send them to the email address where we have been talking through, it would be a real gift for us.

Nduduzo Makhathini Man, it’s an absolute honor. I’m going to send the images.

In&OutJazz Thank you. Big hugs and big kisses from Spain. Yes. Peace man. God bless you.

Nduduzo Makhathini The Americans say a big hug to see you soon.

In&OutJazz See you soon. Yeah. Bye man. Thank you so much. Thank you.

Interview by: Begoña Villalobos

Junio 21, 2024

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