Features October 9, 2023
Nduduzo Makhathini: In Conversation with the Ancestors

One of the most anticipated and outstanding performances at this year's Festival International de Jazz de Montreal was from jazz pianist Nduduzo Makhathini. Makhathini is often introduced as a jazz pianist, educator, and spiritual healer. The 41-year-old South African would tell you that the way he sees it, all three roles are the same. When he goes on stage, you partake in a musical performance – entertaining, playing melodies, improvising- all you'd expect. But also, within and between the music, he speaks to the audience about the collective social and spiritual journeys we are on in our lives, offering some history, his thoughts, and philosophy. But then there is the third aspect – he is also conducting a spiritual ceremony, using the piano and his voice to call upon his Zulu ancestors, using the powers of healing and divination he possesses as a sangoma (healer), to offer some spiritual relief and raise our consciousness. It is something he has called "healing sonics." Makhathini sees this as his gift and his duty. He has defined his compositions as both acts of divination and prayers.

In his earliest years, Makhathini lived in what he calls a semi-rural area, at first in a small town over the mountains around Pietermaritzburg in the district of uMgungundlovu, South Africa, an area once home in the mid-19th century to the Zulu Kingdom. Then, during the so-called "Black on Black" violence of the 1980s, his family moved twice and eventually settled in a township. His father played guitar, and his mother played piano. She was his first piano teacher. From his earliest recollections, he was drawn to music and sound. And it was always connected to spirituality, whether it was from the traditional Zulu ceremonies (his grandmother was also a sangoma) or in the Zionist Church his family attended – although he would often sneak out after the music and before the sermon to find another church where he could hear music (this story was the inspiration for his composition "There's Another Church Up The Road.”)

"Another Church Up The Road" - Nduduzo Makhathini

Makhathini went on to study music seriously at university but felt there needed to be a connection between what he was being taught and something he couldn't exactly pin down. And whether you want to believe in chance or fate, one day, he was browsing in the school library and found John Coltrane's album A Love Supreme. The 1965 classic album featured liner notes by the saxophonist about his spiritual awakening: "This album is a humble offering to Him. An attempt to say 'THANK YOU GOD' through our work, even as we do in our hearts and tongues." Makhathini read this, and it was a revelation. He has also noted it was the first time he played a jazz album to the end.

"I came to understand my voice as a pianist through John Coltrane's A Love Supreme," he stated on his website. "I had always been looking for a kind of playing that could mirror or evoke how my people danced, sang, and spoke."

What he heard (and continues to) in African-American jazz artists like Coltrane is an echoing, a remembrance of their African past that dwells within them, specifically in Coltrane, for example, a yearning to rediscover and reconnect with that past. Makhathini also considers improvisation a path to transcendence, allowing the ancestors to speak through music.

Makhathini told Afropop Worldwide contributor Simon Rentner in a 2020 interview: "I feel that if John Coltrane and even McCoy Tyner or Elvin Jones and Jimmy Garrison were born on this side of the globe, they would have become sangomas... Everything they have played, at least for me, has a deeper revelation. And these revelations are new every time we encounter their music."

Nduduzo and his band are introducing and performing the opening section of A Love Supreme in 2020.

"Acknowledgement" (from A Love Supreme) – Nduduzo Makhathini

It was not long after that experience he met the man who would become a mentor to him – the great South African jazz musician Bheki Mseleku, who was a disciple of Coltrane. (Mseleku was so into Coltrane that he kept the actual mouthpiece Coltrane used on the recording of A Love Supreme, given to him by Coltrane's widow Alice.) Mseleku and Makhathini connected on many levels beyond Coltrane and the modalities of music, with the elder introducing the younger to works of Eastern philosophy, which Makhathini found meshed with his African philosophy. Makhathini would later do his master's thesis on Mseleku entitled: "Encountering Bheki: A Biographical-Analytical Consideration of his Life and Music."

In 2021, he wrote an article about Mseleku, who died in 2008, in the South African Guardian & Mail. One might quickly write some of these exact words, experiencing Makhathini at the keyboard.

"Let us for a second visualize someone seated at the piano. It often looks like a spaceship. This is an image I have in my head and spirit, of course, when I think of Mseleku. I see and hear someone traveling into space dimensions. This depiction developed in my initial encounters with Mseleku at the Arthur Smith Hall at the then-Durban Technikon Natal. As students then, most of us knew him as that elder who spent long hours playing the piano. If you had seen Mseleku play, you would agree with this notion: he would have moments in which he comes very close to the piano keys. At other times, it was as though he wanted to push his head inside the piano lid. But he also went inside the sounds. This traveling away into other spheres is of interest to me...

"There seems to be an aspect of 'wonder' in Mseleku's approach to improvisation that is deeply expressed in his solo piano approach... 'Wonder' in the sense that it is beyond human comprehension to fully understand the mystical nature of sound. That leaves humans with one option: to go inside the sound as an experience. The closest experience Mseleku likened this mystery to was love, which he understood as simple until one tries to analyze it. He argued that it is simpler to experience love than to speak about it. I agree with this notion; I accept the impossibility of speaking about the sound but attempting to do so anyway."

Through Msekelu, Makhathini found a path to integrate his Zulu heritage into his music. After graduating in 2005, he began touring internationally, developing a reputation both at home and abroad as someone doing new and exciting things with jazz.

In 2014, along with his wife, Omagugu, an award-winning jazz singer in her own right, they launched their music label, Gundu Entertainment. Makhathini was so filled with the music he had composed that they began by releasing two albums simultaneously – Mother Tongue and Sketches of Tomorrow – and released one album a year after that.

“The Other Side” - Nduduzo Makhathini (featuring Omagugu)

Around this time, he accepted his gift of divination and healing as a sangoma. Although he was aware of it, much like fellow sangoma and singer Pilani Bubu, who we interviewed last year at WOMEX, he struggled with a cultural conflict between the spiritual beliefs of the Zionist Church and the traditional Zulu culture.

"There's something to be said," Makhathini explained in an interview, "about going from a Christian background and these religious clashes between the precolonial imaginations and what the colonial period presented, and how much of that has been absorbed into our system. And the music was a space to negotiate identity again."

However, once he accepted the gift, it deepened his understanding that playing music, especially improvisation, is the basis of his talent. He is a vessel for the transmission of healing and divination through sound. Performances are enacting rituals, a way of speaking with the ancestors. This is an integral concept to understanding who Makhathini is. He expressed this acceptance in his third album, 2015's Listening to the Ground.

"For You" - Nduduzo Makhathini

Awards and accolades began to come his way simultaneously, teaching and eventually becoming head of the music department at Fort Hare University in East Cape, South Africa. In 2016, he joined London saxophonist Shabaka Hutchings, becoming a part-time member of his group Shabaka and the Ancestors and recording alongside other African musicians on Hutchings' The Wisdom of Elders album.


Shabaka Hutchings – The Wisdom of Elders - trailer

In 2017, Makhathini signed with Universal Music South Africa, which released his seventh album, Ikhambi. The upward momentum continued with appearances at Jazz at Lincoln Center in New York, followed by a well-received appearance at New York's Winter Jazzfest. In 2019, Universal brought him to the attention of Don Was, president of the Blue Note record label, a division of Universal Music Group. It was love at first sight, so Makhathini became the first South African artist on the legendary jazz label. Fortunately, Makhathini had just completed his ninth album, which Blue Note immediately released in early 2020, Modes of Communication: Letters from the Underworlds.

"Since I accepted the gift [of divination], I've been receiving these kinds of texts from the underworld, and this album now tries to document that and say, what do these soundings and these projections, what do they look like?" he said. "This album creates a bridge over the Atlantic Ocean, also questioning other existing narratives – like the slave trade over the Atlantic Ocean and how water was used as a mode of transport into slavery. Water is thought to create a healing space within African cosmology, so we're reversing these narratives, questioning, and confronting things... [This music is] a space where people are equals, and it's about a collective memory that existed before all of these human-made constructs – of slavery, coloniality, apartheid, and all of these things. So my music strives against those things."

He described the first single off the album, "Yehlisan’uMoya," expressing “a search for the light of the ancestral realms and an acknowledgment of a parallel existence between a world we see and those unseen."

“Yehlisan’uMoya’” - Nduduzo Makhathini (from Modes of Communication album)

This was followed in 2022 with the album In the Spirit of Ntu. "The wise ones tell us that our essence is 'force,' what our ancestors called Ntu," Makhathini wrote in the album's foreword. "Ntu is an ancient African philosophy from which the idea of Ubuntu stems. Ubuntu says: ‘I am because you are.' It is a deep invocation of collectiveness... I'm drawing from things that reside as part of memory – until they get to the point of revealing something new. My improvisation is searching for that moment of revelation… or in the African context, a moment of divination."

“Omnyama” - Nduduzo Makathini Trio (live at Jarasum Jazz Festival)

"This whole journey started in 2012 when I went to the studio to record my debut album," he told Apple Music. This [album] is me summarizing my journey. This is the moment for a bird's-eye view of the recurring themes and dialoguing that's been taking place."

We were honored to have the opportunity to speak with Makhathini during his visit to Montreal. In the preface, I've painted a picture above that provides an understanding that Nduduzo Makhathini is a brilliant and talented spiritual man who speaks in a way, much like his musical compositions, that flows and moves through many modes.

Just below is a TEDx talk Makhathini did in 2017 in which he speaks of many of the things he touches upon in our conversation while playing the piano. Watch that video to hear his voice and music to see how they interact. This leads me to suggest that as you read our conversation, spin one of his albums in the background and let them interact as you read.

A New Look Towards Ubungoma Practices and Articulations - Nduduzo Makhathini TEDxGaborone

(The following interview has been edited for length and clarity.)

Ron Deutsch: So nice to meet you.

Nduduzo Makhathini: Thank you.

I love this expression you've repeated in interviews: "Instead of throwing bones, I am playing the keys of a piano." My first thought was that the piano's keys are made from ivory, which isn't bone, more like what teeth are made from, but close enough. It's a great metaphor.

Nduduzo Makhathini: It's even beyond a metaphor because with the Zulu people of South Africa when you address the ancestors of the highest form, you say "wenawentlovu" which means "you of the elephant" or "you of the highest" about the elephant. Actual ivory is part of the divination practice. The symbolism is right there. But when I was talking about throwing the bones, I was talking about tapping into the unknown and reading a prophecy based on symbolism. So you throw the bones, and they tell a meaning. And when I play the piano, I always think about a similar way of projecting a text. So when I use free improvisation, I'm throwing sounds out there, and they produce a prophetic message. So that is the similarity.

Can you give me an example of a prophetic message? Is it something specific?

Nduduzo Makhathini: It's a text, a message. The fact that it is prophetic also doesn't restrict it to a paradigm. It could be anything. Sometimes, the sound presents unity, seeking unity. And sometimes I get this feeling, like yesterday or two days ago, at the concert, I felt this profound feeling of homelessness. How sounds are always looking for a home, and what is the struggle of finding one? But it can be juxtaposed with many other societal problems about this notion of belonging. It goes from that, but sometimes I see direct things or messages I could give to an audience member or a visual representation. When I graduated as a sangoma, one of the things that happened was I started to get these moments, something that looked almost like a hologram that would appear and disappear. I was losing it.

You start, over time, to understand that you live in these multiple universes and perversities, and in a sense, you are stepping in and out of different places. And this is what improvisation is about, about what I think of as liminality. And liminality is this paradigm of not knowing. It comes through this modality of surrender. This posture of rejection is one of the most critical things for my practice – the letting go, the sacrifice – because to improvise, you have to push to not knowing anything. And this is when you discover something. So, it is liberating to think about improvisation in the jazz context but incurring in African methodologies, cosmologies, and creation stories. Because it goes beyond the chords, the sequences, and the rhythms, it becomes an entirely other practice. It's a way to liberate those very tools. Like what does even a G7 look like as a color? For me, that opens up a more interesting question.

A word that keeps showing up during this Festival is "healing." For instance, pianist Emmet Cohen spoke of the importance of healing in these troubled times last night. As a healer, are you hearing this need or yearning for healing from people more or less these days?

Nduduzo Makhathini: I cannot attempt a response to that. Something is going around, which has to do, for me, with the [African] continent slowly becoming visible. Of course, this is against the backdrop of catastrophes that made Africa invisible. This kind of visibility is at the level of epidemiologies – ways of knowing, religiosities, cosmologies – that had been silenced through coloniality. So, in the moment of decolonizing, it's not really about how you are rejecting that which came with colonization – in as much as exposing that which had been buried.

That leads us to a couple of other things that we can think about surrounding what is now understood to be indigenous knowledge systems. In a sense, over 1,000 years of slave trade, coloniality, and apartheid in South Africa, it is almost unbelievable that we can still have aspects of our knowledge we can call indigenous. And then, if you think about how education did not play a part in preserving those knowledge systems, it played a role in erasing them. And the church, in the same way, came in and demonized the other knowledge systems. So, it becomes unbelievable that we can still have a reference. To me, that speaks to music and healing. Suppose we think about the practice of jazz music and locate it within its difficulty around notions of identity and belonging.

But then there's healing that works with, for instance, my gift associated with bone divination, the reading of the bones, which speaks to what we call "ntu” – the vital force. It is based on a creation story that we came through a preexisting energy force, and it lives in all things. So healing is a way to bring that into perspective and the understanding that human beings can go out of tune, just like a piano that, after some time, goes out. And in this moment of out-of-tuneness, rituals are so important. They are to bring in tuneness. In this context, healing is a thing that is inherently part of the being, the "ntu." So healing is not a thing that comes from outside of the being; it's a thing that comes from within. And it also concerns the relationship between the human being and the cosmos.

And now, to come back to Africa, in Africa, there is in most Bantu-speaking communities, there is no singular word for music. Research has been done, and there needs to be more. So, the closest word in my culture is "ngoma." In Swahili, it's the same word. All down the Congo, South Africa. “ngoma" means healing, prophetic knowledge, divination, chanting, and shouting, and singing. So, what does this holistic view tell us? It tells us that healing was never separate from the music anyway. So now, in this post-colonial moment, it sounds like a new thing, but actually, it's dealing with memory and reassembling all of these ideas back to their original state. So, the notion of healing gives the sound its vibrational depth. The sound enunciates, in the context of ritual, anyway.

So, for instance, if I go to my rural home, home – is what I call it – all songs have a ritual ceremony. So, every repertoire has themes that people sing for that particular ceremony. So, there is no occurrence of sound outside a spiritual function.

So healing is about that which keeps the balance and awareness and alignment.

Nduduzo Makhathini: Precisely. That's so beautifully phrased.

And again, connections. I just interviewed with the group Kokoroko, and they were also talking about this notion of identity and belonging. We discussed a quote by their leader, Sheila Maurice-Grey, who said when she's in Africa, she's considered British, but back in the UK, she isn't.

Nduduzo Makhathini: This is precisely it. In this moment of displacement, there is a challenge of the body, the biography of the body, and this seeking of belonging. And, of course, we see it more and more in the diasporas. We see it over the Trans-Atlantic. So in those moments, across the Atlantic, when you've been stripped of your language, stripped off your way of knowing – this becomes deserted, dying. Jazz survived many of these catastrophes in that jazz comes from Negro spirituals, the blues, and all of that. It has always had an African memory. And so this African memory is the thing that brings about all these aspects of healing.

In your case, we might say you weren't physically displaced, but rather, you were psychically replaced by your traditional culture due to colonialism.

Nduduzo Makhathini: What does it mean to be displaced from your identity and or displaced from a way of knowing? Or even just your body displaced from a geography? All of them are different, and they have various traumas. But the underpinning idea is that of memory against all of that. There's that question of how far you want to go back. It's a necessary question and is very huge and vast. But many of the music we play now across the Atlantic, these collaborations are ways of reminding each other about what I call "collective memory."

I read a book by Robin Kelley on [Thelonius] Monk. It was beautiful because he traced Monk roots back to Africa. It was a lot of work, but it was doable. It's quite an essential work for all of us because even in South Africa, there were forced removals and all of these laws. Something happened in those moments because while the men had to work in the mines, they became migrant laborers. Mothers were left alone, and most kids grew up without fathers. This is another layer to this problem we're talking about. For instance, it creates a dysfunctionality within a Black home. So they were growing up with no reference. And for the men, you don't know how to be a father, so to speak, because you've never seen your children. They didn't have a reference for that. So that's one of the challenges of displacement.

But there are also other forms of displacement. For instance, in African-American narratives, what is their surname? Because they had to take their enslavers' names. But also, the surname becomes a way of tracing genealogy. Where did they come from? Which is what the Monk book has been able to do. So, there are different kinds of traumas.

We've discussed how some things were lost in your culture due to colonialism in South Africa. In contrast, some things were brought to the Americas, which the enslaved people and their descendants hung on to. Have you found something in jazz that you realized had been lost in Africa?

Nduduzo Makhathini: That's precisely it, though. I wrote a paper, which hopefully get published soon, in which I look into notions of place and displace and into a term that I coined "jazziness." The idea of jazziness is that we trace its origins to Africa when we speak of jazz. But when we say that, we freeze progress around those sensibilities, improvisations, syncopations, swing, and all of these things – because they were already in Africa. Now, when we think about jazz, we think about the manifestation of these practices over the Atlantic. We consider it the memory of African music on the other side of the Atlantic. Still, we never think about the internal progressions in Africa during that time. And so we imagine an Africa that was not moving or progressing. And so, I argue that the matrix of the ingredients that make up jazz is even older in Africa. So now I use the term "jazz” to manifest the memory over the Atlantic. I use "jazziness" to suggest the characteristics or sensibilities of the music that have always been in the continent. The jazziness is older than jazz.

So then back to my practice, when I encountered jazz, particularly with [John Coltrane's] A Love Supreme, I was like this is my traditional music – and if this is jazz, then I've always known jazz. That was the thing. And I think it helped me because it reminded me that instead of playing music from another place, it became something I'm personally connected to.

Beyond the things you recognize, are there things you rediscovered that were also lost to you?

Nduduzo Makhathini: It's always been like that for me. That's why I talk about the collective memory. There has to be a way in which African peoples, wherever in the world, have this thing that connects them. I'll use an example of the Yoruba culture. They made it into South America and Cuban traditions, but when they did, they were not as erased as in the northern parts of the Americas. They were able to keep some of the religiousities somehow. For instance, in Cuba, they didn't have to become Christian. And the language was not taken from them. They were still able to speak Yoruba, which is profound. But then, when I think about friends from Nigeria who speak Yoruba, I played them some stuff from Cuba, and I asked them: "What does it mean?" And they said, "Man, these guys are speaking a more ancient version of Yoruba than what we are speaking."

But why is this important? It means that in the moment of displacement, you suffer this disparity – everything is a glimpse, everything is too small – because you've been removed entirely. So you hold on even tighter to it because you have nothing else. So, if you know a prayer, you hold on dearly to that prayer. That's what happened over the Atlantic.

Jazz could take that glimpse and hold it tightly, whereas, in Africa, it's an assumption that it surrounds us; it's still and always here. But it's easy for it to escape, as well. So there, in both modalities, these connective memories and cross-pollinations. It runs geography and becomes a spiritual construct that becomes the music, and you start to create these other homes outside of a geographic home. So, we begin to remind ourselves of who we are. And part of what this music does. It comes through as an echo, that glimpse of memory from a place, then goes and expands into these sounds we now call jazz. And that then echoes back into the continent. People start to think this is inspiring, but they also realize that some of the most incredible memories of ourselves, which had even been lost in the continent, are now coming from these dreams of an echo that our ancestors held on to.

They're telling me we've run out of time. Thank you so much.

Nduduzo Makhathini: Thank you. It was a pleasure.

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