South African jazz pianist Nduduzo Makhathini, whose name means “comfort” in isiZulu, found his purpose in the healing power of music. As do we.

Photo: Nduduzo Makhathini. Photo: Music In Africa

28 May 2022 | James Porteous | Clipper Media News

Bio | Nduduzo Makhathini | Music of Africa

Nduduzo Makhathini is an award-winning pianist, improvisor, healer and scholar from KwaZulu Natal in South Africa.

He is a recipient of prestigious awards such as the Standard Bank Young Artist Award, South African Music Award (SAMA) and AFRIMA among others that have made him an influential figure. Makhathini has nine albums under his belt with his last album (before this new one) was Modes of Communication: Letters from the Underworlds on Blue Note Records and many as a sideman.

He has performed and collaborated with the Jazz at Lincoln Centre Orchestra with Wynton Marsalis. Moreover, he has performed with Busi Mhlongo, Zim Ngqawana, Azar Lawrence, Billy Harper, Nasheet Waits, Logan Richardson among many other greats.

Makhathini has also done prestigious venues such as the Blue Note and Jazz at Lincoln Centre in New York. He was also in the line-up for this year’s Winter Jazz Fest.

As an academic Makhathini is heading a music department at the historic University of Fort Hare while completing his PhD at Stellenbosch University. Makhathini’s work moves between jazz and improvisation while making connections to African cosmological aspects with a strong focus on ritual.

Nduduzo Makhathini: In the Spirit of Ntu album cover

Jazz Musician Nduduzo Makhathini

08 April 2022 | Blue Note | Press Release

On May 27, the visionary South African pianist, composer, and healer Nduduzo Makhathini released In the Spirit of Ntu, his milestone tenth studio album, his second album to be released on Blue Note Records in partnership with Universal Music Group Africa following Modes of Communication (which The New York Times named one of the “Best Jazz Albums of 2020”), and the very first release on the newly formed imprint Blue Note Africa.

Makhathini condenses the thematic, sonic, and conceptual notions explored over his catalog into a layered yet accessible 10-track album on In the Spirit of Ntu.

“I really felt this need to summarize everything I’ve done this far and put it into ‘some’ context,” he says. A central figure of the country’s vibrant jazz scene, Makhathini assembled a band consisting of some of South Africa’s most exciting young musicians including saxophonist Linda Sikhakhane, trumpeter Robin Fassie Kock, vibraphonist Dylan Tabisher, bassist Stephen de Souza, percussionist Gontse Makhene, and drummer Dane Paris, as well as special guests including vocalists Omagugu and Anna Widauer, and American saxophonist Jaleel Shaw.

Folding a range of concepts such as ‘minor and major rhythms,’ ‘guided mobility,’ ‘active listening,’ and ‘ritualism’ into the project, Makhathini draws on his background in Zulu traditions and intellectual curiosities to inform his engaging articulations.

“I’m grappling with these cosmological ideas as a way of situating jazz in our context,” he says. “I put out Modes of Communication: Letters from the Underworlds using the letter as a metaphor for the sounds coming from the underworlds. Previously, I had released Listening to the Ground which encored into this idea of listening as knowing. In the Spirit of Ntu is living in that paradigm of listening to the things that emerge from the ground. Ntu is an ancient African philosophy from which the idea of Ubuntu stems out. Ubuntu says: ‘I am because you are.’ It is a deep invocation of collectiveness.”

“‘Senze’Nina’ is a meditation on renewal,” explains Makhathini. “While a similar phrase ‘Senzenina?’ (what have we done?) had been invoked to question the brutalities of apartheid South Africa — ‘Senze’Nina’ could be read as a plea. The theme was born inside of the recent incidents of gender-based violence and witnessing our sisters, daughters, and mothers asking themselves the question: ‘senzenina?’ As I meditated on this question, I realized a different meaning. I read the word as a kind of hyphenated word with the first part ‘senze’ (make/recreate us) and the second part ‘nina’ (referring to mothers, the makers and carriers). In this sense, I’m putting forward an argument that it is us (men) that need to be recreated, there is a part of us that has died for us to cause so much harm. Thus, we need to go back to our essence (Ntu), the womb of a mother and be recreated.”

“This project was conceived at a difficult time in South Africa, a time of confusion and conflict,” says Makhathini. “It was, once more, a period of burning fires, riots and massacres. In this sense, the music that I have composed is not surrounding these fires as a backdrop or soundtrack—these sounds are part of the discourse. They project from the burning fires until the fires stop burning. What remains is what these sounds seek to restore. Ntu as a creative force that seeks to lead us to remember our essence.”


Nduduzo Makhathini: In the Spirit of Ntu

Nduduzo Makhathini: In the Spirit of Ntu (Apple Music)

On his milestone 10th album, pianist, composer, improviser, and healer Nduduzo Makhathini distills a decade’s worth of creative output into an offering that reflects upon both his and his forebearer’s footsteps.

“This whole journey started in 2012, when I went to studio to record my debut album,” he tells Apple Music. “This 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.”

In the Spirit of Ntu muses on various ideas—from a range of disciplines—that collectively shape us. “An underpinning concept of ubuntu is that everything that lives carries vital force, and this vital force is what counts as ‘Ntu,’” Makhatini explains. “I’ve found that the hinge that connects all African art, music, religions, worldviews, and histories is this notion of Ntu. This is the part the colonial system was not able to erase. This album is an intervention to hold on to the things that refused to be removed.”

Crafted by a talented young lineup, these 10 tracks situate Makhathini’s ideas in the realm of sound. “I was grappling with what it means to locate the sonic inside of these conversations,” he says. “You exist in the context of the whole, and that became the underpinning conceptual view towards the bandstand—all the musicians are younger than me, to build continuity within that shared ‘insideness’ of this cultural sphere.”

Here, Makhathini breaks down key tracks from the album.

“Unonkanyamba”
“When I was growing up, there was this myth that if there were heavy quakes, Inkanyamba [the serpent] was emerging from beneath the earth. When it emerges, there’s no way you can survive, and we were told we couldn’t see it cause we’d die immediately. As a kid, I’d internalized this as a masculine energy. Here, I use the idea of ‘Uno’ as pointing towards a different polarity. What if these energies were feminine? Anything that has to do with water, we consult Nomkhubulwane—that’s a deity or divinity for rain. There’s a sense in which the arising of Unonkanymaba could be seen as a metaphor for all the things that could possibly emerge from beneath the earth.”

“Mama” (feat. Omagugu)
“This whole album is underpinned by Ntu configured as essence, and essence as a space of origin. There’s always this feminine energy surrounding the womb and water. ‘Mama’ is a human manifestation of what Unonkanyamba would mean at a cosmic level. My wife, Omagugu, composed [this song] for my mother-in-law, who got sick and passed away. It’s paying tribute to a mother in a spiritual form—as part of the lineage of ancestors that can make interventions on our behalf. The sonic arrangement starts with a gentleness, then builds, almost like a fetus growing in the womb. The break is the idea of giving birth as something that is high frequency. Though it tries to give a sonic feeling of what it means to be a mother, it asks what it means to lose one.”

”Amathongo”
“In English, we say you’re in ‘deep sleep,’ which has nothing to do with being elsewhere—in a world that functions. In isiZulu, we say ‘usebuthongweni,’ which means he or she is one with the ‘star gods’ or amathongo. That says something about sleep as this moment where we’re actually alive in another reality. Ntu speaks about how we collapse these two realities. So, when I say, ‘Vumani vumani vumani weZangoma,’ it’s because you have to surrender. Through this invocation of ‘ukuvuma’ [‘to agree or concur’], a collective agreement enables a ritual state where time and space are suspended. When I grew up, jazz musicians had no sense of cultural situatedness. There was no relationship between amathongo and the things that we see around us, until Busi Mhlongo and Zim Ngqawana arrived. They brought these connections in a more deliberate way, so this is part of that codification.”

“Emlilweni” (feat. Jaleel Shaw)
“In various creation stories on the [African] continent, the earth was once filled with fire. When water emerged, all the fires escaped to the underworlds as a sign of obedience. As we speak about the underworlds, we also speak about the location of our ancestors, so it’s interesting to me how South Africans use fire as one of our codes for expressing our tiredness. We’re so tired, we’re telling our ancestors that we need bigger interventions. This was the language post-coloniality and still is. Throughout these time periods, we’ve viewed musicians as operating from the edges of these burning fires—to propel the fire burning in the middle. Given the urgency of things to change in a very fragile system, there’s an even deeper urgency for musicians to enunciate from within these burning fires instead of from around them.”

“Omnyama”
“When I first heard Mfaz’Omnyama, his voice would just cut through. He always projected something that was distant from here—something untouchable by the systems. Bab’ Mfaz’Omnyama, Mam’ Busi Mhlongo, and Bab’ Phuzekhemisi were unlocking codes, and if you heard that, that was your access. They were like, ‘I’m giving this to you, and the only way to enter is for you to hear, to sense.’ I think of Maskanda musicians as a radical movement. To pick up a Western classical instrument and do a full-on colonization of it is radical—the guitar was speaking English, and they made it speak isiZulu! Through this unconventional tuning, they were telling us something deeper about how to make these tools obey your own story.”

“Senze’ Nina”
“We’ve seen how men are targeted in a deep way, even during apartheid. We grew up without our fathers, and these were the creations of dysfunctionality in the Black family. There are problematic constructs we’ve created ourselves, too, and men really need to add gentleness to their vocabulary of masculinity. ‘Senze’ Nina’ is about the truth that at the very core of every man lives a gentleness that is inherent just by the mere fact that they were born of a mother. I propose the idea of the making of a new man when that gentleness needs to be reawakened. Some of the most powerful things are projected with a gentleness!”

“Ntu”
“In the Spirit of Ntu starts with all these things that are clashing and conflicting, and it ends with this gentle solo piano—this very utopian place. All the things that happen on this album are things that you can see, but this last song leads into a dream and happens elsewhere. This music is one of those ritual technologies that takes us to different locations, where you enter a space and come out of it different. Ntu is that reconfiguration of self.”