Interview: South African Pianist & Composer Nduduzo Makhathini On His Blue Note Debut

South African jazz pianist Nduduzo Makhathini chatted to us about his debut release on Blue Note Records - Modes of Communication: Letters From The Underworlds.

Download or stream here.

Below we discuss cultural identities, diverse musical influences, and spiritual conflicts…

Your musical style has been influenced by both American jazz artists (John Coltrane, Andrew Hill & McCoy Tyner) and South African jazz artists (Bheki Mseleku, Moses Molelekwa & Abdullah Ibrahim). What elements of these international influences do you draw upon to evoke your own cultures’ personality, through music?

I think that all the artists mentioned here were pioneers, with regards to how music connected with deeper spiritual meanings. That is what I draw from them - the need for sound to speak. Although these artists came from different cultural spheres, I do believe that at a spiritual level it is about going deep within the self - to find meaning to being in this world.

This new album draws more upon your South African roots, could you talk to us about the historical context and your vision for the new album?

This work draws on broader histories of African peoples here in the continent, in the diaspora, and everywhere our people have travelled. It draws from South African pasts and how one deals with the cultural and spiritual conflicts, produced by colonialism and perhaps modernity. The central focus in this work is an imagination of a precolonial moment as a kind of utopian home.

In this search, we are also confronted with the question of what is left from those histories. This is when ideas of ‘modes of communication’ - texts, messages, and ‘letters’ - all emerged.

In one of your new singles, ‘Indawu’, you pay tribute to the spirits of the Nguni people who are “known for their fondness towards music and dance”, how would you like this rich mythology to inspire your contemporaries and listeners?

Well I am born of the Nguni people, more specifically the Zulu tribe. In my upbringing I drew so much from these cultural geometries and concepts. For instance, their reference to the underworlds as a site for our ancestors, that carries over in a lot of what I do and think about.

Dance and music, within this cultural frame, is always thought of as an invocation to the spirits that live underground. Hence the dances’ focus of hitting the ground, as a way of assuring affinity to the ancestors underground. I then point towards these paradigms in my work as a way of contextualising the sound within broader cultural and spiritual consciousness.

Image: Blue Note Records

The vision is that of perceiving the sonics as a bridge between man and his gods, humanity and the ancestral realms. It is a technology of citing from both pasts and futures, to understand today.

You've highlighted the importance of cultures retaining their musical identity, so what could a Globalist future and fusion of styles mean for musical or cultural identities?

I think there will come a time where humanities’ collective memories will be activated, in that moment we will have one culture. With that said, it is important to consider the histories, the loss that informs our need to remember. This remembering will ultimately lead all of us into a universal consciousness.

Through founding and running a label with your partner (something we can relate to at Trouve la Groove), how do both of you manage a combined professional and personal relationship?

I believe friendships are always an important point of departure, I think that has been the Gundu secret. It also helps that we are both musicians and we are not afraid of innovation and making mistakes in the process.

You’ve recently guest featured on Shabaka and the Ancestors new album ‘We Are Sent Here By History’, so how was that collaborative experience?

Me and Shabaka come a long way, and again it’s a thing of friendships. We met around 2014 and have been in touch since, then we have recorded on each other’s albums - Wisdom of the Elders (2016) and Icilongo: The African Peace Suite (2016) were recorded days apart. I played on his record and he wrote liner notes on mine, it’s always about finding affinities.

The experience of working with Shabaka is always that of hanging out with a friend that you have not seen for a while, it is a feeling of us catching up with one another.

Finally, what does the word “Groove” mean to you?

To be in sync with the rhythm of the universe and connected to some level of gravity.

Listen to or download 'Modes of Communication: Letters From The Underworlds' by Nduduzo Makhathini.

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