By Stuart Nicholson for Jazzwise Magazine
This is the second album by Makhathini to be issued on the Blue Note imprint; the first – Modes of Communication: Letters from the Underworlds – was named one of the best jazz albums of 2020 by The New York Times. But In the Spirit of the Ntu is the first to be released on the newly-formed Blue Note Africa imprint, and suggests Universal is looking to give welcome exposure to some of the dynamic young musicians on the South African/African jazz scene.
This album is a good example, covering a wide emotional range, from the dynamic ‘Abantwana Belanga,’ to the reflective introspection of ‘Nyonini Le’ or ‘Senze’ Nina’. Makhathini – formerly a member of Shabaka Hutchings’ band Shabaka and the Ancestors appearing on their 2016 album Wisdom of Elders – speaks of how the album was conceptualized in a “time of confusion and conflict’ in his homeland, and on tracks such as the minor-keyed ‘Amathongo’, he succeeds in implying darkness and mystery, despite the bright tempo, a feeling which persists in the ballad-like ‘Omagugu’ with an Anna Widauer vocal and a thoughtful trumpet intervention by Robin Fassie Kock. Inspired by the symbolism and traditions of Makhathini’s background in Zulu traditions, his playing on the unbridled ‘Abantwana Belanga,’ is suggestive of McCoy Tyner, a formative influence, something he addresses below.
You have referred to formative influences – Abdullah Ibrahim, Bheki Mseleku, Coltrane, and McCoy Tyner. To what extent would you say US masters influence South African jazz today as opposed to ‘local heroes’ such as Ibrahim, Kippie Moeketsi, etc?
Historically, there has always been a connection. Jazz was born through a moment of displacement: geographic, cultural, religious, and linguistic. So it is music that came as a result of some form of victimization. It came through the brutalities of Transatlantic exile and local forms of displacement. These are some of the shared memories both in Africa and in the diasporas. The masters you mention were in constant dialogue over the Atlantic Ocean. As a follower of all these people, I have always been interested in what connects this collective memory, so I draw from all of them equally. They offer different things at various points of my journey; I am attracted to both Mseleku’s sound and the underpinning conceptual frameworks. I could say something about each of the above, and there are connections between all of them.
You refer to the tension between ‘homegrown’ and ‘adopted’ practices but there are instrumentals where such referential meanings don’t appear to define the music, rather they seem to subjectively inspire it, such as the influence of McCoy Tyner…
Music in African cultures is often a result of experience, it is an expression of a locatedness; sounds emerge as gestures expressing a broader feeling of being. Sound does not occur outside of functionality. Our ancestors composed songs for every occasion that were linked to a cosmological calendar, and these were not uttered outside of their contextual settings. I am the people who were experiencing pain and needed to vocalize through the symbols of fire. Your reference to Tyner is evidence that he is not separate from those people too.
Do the influence of US jazz and the cultural values it implies contrast with the conflict and confusion you speak of?
Sounds cannot be read outside of history… similarly Africa, as a point of origin, cannot be separated from ‘jazz’ – the ‘jazzy-ness’, a term I use to refer to pre-slavery sound approaches, has always been there in African music; improvisation, swing, form, and syncopation – these are not new concepts in Africa.