Nduduzo Makhathini talks spirituality in jazz and Bheki Mseleku

Nduduzo Makhathini.
Nduduzo Makhathini.
Image: Mduduzi Ndzingi

The last time I interviewed award-winning jazz pianist Nduduzo Makhathini was when he had been named the Standard Bank Young Artist Award winner for jazz.

The year was 2015. 

Makhathini was also working towards releasing his third album that same year titled Listening to the Ground. In 2014 he had released two records, Sketches of Tomorrow and Mother Tongue. To date, he has a total of eight albums under his belt with the latest titled Ikhambi.

“I don’t want to see them as albums” says Makhathini during our telephonic interview ahead of his talk and performance at Stellenbosch University this week, “but stressed as offerings or rituals. So as a practicing sangoma who is trying to re-emerge the idea of ubungoma in a modernised time, I try to find ways and be more deliberate about what this healing process entails.”

Makhathini touches on the subject matter which he will engage with on Thursday at Stellenbosch’s Fismer Hall, where he will unpack ideas of spirituality in jazz as well as speak about the legacy of the late multi-instrumentalist Bheki Mseleku, who has been a great influence in his music career.  

The conversation and performance forms part of the Interdisciplinary Forum for Popular Music (ifPOP) Jazz Conversations series under the umbrella of Africa Open Institute for Music, Research and Innovation. The series headed by Dr. Stephanie Vos aims at “documenting the practices and approaches of the current generation of jazz musicians.”

It also seeks to create a more inclusive social space through music within the Stellenbosch community. This will be the fifth conversation of the series. Focusing on Mseleku is Makhathini’s way of paying homage to the late musician and a continuation on documenting his life, both through the band stand and in the academic arena. Mseleku was a talented jazz musician who left South Africa in the 1980s to relocate to London. South Africa was in political turmoil.

Mseleku died in 2008 at the age of 53. This conversation is also linked to Makhathini’s interests as a musician whose music and practice is centred on ideas of spirituality, healing, meditations as well as viewing this spirituality in jazz as part of the broader decolonial project.

“I want to argue that over and above the academic confines of citations for example, that over citing from books and histories that have a lot of western, colonizer meaning, that it is important to acknowledge the ancestry relevance [and] as a valued space of meditation.” Makhathini who graduated with his Masters degree earlier this year will explore these concepts further in his Ph.D studies, which he has already embarked on.

But back to Mseleku.

In his Master’s dissertation Makhathini focuses on the is life of Mseleku as an exiled musician. “The main thing I wanted when I was writing this research thesis was that I actually wanted Mseleku’s voice to come out” he explains, “And because not much has been written about him in the academic space. But I was also trying to relocate the sound of exile in his music, so if we knew that Mseleku was in exile does he have a way of project himself musically and what does that sound like…so those were some of the things I was interested in.”

The SAMA-award winner explains further that he was also questioning the idea of home, given that Mseleku like many other musicians such as the members of the jazz band the Brotherhood of Breath, (except for Louis Moholo who is still alive and back in SA) left South Africa during the height of apartheid and died in lands not of their births.  

And on the other hand, home can also be a contentious thing, especially when many musicians don’t get the recognition they deserve across various performing platforms as well as at spaces of learning. There is a cry for example that musicians die as paupers due to many factors such as mismanagement, being cheated off their royalties, not being booked for gigs and various other factors.

Makhatini says, “He [Mseleku] had problems with a lot of things in South Africa and how the music industry did not really acknowledge his as a musician and a teacher but also as an individual. There’s only a few number of gigs that I could get when I was collecting my data… there were a couple of other gigs that Mseleku did in South Africa but they were not more than ten,” laments Makhathini.

“So that poses a lot of questions with this idea of a home, what is a home, and one of the conclusions I came to is that perhaps we should think of a home as more of a spiritual construct as opposed to a physical notion,” he says.  

Perhaps these ideas will extend in performance when he takes on the stage alongside Buddy Wells on saxophone, Shane Cooper on bass and Jonno Sweetman on drums, not his regular band but certainly quality players that will invoke the spirits speaking through the pianist. Makhathini is also part of the Joy of Jazz line up next month.         

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