Jazz pianist Nduduzo Makhathini channels the love — and the ancestors listen
Jazz pianist Nduduzo Makhathini wore his glad rags — a suit cut from African prints, naturally — when he walked on to the stage at the Sun City Superbowl to collect his prize at the South African Music Awards (Samas).
He won the accolade for best jazz album and was also nominated for male artist of the year, a rarity for jazz artists. So he instantly became the toast of the town, with people beating a path to his door.
The Samas are always followed by endless meets-and-greets, sponsored after-parties and groupies needing a squeeze. But the following morning, he answers his phone with no trace of a sleepless night or hangover.
"I went to work right away," Makhathini chuckles.
"I had to think about Monday and stuff. You can’t celebrate too much. I went to the official Sama after-party and fortunately there weren’t any groupies at the celebrations.
"I’m not even sure if we have groupies in jazz. All we have is people who follow the music. I wasn’t mobbed or anything.
"I got a nice welcome at the airport in East London. It’s a small airport, so everyone knows everyone. And my phone wouldn’t stop ringing. Messages kept coming.
"For me it’s all the love that’s invested in the music that we play and co-create."
Makhathini, 35, is head of the music department at Fort Hare University in the Eastern Cape. His eighth solo album, Ikhambi, was named best jazz album at the Samas. He says the awards he has won do not influence how he thinks and how he approaches music.
"I see them as being more useful for creating awareness about the existence of the artists and their works. You are also right in saying that they help you to negotiate more money. Unfortunately — or fortunately — the industry does associate and judge artists’ worth based on accolades," he adds.
With musical parents — his mother is a singer and keyboard player and his father a guitarist — it was written in the stars that he’d wind up in music.
"My mother — Nomajerusalema — was my first piano teacher even though she did not realise it," he says. "I think some of the greatest teachers are the ones that can teach with no words but actions. My mother’s love for the instrument inspired me more than what she was actually playing at the time.
"It is rather sad that she stopped playing, though she still sings amazingly."
In 2001, Makhathini’s parents sent him off to Durban University of Technology to study music. After completing his training, he moved to Johannesburg, where he played keys for hotshots including Lebo Mathosa, Simphiwe Dana and Vusi Khumalo.
In 2015 he was named the Standard Bank Young Artist for Jazz.
Recorded in 2016 and released late in 2017, Ikhambi is arguably his most ambitious album yet. The album directed itself, he says.
"Looking at my deadlines with the previous records, Ikhambi took the longest to put together. Conceiving the tunes and bringing them to life was not so difficult, but it needed a specific articulation. So I had to listen deeply to my inner guide.
"I would not say the project was ambitious, but it was rather demanding in terms of arrangements, personnel, commitment and time."
Makhathini says he held off releasing the album because he was waiting for a sign.
"Its release took a while, even though the work was already completed. I wondered about this until I got a dream saying that the ones from the underworlds are requesting me to compose a space [umsamu] from which they could be a part of this work even during its performances."
The album features the usual suspects, including his long-time collaborator Ayanda Sikade as drummer.
Special guests include English jazz flautist and composer Eddie Parker.
"Parker was wonderful to work with. His presence brought a lot of blessings to the record. He was a very good friend of the great Bheki Mseleku, of whom I am a committed disciple," he says. "Brother Ayanda and I have a special connection and a similar understanding of the particular style of music that we play."
Another regular collaborator on the album is his wife, Omagugu. "She is very important for my work. She brings something I cannot yet find words to describe, but I feel the emptiness when she is not part of the music.
"I guess this is perhaps because of the very unique singer she is — with an amazing sense of both harmony and melody of very advanced levels.
"I am deeply grateful and thankful for the all the personnel on this record. They all brought so much magic to the project. That includes the engineers, photographers, album artwork designers … there is just a flow of love."
Makhathini, like many in the local music industry, laments the dearth of jazz categories at the Samas in recent years. But he also believes classifications are problematic as they rely on continuously evolving definitions.
"But I still think that additional jazz sub-genres can be an advantage for a lot of other people in jazz that are dealing with very specific sounds," he says.
He is currently focusing on furthering his studies and improving his breathing technique. "Musically I am preparing for a new record as I have not been in studio since 2016. The new record might only be released next year as I am still touring with [the] Ikhambi project," he says.
"We have just come back from a tour that started at the Cape Town International Jazz Festival. We have since done Mozambique and Mauritius.
"I am preparing for the National Arts Festival and the Joy of Jazz. I am headlining both this year.
"I am also excited that at the Joy of Jazz I will be collaborating with master Azar Lawrence, who worked with master McCoy Tyner after master John Coltrane’s transitioning.
"This means a lot for me and my growth as an improviser."