As the first South African artist to release an album worldwide on the storied Blue Note label, Nduduzo Makhathini carries a weight of expectation on his shoulders. Cognizant of the position he’s in, the 37-year-old pianist sees this opportunity as a means to work from the present moment right down to its roots. “Part of what I want to figure out with Blue Note is how to create an awareness about the broader cultures from which I emerged,” he explains. “As opposed to being about me, this must essentially be about the community I come from. It deals with the histories and the importance of engaging those histories, using me as a bridge to link South Africa to the United States and vice versa.”
Raised in the rural hills of uMgungundlovu, slightly removed from the more pervasive colonial influences in the townships, Makhathini first came to music through the power of nature and the restorative arts. “Where I grew up, you could still hear birds sing and traditional ceremonies accompanied by different songs,” he recalls. “Quite central to that [existence] was that music was used for healing.” Makhathini’s grandmother, a practicing healer, introduced him to various songs of purpose and the principle of the artist-healer; his mother, a piano player herself, helped cultivate an appreciation of that instrument.
Despite his strong musical upbringing, a lack of formal training and an extreme naiveté regarding jazz forms and norms dogged Makhathini in his initial college studies at the dawn of the new millennium. Only through an act of divine synchronicity would he happen to come upon a lodestar and a mentor to provide guidance. “I used to go to the library and listen to different things. This one time I played [John Coltrane’s] A Love Supreme, and it changed my life,” Makhathini confesses. “I realized that all of the things I was looking for—for example, the totality of dance, and the healing power of song—were all in there. Coltrane captured this beautifully. And a couple of weeks from there, I met [pianist] Bheki Mseleku.”
Finding the common ground between Coltrane’s messages and his own traditions, receiving the wisdom of Mseleku, and exploring South Africa’s past and present, Makhathini quickly developed a sound all his own. At the same time, his art traveled far and wide via the jazz festival circuit, European tours, and jaunts in America. Work with saxophonist Zim Ngqawana, another musical father figure and incalculable influence, further shaped his outlook.
Makhathini compiled an impressive list of sideman and producer credits in the years that followed, but it was his own prolific output—seven albums released on his family-operated Gundu Entertainment label and an eighth for Universal Music South Africa—that would garner the greatest attention and acclaim. Awards flowed in time with that music—the Standard Bank Young Artist Award in 2015, the South African Music Award for Best Jazz Album (for 2017’s Ikhambi) in 2018—and appearances at Jazz at Lincoln Center’s presentation of The South African Songbook in September of 2019 and NYC Winter Jazzfest four months later heightened the stateside excitement surrounding his work.
Now, with Makhathini’s arrival at one of the music’s most revered imprints, the pianist’s influence and the reach of South African jazz in its totality have both been amplified. On his Blue Note debut, Modes of Communication: Letters from the Underworlds, he explores a complex set of ideas—connections between the physical and metaphysical realms, multilayered consciousness, influences of colonization and slavery, and the memories and meanings in water. All of it, not surprisingly, is neatly framed within a spiritual cast. There’s opener “Yehlisan’uMoya,” which uses Omagugu Makhathini’s fervent vocals to establish the idea that “certain things need spiritual intervention and are beyond our power”; “Saziwa Nguwe,” bringing sanctified sounds into the picture to represent the pressurized introduction of Christianity into South African spheres; “Beneath the Earth,” with a dawning arc, a 7/4 flow, and a clear acknowledgement of God’s presence in the water; and “Unyazi,” which speaks to a pan-African sensibility by bridging highlife- and Afrobeat-derived grooves to Nguni traditions that emphasize the use of rhythm as an anchor to gods and ground.
Purposefully working with some of his South African contemporaries, including drummer Ayanda Sikade and tenor saxophonist Linda Sikhakhane, and adding American alto saxophonist Logan Richardson to the mix, Makhathini uses personnel choices to “dissolve the notion of separation and deal with the idea of all peoples of African descent having a home wherever they are.” As with his every action, it’s a move directly related to the art of expression. “I’m evoking meaning in what I do, but I’m also divining,” he explains. “In rituals, you have the knowing, the not knowing, and the new knowing, so there’s always liminal space. And that’s jazz.”