The multi-award-winning pianist, who is widely hailed as one of this generation’s most important faces in jazz, is also a sangoma who is tickled by the idea of having high tea at The Piano Room in a luxury Jozi resort while discussing his new album, Ikhambi.
We settled outside near the pool where an assortment of sandwiches and pastries towered over a selection of African books like Peter Magubane’s AmaNdebele and he told me about the winding journey to album number eight.
Movement I: The beginning
“Normally, with my music, I go into studio for a few hours - not more than a day - because this is improvised music and we want to keep that freshness,” Makhathini said. “But this album was recorded in December and it only came out in October. So I was trying to figure out why.
“One of the things that came through a dream was that I needed to create a platform to present this project. I eventually created a project called Umsamo - which is a sacred place for our ancestors. It’s believed that they actually live in that corner of the house.”
He had to find performance venues that could symbolise umsamo.
“When we were playing at The Orbit for Umsamo, I actually saw my grandmother leaning against the piano with a big smile - this was during the performance. She died when I was a kid, maybe when I was 7 years old. I had never seen her in a dream but there was that moment. I was completely out but the band were playing and they weren’t worried about why I wasn’t playing because this happens a lot now.”
Most of Makhathini’s songs come to him through dreams: “It happens so often that it’s difficult to try and explain it to people. To a certain extent, I don’t feel like I am really a composer. I feel like I am a medium for this music, or for this healing vibration to manifest.”
Movement II: The healing
The waitress hovered, hesitant to ask if Makhathini wasn’t enjoying the sandwiches as he had not touched one or finished his tea. But the musician was intent on discussing the purpose of Ikhambi. He has said it is a projection of a healing energy through a sonic experience, but what exactly is the ailment?
“I think there are all kinds of healing processes that people go through. I think what was really in my mind when I conceived this record was three-dimensional. The one (dimension) was a physical healing - you know, about the brutalisation that the people have been through, hence a song like iThemba which is dedicated to the students of 1976.
“The other dimension was more of a mental damage that has been created by apartheid. People have lost self love and their cultures. But the one that is my main focus is what uBab’ Zim Nqawana referred to as the vandalism of the soul.
“I felt like we needed something that can speak to the soul. Then I decided: why don’t I record something that has this kind of healing vibration within it?”
This was a similar approach to a previous album. “A couple of years ago, when I recorded Listening To the Ground, I got this instruction from the spirits that people who come to my gigs for this particular presentation should bring water bottles and put them in front of the stage.”
But that act became sensationalised.
“I grew up with a grandmother who was a praying woman and people would bring pure water bottles and she’d pray over them and they’d get all kinds of healing. Your bottle carries your intention and the healing you need. I thought: this is something I’m familiar with and it’s worth trying.”
“People on social media were saying this was a cult of some sort and ‘Makhathini is losing it’. Scientifically, water is able to hear music and code the emotional aspects of music that are presented or performed by a musician. People play and water changes shape and stuff - it’s all over YouTube.”
From friends receiving signs about how to recover land belonging to their lineage to a child being cured of severe eczema in just three days, Makhathini has received feedback about the power of his music. He is a sangoma through song.
Movement III: The finding
My favourite song, Umlahlankosi, refers to the tree that is able to help one locate the spirit of a loved one who passed away due to unnatural causes. Makhathini hopes his music will hold the place of this tree in urban South Africa.
There is also the sonic lushness that is Amathambo (a Zulu word meaning the bones), which opens Ikhambi. The vocals implore the bones to come together in order to be read.
We’d reached the sweet section of our high tea and that’s when Makhathini told me about the sweetness in Amathambo that has allowed him to find his ability to straddle two worlds: “I started thinking about the ivories and how the whole piano is built.
"Within Zulu culture, if someone gives you the highest form of respect, they say ‘wena wendlovu’ - which refers to elephants being seen as the most powerful in the animal kingdom. Some of the most ancient sangomas used ivories for divination. As a sangoma who is a jazz musician, my form of divination is improvisation.”
“When a sangoma throws the bones, they read the bones and tell you what the ancestors are saying. In a similar way, when I play a phrase, it is transcendent in a way that they can interpret what their ancestors are saying. That’s what I’m trying to be more deliberate about in this record.”
* Buy Nduduzo Makhathini’s Ikhambi at stores and online.