Nduduzo Makhathini
Nduduzo Makhathini
Image: Arthur Dlamini

Nduduzo Makhathini was at the Artscape Theatre to give a masterclass on Black Aesthetics a few hours before his trio’s performance at the Cape Town International Jazz Festival this year. He arrived at the venue to set up, relax, and wait for attendees to show up.

He was in high spirits; his rumbustious, roaring laughter filled the room as he enthusiastically embraced acquaintances, some of whom he met during his formative years in Durban, and some whom he has encountered along the way.

It has been a long, twisty, challenging journey for him, yet every bit has been crucial to the man, father, partner, pianist and composer, music producer, and the academic — the fully fledged person he is now. And he is still growing and developing, taking on new challenges and advancing.

He kick-started his immersive-lecture-as-masterclass by playing a segment from ntate-moholo Abdullah Ibrahim’s 1987 documentary, A Brother With Perfect Timing, in which the elder speaks about what the people of District Six lost when they were forced to vacate their land from 1966 onwards. These reflections formed the cornerstone of topics that Makhathini moved in and outside.

More people trickled in and filled up the few empty seats available

The hour-long session progressed with him asking the attendees what the first thing was that the elder said in the film. “They took away time, and gave us the clock,” responded an audience member who rescued the room from the silence that followed the initial question. 

Makhathini enrolled in a PhD programme as lockdown hit in 2020. He worked — no, fought — his way through it for the next three years. He submitted his thesis moments before going on stage while on tour, and successfully defended his paper, Breaking Into Sound: Dis/locating Ntu Cosmology and Improvisation in SA Jazz.

Ritual practice

Makhathini then discussed the challenges he faced at every turn, and how the structures of academia do not favour practices — such as dreams and their interpretation, spirituality, and the blatant disregard for forms of attribution that don’t fall in line with its requirements — that misalign with their terms. To arrive as someone that the university did not anticipate, gallantly defend his logic, and emerge on the other side with his doctorate intact is awe-inspiring. 

Makhathini’s thesis sits at the edges; it is exiled from the normative hegemony, in much the same way that Ibrahim had been banished from District Six and exiled from SA. “The Clock”, in Makhathini’s instance, is the system that refused to engage in anything that had to do with ritual practice and divination as different modes to think about improvisation.

Image: Arthur Dlamini

In his words, “where spirituality is invoked, it is treated as background and not seriously engaged with”. He also spoke about “the difficulty of speaking about this music” due to the academy’s — and the system’s, at large — expectation to almost extract creative improvised music from its context. In SA, that context has to consider colonialism; it has to consider apartheid; and it has to consider the reality of black life now — disenfranchised, marginalised, undignified.

“How do we speak about the sound with a great posture and sensitivity to the people that produce the sound?” he wondered.

Makhathini’s astounding ability to speak about theory in relatable terms needs to be studied. It’s at the moment of realising this gift, somewhere between the beginning and end of the lecture, that the pin dropped and my thoughts coalesced: the student has transcended and is now a master. He represents, to this generation, what his teachers, the likes of ntate Zim Ngqawana, ntate-moholo Philip Tabane, and mme Busi Mhlongo represented: mentors, sounding boards, purveyors of a new way.

Unspoken signals

The Rosies stage at the Cape Town International Convention Centre was the venue for Makhathini’s performance. Zwelakhe-Duma Bell Le Pere was on double bass, and Francisco Mela was on drums. They spent the next 90 minutes showcasing the results of the past few months of a relentless touring schedule. They invited frequent collaborators aboard — artist, teacher, and Makhathini’s wife, Omagugu, with Linda Sikhakhane, whose forthcoming album Makhathini produced. 

What they display on stage, from the camaraderie, to the unspoken signals, to the way in which everyone has space to stretch his or her musical ideas in the trio format, brings to mind words that Makhathini shared towards the end of his lecture regarding how he approaches the compositional aspect of his music nowadays. 

“One of the greatest compositions that I’m grappling with now is the composition of the self. Because I realise that music is already ongoing, and that one of the ways in which we could tap into the music is composing the self [by] being a member of society, by way of ritual. This composition is basically a suggestion that if we think about music as a ritual, then there has to be a state, or a kind of decorum. So I’ve just really been thinking about, maybe loving my kids a bit more is a way of composing. So the composition of the self really helps my access to the music. But I’m not composing music any more.”

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