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Pianist Nduduzo Makhathini doesn’t view his status as the first South African musician to sign with Blue Note Records as an individual achievement. “I look at this in a collective or a communal way,” he explains. “For me, what I’m seeing here is a South African story forming part of a bigger narrative of this music and having a sort of engagement and discourse with the history of jazz. It’s also evident in the music how I harness these connections. I try to be very explicit about what they sound like and feel like.”
Indeed, Modes of Communication: Letters From the Underworlds, Makhathini’s wondrous Blue Note debut, includes plenty of nods to American jazz even as it celebrates African rhythms, melodic patterns and expressive methods. To him, his work draws from the legacies of Abdullah Ibrahim, Hugh Masekela, Miriam Makeba and many other South African musical pioneers, plus jazz performers from beyond his country’s borders who he considers to be kindred spirits.
“I come from the Zulu tribe, which is a very diverse one when it comes to music genres,” Makhathini notes. “When we say ingoma, we are simultaneously referring to a song, a feeling, a ritual, a dance. So this kind of totality is embedded in how we understand music and the role of an artist. And when I first heard John Coltrane and McCoy Tyner, their music instantly resonated with me. I think it has to do with the fact that Coltrane was exploring this idea of home and ancestors, and trying to trace things back to Africa. Sun Ra was doing the same thing. Those were the moments when I understood that they were part of my cultural framework.”
On Modes, Makhathini’s ninth album, these ingredients combine to create a glorious sonic feast. Take “Yehlisan’uMoya,” the lead track, which juxtaposes the ecstatic vocals of Omagugu Makhathini, Nduduzo’s wife, with passionate soloing by trumpeter Ndabo Zulu and saxophonists Logan Richardson and Linda Sikhakhane, supplemented by keyboard excursions from Makhathini that are alternately delicate and driving. As for “Beneath the Earth,” the song creates an exotic atmosphere that enhances an ancient theme. According to Makhathini, “It speaks to an ancestor as a type of exile and a kind of confinement that doesn’t allow one to speak a particular language.”
This concept, like most of the others on the album, is delivered in isiZulu, Makhathini’s native tongue. But he hopes those who can’t immediately decode his message will still be rewarded. “I really want to express what we’re saying in the music itself,” he says. “If you go in and find your own meanings, I think that’s beautiful.” —Michael Roberts