Once in a Blue Note: 'Modes of Communication' is Nduduzo Makhathini's letter from the underworlds

Nduduzo Makhathini playing a Steinway Piano (Photo: Jati Lindsay/ Supplied)
Nduduzo Makhathini playing a Steinway Piano (Photo: Jati Lindsay/ Supplied)

Modes of Communication: Letters from the Underworlds - released early April on the prestigious jazz label Blue Note Records - is pianist Nduduzo Makhathini’s way of channelling messages from his ancestors through sound. As a sangoma, the album is a sonic offering that explores methods of ubungoma and improvisation as essential for healing.

Research into Zulu cosmic mythology forms a big part of the inspiration behind the album. "The argument on this record is that it’s impossible to engage sound without engaging the very cosmology that produces that particular sound," he says. With references to the ground constantly appearing, the album title follows from previous release Listening to the Ground, "in that it suggests that the notion of God in the sky is totally disturbed. People have to reimagine a different vortex when thinking about the idea of a God", he explains.

Recorded at the SABC’s M2 Studios in Auckland Park, this is Makhathini’s ninth album and the first South African jazz album released on Blue Note. This is an incredible achievement in the recognition of South Africa jazz on a global level. But in many ways, Blue Note has been late to the party - missing whole generations of excellent South African artists who have come before. Makhathini describe this release as an achievement, not for himself, but of all the musicians who preceded him and for the South African jazz community. With mentors such as the late Bheki Mseleku, Moses Molelekwa, Zim Ngqawana and Busi Mhlongo among them, he sees this release as a manifestation of those artists who are now ancestors. 

Modes of Communication: Letters from the Undergrou

"Everything that we do has an an overtone, it has an echo. And what Mseleku has done, he has created sounds. But when we engage these sounds now we engage them as echoes, as something that is sounding from a distance. It only arrives to us through an echo and that notion that it’s a voice of an ancestor. These echoes produce new sounds and new meanings," he says.

The album poses the question, "What happens when we listen?" Makhathini explains: "Letters from the Underworlds is a metaphor that these sonic offerings are in themselves representations of messages that are being sent from a world beyond the seen, beyond us. In order to translate what is being said by the ancestors, we then use sound as an outlet. It’s a technology." 

The album features a stellar line-up of musicians, including long-time collaborators Ayanda Sikade on drums and US-hailing Logan Richardson on alto saxophone. The rest of the band is completed by tenor saxophonist Linda Sikhakhane, trumpeter Ndabo Zulu, bassist Zwelakhe-Duma Bell Le Pere and percussionist Gontse Makhene. Vocals on the album feature Omagugu Makhathini – Nduduzo’s wife and an accomplished musician in her own right - and their children Nailah, Thingo and Moyo. Msaki (whose album Nduduzo co-produced) appears as guest on Beneath the Earth.

Makhathini’s friend, vocalist MXO guests on the hymn Emaphusheni. "With MXO, I had never heard him in that context before. I’m keen on expanding sonic possibilities especially without changing the way that people sing in their respective genres but to see how the sound creates illusions that makes us hear people differently," Makhathini says.

Makhathini does not shy away from ideas of spirituality. The onus falls on the listeners to do their homework. Speaking interchangeably between isiZulu and English, he generously breaks down concepts around ritual and symbolism. "As a Sangoma, people ask, ‘So how do you then divine?’. My idea of playing the piano is the idea of the throwing of the bones. This idea of playing the piano and improvising is juxtaposed with the idea of throwing of the bones, as a way of translating what is being said in the underworld in real time," he says.

Hailing from the lush hills of uMgungundlovu in Pietermaritzburg, Makhathini works as a composer, performer, arranger and producer. He occupies space in the scholarly world as Head of Music at the University of Fore Hare in the Eastern Cape. But he also runs a beautiful blog with writings, tours regularly as a musician, is busy completing his PhD, and all the while is supporting his family.  

Nduduzo Makhathini (Photo: Jati Lindsay/ Supplied)

                                           Nduduzo Makhathini (Photo: Jati Lindsay/ Supplied)

Blue Note

The album was recorded at the end of 2018. It was due for release in early 2019 by Universal, the label Makhathini is signed to. The Blue Note release came through a series of serendipitous moments. In January 2019, Makhathini who was in New York for the Winter Jazz Festival, played at the Blue Note Club. Word of his performances spread. Around the same time he attended the Jazz Congress where he made further connections, allowing him to catch the eyes and ears of Blue Note label heads. A year later ,he was signed to Blue Note with the label wanting to issue the album. 

Makhathini says the opportunity came when he least expected it. "Of course I’m honoured and I’m thankful to be part of a lineage that is so important for black music in particular. But there is a lot more to it than that." He continues: "I think Blue Note is not only a record label, it’s a sound. It’s a sonic articulation. And if you think of it in that register you’ll realise that South Africa since the 60s has had a lot of Blue Note-sounding records. I might be the first, but then I think the responsibility is speaking of those particular histories. It comes from a huge lineage of other soundings of SA jazz that have produced the culture that I come from."

Makhathini often references the work of Princess Magogo KaDinuzulu and her invaluable teachings of Zulu traditions in the form of Ihubo/Amahubo songs. Princess Magogo - the mother of Chief Mangosuthu Buthelezi - was a skilled Imbongi (praise poet), singer and composer gifted in playing the ugubhu and the isithontolo. These praise laments imagine pre-colonial time and the utopian ideals associated with them, feature thematically throughout the album.

Creating from a cultural, cosmological and spiritual standpoint, Makhathini explains: "I tell the stories of my people and my culture. I’m advocating for that more than I’m advocating for music, because music is really a result of me vocalising these historical narratives. I think there is a lot more to think about than the hype of being signed to a record label.

"It’s no longer just about composition and thinking, 'Well, I’m going to put this very hip chord here’'or 'I’m going to do this rhythm here'. It’s about how do we make sure that our histories live forward. I’m very fascinated by this idea of ritual technology which is an idea that speaks about performance and improvisation as in itself a kind of ritual."

Watch Nduduzo Makhathini perform at The Blue Note in New York

Curriculum

Identifying more as a cultural worker rather than a musician, Makhathini recognises the knowledge gaps in South Africa’s music history. "Missing pages of our histories are found in our sound, and that’s the functionality of the artist - to make sure those gaps are closed," he said recently on Instagram live with UK saxophonist Shabaka Hutchings - who he shares a long-time friendship with and who penned the albums' liners notes.

"And this is partly why musicians are in academia now, because we have to rewrite these stories. That’s partly why I’m writing this PhD. Its a lot of work between travelling, being a musician and lecturing. But it’s necessary work because I realised its important for people to know that there is a kind of plurality that exists. The idea of the coloniser or the colonial system was that of the uni-idea or university, and not allowing a plural-versity of knowledge. And this is what the decolonial project is really about. It’s about the shifting of the centre, the de-centering," he says.

Watch Nduduzo Makhathini present a TedX talk on Ubungoma Practises and Articulations

Under lockdown

As one of the most anticipated album releases of the year, Modes was set to have a series of international tour dates and performances around it. It dropped 3 April, a week into South Africa’s lockdown. Global restrictions due to Covid-19 made physical promotion of the album impossible. Makhathini’s response is surprising in light of this. He expresses acceptance, rather suggesting that there wouldn’t have been a better time for the release than now. 

"Sitting down at home and thinking about this release and what it’s done, I’m humbled in a big way because I’m realising that music has the ability to travel on its own. Music has the ability to speak to people's hearts, without necessarily speaking through an artist who is a human being trying to figure out purpose."

He adds: "It’s quite a transition that we are going through and it forces us to re-imagine tomorrow and to reimagine this moment and what it is, beyond the fears and panic and everything that is going on. A deeper engaging of the question of tomorrow is necessary."

After revisiting lyrics on his album that explore the idea of sound as a utopian place, Makhathini believes this time period was foretold through his music. "We think about how people find these utopian homes through our sound and how people through this album specifically, have been finding ways to experience freedom, joy and healing that is otherwise deprived by this current moment. There is a way in which music goes ahead of us, or in the context of being a healer, I’m always given messages that project the future and messages of the past."

*Read his blog here and buy the album here.

*Atiyyah Khan is an arts journalist, researcher, DJ, archivist and event curator from Johannesburg, based in Cape Town. She currently documents all forms of arts and culture while also forming part of the music collective, Future Nostalgia.