In The Spirit Of Ntu Nduduzo Makhathini

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  • 1Unonkanyamba09:10
  • 2Mama07:01
  • 3Amathongo06:26
  • 4Nyonini Le?06:02
  • 5Emlilweni06:33
  • 6Re-Amathambo07:02
  • 7Abantwana Belanga06:52
  • 8Omnyama08:32
  • 9Senze' Nina05:49
  • 10Ntu04:45
  • Total Runtime01:08:12

Info for In The Spirit Of Ntu

On his milestone tenth studio album, In the Spirit of Ntu, the visionary South African pianist, composer, improviser, and healer Nduduzo Makhathini condenses the thematic, sonic, and conceptual notions explored over his catalog into a layered yet accessible 10-track album. “I really felt this need to summarize everything I’ve done this far and put it into ‘some’ context,” Makhathini divulges.

In the Spirit of Ntu is Makhathini’s second album to be released on Blue Note Records in partnership with Universal Music Group Africa, and the very first release on the newly formed imprint Blue Note Africa. A central figure of the country’s vibrant jazz scene, Makhathini assembled a band consisting of some of South Africa’s most exciting young musicians including saxophonist Linda Sikhakhane, trumpeter Robin Fassie Kock, vibraphonist Dylan Tabisher, bassist Stephen de Souza, percussionist Gontse Makhene, and drummer Dane Paris.

Folding a range of concepts such as ‘minor and major rhythms,’ ‘guided mobility,’ ‘active listening,’ and ‘ritualism’ into the project, Makhathini draws on his background in Zulu traditions and intellectual curiosities to inform his engaging articulations. “I’m grappling with these cosmological ideas as a way of situating jazz in our context,” he says. “I put out Modes of Communication: Letters from the Underworlds using the letter as a metaphor for the sounds coming from the underworlds. Previously, I had released Listening to the Ground which encored into this idea of listening as knowing. In the Spirit of Ntu is living in that paradigm of listening to the things that emerge from the ground. Ntu is an ancient African philosophy from which the idea of Ubuntu stems out. Ubuntu says: ‘I am because you are.’ It is a deep invocation of collectiveness.”

“The wise ones tell us that our essence is ‘force,’ what our ancestors called Ntu,” writes Makhathini in the album’s foreword. “Ntu is where our wholeness resides through-which we are connected to all. It is our spiritual essence that is untouchable for it is all and all is with/in it.”

In much the same way as Makhathini builds upon the sonic universes he has previously created within his own cannon; he utilizes the ideas, practices, and experiences of pre-colonial Africa to fashion new modes of hearing, feeling, or being. “I’m drawing from things that reside as part of memory – until they get to the point of revealing something new,” he says. “My improvisation is searching for that moment of revelation… or in the African context; a moment of divination.”

That notion of revisiting and refashioning is apparent on “Re-Amathambo,” a rework of a song from his critically acclaimed 2018 album Ikhambi, which features a stunning vocal performance by Anna Widauer. Here, Makhathini metaphorically employs the piano as the Sangoma’s bones – a tool for divination and a symbol of elephant tusks represented through the ivory. This analogous use of his instrument represents the synthesis Makhathini aims to achieve; constantly seeking out the echoes and parallels between ‚homegrown‘ and ‚adopted‘ practices. “I was brought up in a Christian family,” he shares. “We had the whole idea of God being in the sky and there was less attention paid to things that come from the ground.”

Managing to find a thread between the seemingly divergent positions of culture and religion, Makhathini employs fire as a motif on the album’s anchor track “Emlilweni,” which features a searing guest appearance by the American alto saxophonist Jaleel Shaw. “South Africans have always thought of sounds as residing outside of burning fires. They would say ‚during this particular time this was the soundtrack to this burning!‘ I started thinking what it means for sound to no longer conform to residing on the borders of this burning… what does it mean for sound to emerge out of these fires?”

Of course, Makhathini is delicately referencing the biblical tale of Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego, whose faith saw them emerge from a fiery furnace with the son of God in tow. This symbolism of returning to our essence and recomposing ourselves continues on tracks like “Mama” featuring the mesmerizing vocals of Omagugu, and particularly “Senze’Nina,” which reappropriates an ‘anthem’ of anti-Apartheid protest and frames the lyrics through the lens of ‘revitalized essence.’

“‘Senzenina?’ [‘what have we done?’] is a slogan, which was a part of a protest song during Apartheid,” explains Makhathini. “Recently, this same slogan and song have been invoked as a way of questioning the current gender-based violence cases in South Africa. That’s when I started thinking, this is a question that women now, or Black people in the struggle, shouldn’t have been asking. We’ve sung this song enough to realize that we’ve not done anything wrong. This has nothing to do with them but the oppressor or the men causing pain to women. It is the perpetrators that have lost something in their being, something of their essence, that needs to be restored. Thus, I opened up another meaning of ‘Senze’Nina’ without a question mark, which translates as ‘remake us you mothers.’ In this sense, the song represents the making of a new man that is more kind, sensitive, and aligned to Ntu.”

Seeing that the notion of Ntu revolves around communal, interpersonal, and even interspecies relations; it’s at these moments that the album reveals its function: a soundtrack emanating from the crevices between multiple moments and spaces, seeking to redefine, recreate, and re-imagine through improvisational techniques.

Perhaps apart from Makhathini’s influences such as John Coltrane, Bheki Mseleku, McCoy Tyner, and Abdullah Ibrahim, In The Spirit of Ntu pulls his most foundational cultural Influences into a space where the sounds of the South African landscape are placed at the center of the nation’s evolving jazz songbook. The song “Nyoni Le” does exactly this by employing shades of Princess Magogo kaDinuzulu’s style, a songstress cherished for her use of traditional vocal techniques. “Amahubo are the sounds of our villages,” Makhathini shares. “These sounds are like sacred texts, documents, or books and I’ve been exploring ways to echo them in my work.”

“This project was conceived at a difficult time in South Africa, a time of confusion and conflict,” says Makhathini. “It was, once more, a period of burning fires, riots and massacres. In this sense, the music that I have composed is not surrounding these fires as a backdrop or soundtrack—these sounds are part of the discourse. They project from the burning fires until the fires stop burning. What remains is what these sounds seek to restore. Ntu as a creative force that seeks to lead us to remember our essence.”

Nduduzo Makhathini, piano, keyboards, vocals
Omagugu, vocals
Anna Widauer, vocals
Jaleel Shaw, saxophone

Nduduzo Makhathini
grew up in the lush and rugged hillscapes of umGungundlovu in South Africa, a peri-urban landscape in which music and ritual practices were symbiotically linked. The area is significant historically as the site of the Zulu king Dingane kingdom between 1828 and 1840. It’s important to note that the Zulu, in fact the African warrior code, is deeply reliant on music for motivation and healing. This deeply embedded symbiosis is key to understanding Makhathini’s vision.

The church also played a role in Makhathini’s musical understanding, as he hopped from church to church in his younger days in search of only the music. The legends of South African jazz are deep influences as well, in particular Bheki Mseleku, Moses Molelekwa, and Abdullah Ibrahim. “The earlier musicians put a lot of emotions in the music they played,” he says. “I think it may also be linked to the political climate of those days. I also feel there is a uniqueness about South African jazz that created an interest all around the world and we are slowly losing that too in our music today. I personally feel that our generation has to be very conscious about retaining these nuances in the music we play today.”

Through his mentor Mseleku, Makhathini was also introduced to the music of John Coltrane’s classic quartet with McCoy Tyner. “I came to understand my voice as a pianist through John Coltrane’s A Love Supreme,” he says. “As someone who started playing jazz very late, I had always been looking for a kind of playing that could mirror or evoke the way my people danced, sung, and spoke. Tyner provided that and still does in meaningful ways.” Makhathini also cites American jazz pianists including Andrew Hill, Randy Weston, and Don Pullen as significant influences.

Active as an educator and researcher, Makhathini is the head of the music department at Fort Hare University in the Eastern Cape. He has performed at renowned festivals including the Cape Town International Jazz Festival and the Essence Festival (in both New Orleans and South Africa), and in 2019 made his debut appearances the Blue Note Jazz Club in New York City, as well as Jazz at Lincoln Center where he was a featured guest with Wynton Marsalis and the Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra on their 3-night musical celebration The South African Songbook in Rose Theater. He is a member of Shabaka Hutchings’ band Shabaka and the Ancestors appearing on their 2016 album Wisdom of Elders, and has also collaborated with artists including Logan Richardson, Nasheet Waits, Tarus Mateen, Stefon Harris, Billy Harper, Azar Lawrence, and Ernest Dawkins.

In addition to producing albums for his peers (such as Thandiswa Mazwai’s Belede and Tumi Mogorosi’s Project Elo), Makhathini has released eight albums of his own since 2014 when he founded the label Gundu Entertainment in partnership with his wife and vocalist Omagugu Makhathini. Those albums earned him multiple awards and include Sketches of Tomorrow (2014), Mother Tongue (2014), Listening to the Ground (2015), Matunda Ya Kwanza (2015); Icilongo: The African Peace Suite (2016), Inner Dimensions (2016), and Reflections (2016). His 2017 album Ikhambi was the first to be released on Universal Music South Africa and won Best Jazz Album at the South African Music Awards (SAMA) in 2018. His Blue Note debut Modes of Communication: Letters from the Underworlds will be released in 2020.

This album contains no booklet.

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