Imagine a jazz concert — not as an event in a club — but as a weather system moving in quick formation over the hills and savannahs where jazz artist Nduduzo Makhathini was born: umGungundlovu in South Africa. The music is composed of condensed rhythms of suns and moons speeding across a sky. There is light, shadow, darkness, and clouds alternating with soaking rains. The elements themselves sound; they speak.
On Friday night, June 22, 2023 at The Side Door in Old Lyme, The Nduduzo Makhathini Trio called up such a place — particular, real and imagined — in a collaborative performance full of grounded, repeated riffs, swift surprising stellar movements, and an ever-shifting, ever-transforming sense of playfulness and surprise.
“Performance” is just one of the purposes Makhathini brings to his concerts. Identifying himself as a pianist, healer, and improviser, he notes that healing has long been a part of his familial and ancestral heritage and is a central part of his music-making.
Water: a healing image in Makhathini’s music. On Saturday night, the audience felt that water. Alternately soothing, disrupting, drumming and drenching, a sort of musical healing poured out in two sets of original compositions, from the opening notes of “Greetings from our Forefathers,” with Makhathini on piano, South African-born Zwelakhe-Duma Bell le Pere on bass, and Cuban-born Francisco Mela on drums.
Makhathini later said: “Sound is making proposals and suggestions; it is questioning, it is inviting…some of our ancestors had such a deep relationship to sound.” Sound was a technology, he said, used by some South African peoples for keeping humankind “in tune;” for connecting them not only with the here and now, but the “elsewhere” too. He noted:
“In greeting, the Basuto people would not say, ‘How are you, but ‘Where are you?’ …And in saying ‘I see you,’ they used the plural form of ‘you:’ ‘you and the spirits and the weather and the environment that surround you.'”
This holistic, human-kindness approach to imaging a world full of sound is woven through Makhathini’s award-winning and deeply moving 2022 album, The Spirit of Ntu. “Ntu,” a Bantu-language word, suggests a comprehensive life force in all things. Midway through the first set on Saturday night, after invoking the ancestors, and then gently humming the intention of “Ithemba” (“hope”) into the room, Makhathini dropped into “Omnyama” from The Spirit of Ntu, and the real work of the evening — the healing work — seemed to begin. Over repeated piano riffs forming a backbone of the song, Makhathini sang the phrase “konakele” over and over, a phrase creating a process of shifting from “catastrophic history into a modality for change and healing,” as Makhathini wrote in an email communication.
An irrepressible improvisatory spirit ran through the evening — unpredictable, generative, volatile — as the three players questioned, invited, and competed with each other, in fluid morphing roles. Drummer Mela seemed to slip into a role of an ancestral spirit, one who upended all of our expectations, onstage and off. He built suspense in the room by opening micro-space between beats, in suspensions that seemed to stop time. Later, Mela put down his sticks and shifted into a spacious, wind-blown solo on a wooden flute. In “Omnyama” bassist Bell la Pere, usually the voice of equilibrium, stepped into a suddenly subversive, standout bass solo while Makhathini moved behind the piano for a quietly rhythmic dance.
With these roles and elements at play, we were experiencing not only the spaces between and around the beats and the notes — the pauses, the silences — but the spaces between and within the performers; we were seeing them shift in front of our eyes: light, dark, shadows, clouds, rain.
Makhathini, after a particularly wild ride through the piece “”Unonkanyamba,” stepped out from behind the piano to speak to the audience with a sort of wondrous, rueful smile. He noted how improvisation is “attempting the impossible;” inevitably, it is full of failure, he said, as the slender thread of true improvisation slips away moment by moment. But as a practice of unknowing, it helps to heal humankind’s troubles of “periphery, hegemony, and ideas of global north and south…Humankind got troubled with epistemology and knowing.” Makhathini — also an educator, researcher, and public speaker — spoke of the decades-long frustration among students in South African school systems, who have protested among many things, as Makhathini says, a “university” system that should be a “pluraversity.”
The long relationship in South Africa between protest and jazz music is continued in Makhatini’s work — in particular, honoring the work of Abdullah Ibrahim, a leading figure in the South African 1970’s musical movement to synthesize American jazz and local African traditions. His song “Mannenberg” became an anthem of the 1976 Soweto school protests.
In Makhathini’s “Emlilweni,” he digs deep into current environmental protests to source from another element. Here, it is not water, but fire — and specifically, the burning of tires as protest against the “cracks in the system” that originated in South Africa’s long struggle against apartheid, and still beleaguer the country today. This elemental rendition of the song, stripped down for the trio, featured Bell le Pere on one repetitive tone for almost its entire duration as Makhathini and Mela raged in and around him in swells and ebbs.
In the midst of these songs of elemental forces — water and fire, with epic weather-system dimensions — the song “Izinkojana (Bird/Swallow)” landed simply, radiantly, a quiet balm from its opening cadences. A gospel-infused song, it felt like a long-established spiritual. An intimately human moment of lament and healing, it gently took us to church — or a place of healing, each of our own making.