In South Africa, jazz is visceral, spiritual and political

Nduduzo Makhathini was 9 years old when Apartheid was officially abolished in South Africa in 1991, after forty years of racial segregation. Thirty years later, the kid from uMgungundlovu (district neighboring Durban) has established himself as one of the most emblematic and in-demand jazz pianists on the vibrant South African scene. But each note, each album, each of his appearances remains viscerally marked by the long decades of acculturation of his people.

A sense of displacement

Questioning him about his roots therefore amounts to plunging without a safety net into a political, identity and deeply spiritual quest, carried out through music. “Whether in South Africa or elsewhere on the continent, jazz finds its source in a deep sense of displacement“, he explains to us from Durban, a few days before his solo visit to Flagey as part of the South African Jazz weekend which will be held on November 4 and 5, and also programs The Brother Moves On, Tutu Puoane and Asher Gamedze.”A geographical displacement of course, but also a cultural and etymological one. The history of South African jazz starts from one and the same place: the refusal to forget, to fall into the deep amnesia that we wanted to impose on our values ​​and our identity.

It is difficult to date precisely the emergence of the rich local jazz scene. He immediately evokes the sixties as a founding period. “The Sixties were essential“, insists Nduduzo Makhathini. “In the United States, we had the civil rights movement. In South Africa, the population and artists were deeply marked by the Sharpeville massacre in 1960, then the Soweto uprising in 1976. For years, the bodies were brutalized, many people went into exile. But some musicians remained, and embodied a form of resistance. The black population was the object of an international displacement, but also a national one, within the country itself, with the creation of totally dysfunctional neighborhoods that we now call townships. Whichever musician you ask the question, he will link the emergence and then the development of South African jazz to the blossoming of the townships. .”


Siyabonga Mthembu, 38, also comes from a deeply musical family. Originally from Kempton Park in the suburbs of Johannesburg, he founded the ensemble The Brother Moves On in 2008 with his brother Nkululeko, spawned with London superstar Shabaka Hutchings (Sons Of Kemet, The Comet Is Coming…), and came to release his band’s fourth album on October 29, $/He who feeds you… Owns Youon which he sings in Zulu as well as in Tswana and Xhosa.

We cannot really date the birth of our musical traditions“, he explains calmly on the phone. “And I’m sure you can find South African jazz compositions dating back to the end of the 19th century. But Apartheid changed everything, and it still shows up today. All the infrastructure we have remains archaic and racist. The radio landscape remains divided between white and black radios. No one says it as it is, but the choice of content broadcast leaves no doubt. We called Apartheid the group that was in power, but it is a system based on racism that remains pervasive, in which white people retain wealth and power, even if they are no longer in government. From buying houses and cars to granting loans and access to different neighborhoods, everything remains segregated..”

Blacks, Whites and Imperialism

Does this mean that today jazz is still divided between the “black” scene and the “white” scene? “Nope” believes Siyabonga Mthembu. “Traditionally, the rock scene remains a white bastion, the rest is mainly embodied by the black population, simply because the majority of the population is black. But I would like to clarify an important point. When I mention ‘Black’ and ‘White’, I refer to the imperialist system, not to any skin color, endowed with more or less melanin. This binary way of thinking about things is precisely a legacy of imperialism. In reality, it makes no sense. The very notion of color has no meaning, and we must become aware of it, to destroy the ideas it conveys..”

Ngoma, the collective healing process

Siyabonga Mthembu and Nduduzo Makhathini both insist on the same point: there is no question of reducing music, and jazz in particular, to its political role. Its fundamental essence is to be sought in spirituality, cosmology, the ancestral cultural heritage of South Africans, detached from any link with colonialism.

The concept of Ngoma

“In Zulu, we call it Ngoma,” says Nduduzo Makhathini. “One and the same philosophy bringing together the notion of sound, healing and divinity. Music is above all about healing, the collective healing process that unites us and comes from the Earth, the cosmos, our common Universe.” “To reduce this fundamental notion to its political function would amount to ignoring our identity by limiting it to our reaction to Apartheid, a form of victimization. Improvisation, swing, rhythms go back far beyond the slave trade and of any form of imperialism.”

In The Spirit of Ntu, Nduduzo Makhathini’s latest album, released last May, fundamentally defends this approach. “When I want to free myself from a colonialist or post-colonialist vision of things, I think of Ntu, one of our ancestral philosophies, which embodies the resistance to erasure.”

The European public

All the lyrics of the songs composed and performed by The Brother Moves On or Nduduzo Makhathini are sung in South African languages, which obviously raises the question of transmission.

“The first time we performed in Europe, we had a long conversation about how our lyrics were going to be understood,” recalls Siyabonga Mthembu. “But, after the show, several people came to us and told us that they had felt the healing power of the songs. We all cry something, we all feel things. Music allows us to never lose hope, so how thin it is.”

Deeply divided, plunged into crisis, South Africa is going through difficult times. As the violent riots that broke out in the country in 2021 have just shown, killing more than 350 people, and illustrating, if necessary, the remaining racial tensions. “These are the joys and pains of idealism,” comments Siyabonga Mthembu. “Change is slow and complex. Nelson Mandela remains its symbol, the man to blame for the development of the situation. But he was never the announced savior, and he was always very clear that ‘he wouldn’t take that responsibility.”

Infinite Rhythms

All the artists programmed by Flagey on November 4 and 5 offer a rhythmic power, boosted, sometimes indecipherable. “That’s because our rhythm sections are the best,” jokes the singer of The Brother Moves On, ending on a positive note. “The fun comes precisely from the fact that our drummers and our percussionists are constantly looking for new rhythms. All these rhythms come from the same source – South Africa – but they are of an infinite eclecticism.”V. Dau

South African Jazz, in Flagey: Tutu Puoane and Asher Gamedze this Friday 4 November. Nduduzo Makhathini and The Brother Moves On this Saturday November 5th.

In South Africa, jazz is visceral, spiritual and political