Spirit Music

Spiritual philosophy of jazz in the shrinking space of music
By Malibongwe Ngcai

The East London air on 12th of May 2017 was graced with great young jazz maestros like Nduduzo Makhathini, Siya Makuzeni, Linda Sikhakhane, Shane Cooper, Ayanda Sikade and the legendary Feya Faku. Nduduzo and Siya count the 2015 and 2016 Standard Bank Young Artist Awards respectively among their great accolades. The Friday was great throughout!

It’s a spark that was ignited by the Nduduzo Makhathini’s Ikhambi project, a deeply spiritual musical journey that delimits the reach of jazz music far beyond the horizons of entertainment. It’s a concept that locates music within the context of social ills and decolonisation. Music is seen by Nduduzo as a device with which the society can ‘heal’ itself with and use it as ‘ikhambi’ (medicine) to facilitate that healing. What is much more intriguing is the portrayal of music as a mirror of society from which both can learn.

According to Nduduzo, “Ikhambi also seeks solutions, looking at the formations, configurations and articulations within a jazz ensemble setting and how these patterns could be adapted as tools in promoting healthy communities”. This is undoubtedly a deeply philosophical spiritual journey for the entire society.
The Friday was started by a jazz workshop in the Miriam Makeba Performang Arts and Culture Centre at the University of Fort Hare in East London.

Nduduzo Makhathini, in his charming broad perennial smile, started the event by giving a brief account of the project. The main focus of the workshop was to explore the jazz ensemble, its musical interactions within it in a broader context of the community. It’s a journey to “study how each member in an ensemble contributes towards a collective voice whilst also walking an individual path”.
What became clear is that a jazz ensemble can be viewed as a microcosm of the entire society. And human interactions and relationships for improvising jazz musicians in action can be the best lesson for the society for emulation.

When a jazz artists improvises, that is playing an unrehearsed solo with other artists providing a rhythmic base and background, other musicians play along whether by humming, playing their instruments, nodding to the rhythm. But the bottom line is that they all contribute and support the musician leading the improvisation at the time. The beauty of it is that their musical expression in not suspended by the lead that has been taken by the other artist.

Through providing musical and moral support to the leading musician, the other musician’s musical journey continues.
This beautiful relationship among musicians is what members of the society should seek to emulate. In fact, the concept of Ubuntu is grounded in this ‘way of life’. When one member of society does something in the advancement of his or her personal journey, other members of society should give him or her space and propel his or her growth. In the process, they also growing and their turns will come and the one who was supported will have his or her turn to provide support to the emerging one. This portrays a society of communal nature, mutual appreciation and interdependence.

Sharing their musical experiences in the ensemble set up, Shane Cooper, the double bassist, reflected on the concepts of adaptability, compromise, communication and listening. He hammered on listening, because a jazz musician in an ensemble has to pay adequate attention and listen to other artists in the ensemble. This, he also related to human relationships where one gets into trouble if one just talks and does not give space to listening. This becomes critical for jazz because it is basically ‘an oral tradition’.
In the course of the ensemble performance, Cooper admits, you sometimes find yourself off the path and you have to retrace your steps to find everyone else. These are real life issues as one can live well in a societal set up, the social ensemble that is, by meaningful adaptation, compromises, communication and listening as a way of nurturing social relationships, cohesion and mutual existence.

Introducing Siya Makuzeni, a prolific Stirling High School alma mater singer and trombonist, Makhathini emphasized the unleashing of the suppressed female voice in jazz as a male dominated genre. Siya share her experiences of fifteen years trying to negotiate the jazz space. She narrated her efforts to struggle to be recognised not just as a female, but as a jazz musicians, and how she continues the struggle for recognition by others for the worth she actually is. The possibility to ‘flee the situation’ because of difficulties has been something to fight to defeat through patience. Siya’s jazz musical journey also brilliantly relates to the world of women in general in a male dominated society which is also a microcosm of the women’s situation in their broader existence. And the life lesson for women is patience in the quest for realization of what they really are in different facets of life. One striking feature of an ensemble is the combination of different voices a jazz musician can allow to contribute to a concept. Siya made an example of a case where she would invite the voice of Sakhile Simani, one prolific East London young trumpeter, and Ayanda Sikade’s voice through the drums and how the musicians would make their voices, a real case of contribution of others in someone else’s expedition. Ayanda’s philosophical orientation is not so distant from that of the late Bheki Mseleku.
The legendary Port Elizabeth born jazz maestro, Feya Faku “Cirha” emphasized the importance of trust in the players in an ensemble and understand that everybody brings something.

A reader of the jazz ensemble, according to him, should avoid controlling people because a lot is lost and suppressed in the controlled environment. The young Linda Sikhakhane from Pietermaritzburg, who will soon be hitting waves in New York, shared the utilisation of the ensemble space as a learning platform where you learn a lot as you contribute. A Mdantsane-born highly philosophical drummer, Ayanda, related to music as a philosophy as life is too. He presented the role of a drummer as the one who ignites energy in an ensemble, and such people exist in broader life ensembles. He also placed the importance of giving out one’s gift than to always receive.
The workshop was punctuated by a jazz improvisation session. The great jazz day was concluded by a two-and-a-half hour jazz show in Guild Theatre. The real collaboration and living of the ideals in the mid-morning workshop was in actual proactive although Siya Makuzeni was only in the audience. The depth of jazz talent was beyond explanation with Nduduzo closing the show with a Fela Kuti-like mood in his vibrant igniting sangoma-type of the song Yihla Moya Oyingcwele.

What strikes me most in this symbolic representation of life through a jazz ensemble is the shrinking space of music that will deprive the present and future generations of a very critical tool of emotional expression and contribution to life in general. A consensus among these musicians is that their music was bred by the rich musical environment that surrounded them as they grow. Nduduzo grew up in an highly musical African Zionist culture of rhythm and met the formal jazz life at 17. The musician’s music is the articulation of childhood sounds that were presented by the environment in the culture. Every musician starts somewhere. This was the lesson that Hugh Masekela had to learn when he was in exile, to be taught that the music of your own people is the one that will carry you through life that imitating foreign voices.

The sad story is the detachment of the younger generation from their musical roots because of this shrinking space of music. The space is shrunk by the social structure the younger generation finds itself in. Much of the life of the modern generation is spent behind the desk and the demand for mathematics and science has invaded the space for musical and broader cultural education and expression. Broader cultural socialisation for young people has tremendously diminished and the transfer of culture from one generation to the other. Music has been successfully purged from the school life spectrum.

This will deprive both the younger individuals and the entire society the greatest defining aspect of humanity, culture and the song. In a formalised society like ours, the remedy could be to re-open the closed spaces for culture in the lives of the young people and society at large to be able to produce more musicians of the calibre of Nduduzo Makhathini, Miriam Makeba, Ayanda Sikade, Feya Faku, Victor Ndlazilwane, Mankunku Ngozi, Busi Mhlongo, Siya Makhuzeni, Hugh Masekela, Lulama Gawulana and many more. Afrika must continue to sing!

2 thoughts on “Spirit Music

  1. “Spiritual Music” has a purpose that is for worship and in that context it nourishes your whole entire body, mind and soul in oneness..


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