South African pianist Nduduzo Makhathini (a guest on the BA podcast in 2019) seems from the outside to be at the center of a group of up-and-coming musicians from his country. He produces their albums, performs with them sometimes, and generally helps promote others’ work as much as possible. It’s a noble way to use one’s power; John Coltrane did something similar in the 1960s, when he helped get Archie Shepp, Albert Ayler, and Pharoah Sanders signed to Impulse! Records.
Trumpeter Ndabo Zulu is younger than Makhathini, and played on the pianist’s 2020 Blue Note debut, Modes of Communication: Letters from the Underworlds. He has just made his global debut as a leader with an album featuring the Umgidi Ensemble, a group that includes members of several generations of South African players, along with an American and a Norwegian. It was released at home at the end of 2019, but only popped up in the US at the end of June. Saxophonist Linda Sikhakhane, who has appeared on several of Makhathini’s albums, is here, as is the pianist’s longtime drummer Ayanda Sikade. Makhathini himself performs as well, and assisted with the production of the album.
Queen Nandi: The African Symphony is a two-disc set running over 100 minutes, that features two keyboardists (Makhathini and Afrika Mkhize), bassists Shane Cooper and Derrick Hodge (who also co-produced), two drummers (Sikade and Sphelelo Mazibuko), two percussionists (Njabulo Shabalala and El Hadj Ngari Ndong), trombonist Siya Charles, and vocalists Mbuso Khoza and Zoë Modiga. Not everyone plays on every track; the ensemble frequently splits into smaller sub-groups. The last song, “Nandi (Ukukhothama),” is a duet for trumpet and Fender Rhodes.
The music mixes conventional jazz orchestration with South African rhythms and percussive techniques, including the use of traditional Zulu drums. Within the context of South African jazz, this is a somewhat radical move, since the country’s music scene is mostly centered around Johannesburg and Cape Town, and the KwaZulu-Natal region has not been given its moment in the spotlight yet.
Each disc begins with an epic, 17-minute track. “Umgidi,” which opens the second disc, features a call-and-response between Khoza’s hoarse, incantatory lead vocals and male chorus voices, with clattering percussion in back and pulsing, fanfare-like horn lines, bolstered by heavy, McCoy Tyner-esque piano. Sikhakhane’s solo builds from a forceful cry to reed-splitting shrieks worthy of Pharoah Sanders. Zulu’s own sound is bitten-off, and frequently smeary, in the manner of Ambrose Akinmusire; even though his phrases have punch, he sounds like you’re eavesdropping on him talking through a tricky philosophical concept.
Mbuso Khoza is a singer, songwriter, historian and public intellectual who works to preserve and honor Zulu culture through various means including writings, music, theatrical presentations and more. He has been working with Makhathini for several years, having appeared on his 2014 release Sketches of Tomorrow in addition to making his own albums. His broad goal is to overcome the psychic legacy of colonialism and raise South Africans’ consciousnesses about their own history and culture — not in some hokey, ultimately ahistorical “we were kings” way, or telling a simplified story for tourists, but reforging a genuine link to the past, where one had been severed for centuries. He leads the Afrikan Heritage Ensemble, a vocal group, and his lyrics and vocals on Queen Nandi are improvised amahubo (praise songs) telling the story of the titular figure, who was the mother of the Zulu king Shaka. He sounds like a preacher, or a bard; he could as easily be reciting the Iliad or the Odyssey.
The other vocalist, Zoë Modiga, has a powerful voice reminiscent of Miriam Makeba. When she sings softly, she can trill like a bird, but when she rises to full strength, she is an admonishing spirit, pushing the listener back with sheer force. Make no mistake, though: the tracks without vocals are just as beautiful. “Ucu Olum’nyama,” a 12-minute piece at the midpoint of the second disc, is a lush ballad with an absolutely booming bass sound that almost overwhelms the romantic piano and trumpet solos; the double drummers give it extra muscle and impetus.
Even if one takes Queen Nandi as “just” a musical work (if, for example, one is ignorant of the relevant history and unable to understand the language), it’s impressive as hell. But it’s part of a broader cultural project arising from the current generation(s) of South African musicians. Previous generations, which included legendary figures like Hugh Masekela, Miriam Makeba, Chris McGregor and Abdullah Ibrahim, among others, were animated and fueled by the struggle against apartheid, but in the post-apartheid era, a new struggle has begun — to explore, understand, and synthesize a present-day identity that ties up the dangling threads of history. Zulu, Makhathini and Khoza are working together and separately to achieve this, and nobody knows yet what the results will be, but attention must be paid. First, because the art itself is stunning, and secondly, because it is one facet of a broader humanist vision that is both admirable and a model to be emulated elsewhere.