“One of the most eagerly awaited albums for 2020 by South African jazz enthusiasts was that of pianist Nduduzo Makhathini’s with renowned record label Blue Note.  Makhathini’s 8 previous releases have been very well received and won him several awards including Standard Bank Young Artist Award in 2015. His album Ikhambi won the SAMA for Best Jazz Album in 2018. Some jazz heads asked themselves if Makhathini was going to change his style as a result of going global” 

The good news is that “Modes of Communication: Letters from the Underworld” is finally available for those South African jazz heads who were excited upon receiving the news that Nduduzo Makhathini was going to release his debut album with Blue Note in April this year.  Unfortunately, hard copies took longer to arrive because of the lockdown imposed as a World Health Organization announced that Covid-19 was going to cause major disruptions in the lives most global citizens were used to living prior to the outbreak of the pandemic.

Pianist Nduduzo Makhathini. Picture by Siphiwe Mhlambi

Even though it may be early days, the album is doing extremely well on the digital platforms, making Makhathini’s grand entrance in the global sphere. Perhaps the most exciting observation is that Nduduzo did not abandon his music style, identity and spirituality as a result of going global.  What he has done is to continue showing the connection between music and spirituality, the role ancestors play is guiding the living in making the right decisions and playing a positive and influential role.

As a matter of fact, WBGO’s Jazz-E-News wrote in March this year that Blue Note’s recording artist, pianist and composer Nduduzo Makhathini, also practices as a sangoma, a traditional South African healer.  “And in the face of our frightening global pandemic, he could offer a message of hope”, the publication stated. Makhathini further said he believed that if John Coltrane, McCoy Tyner or Elvin Jones and Jimmy Garrison were born on this side of the globe, they should have been sangomas because everything they have played, at least for him, has a deeper revelation deep within.

Downbeat Magazine wrote in March: Nourished equally by jazz and its African antecedents, Nduduzo Makhathini’s Blue Note debut features noteworthy performances from all participants, in particular the bandleader’s brilliantly understated work at the piano.  More important, it challenges us to look at the craft thought a different prism.  “Modes of Communication: Letters from the Underworlds” avoids the capitalist framework associated most readily with ‘jazz music’, the liner notes exert.  The idea can be debated, but its thrust is correct: This is music of the spirit, released at a time when it’s most critically needed.

Kalushi Makgolane. Picture by Ephraim Thobakgale

In May, Jazz Times wrote: As the first South African artist to release an album worldwide on the Blue Note label, Nduduzo Makhathini carries a weight of expectation on his shoulder.  “Part of what I was to figure out with Blue Note is how to create an awareness about the broader cultures from which I emerged”, he explained. “As opposed to being about me, this must be essentially be about the community I come from.  It deals with the histories, using me as a bridge to kink South Africa to the United States and vice versa”, he added.

Makhathini also explained his love for saxophonist John Coltrane’s “A Love Supreme” and how the tune changed his life. “I realized that all the things I was looking for – for example, the loyalty of dance, and the healing power of song – were all in there. A couple of weeks after playing Coltrane’s classic, he met pianist Bheki Mseleku.   Playing and listening to music by these legends had a positive impact in enabling Nduduzo develop a sound of his own.  He is grateful to have worked, toured and recorded with a legend like saxophonist Zim Ngqawana whom he describes as a musical father figure and incalculable influence.

Sissy Ntakane Wa Thusi. Picture by Itumeleng Thusi

Jazz It Out spoke to a few of Nduduzo’s South African fans to find out what it’s like to have this historical recording. Sissy Ntakane Wa Thusi is a nurse in windy Chicago and was excited to have her copy amidst the chaos and delay from Amazon.  “Thank you Nduduzo Makhathini for such as awesome offering.  This made me feel close to home though I am far from home”, acknowledging the distance between her home in Bushbuckridge and Chicago.  “The spirituality in this recording makes me want to play it over and over again as it reminds me of my own rituals.

Sissy is also complementary of Omagugu’s voice which she said sounds like an echo through the beautiful valleys of South Africa and invokes in her the desire to communicate with the ancestors.  The band as a whole sharpened my ears to receive “Umlayez’ Ophuthumayo”.  Itumeleng Machedi who is a lead product engineer had this to say: “A proud moment on the achievements of Nduduzo Makhathini, more so on recording for Blue Note, a very beautifully titled album as well.  Diverse compositions and arrangements that celebrate who we are as Africans and our jazz icons”.

Another ecstatic purchaser of the album is Kalushi Makgolane who is a sales representative.  When Makhathini announced that he had signed with Blue Note, his excitement went up the roof.  “I have been a loyal follower of his music from his first album to his latest.  The new release is beautiful and captures the essence of Nduduzo’s music.  I am glad the world will get a chance to be healed through his music”, he told Jazz It Out.  A few hours after laying his hands on the copy, Sipho Ndlovu who is an educator said it’s a proud moment for any jazz fundi that a South African artist, the first ever to sign with Blue Note, created this kind of music. “The album is such a brilliant recording.  It makes you feel at peace with yourself.  It goes down to the depths of one’s soul.  It’s a must have, no doubt about it”, encouraging more collectors to get their copies.

Bathini Kowane. Picture by Blunt Moya

Some of the jazz collectors don’t have to look further that Errol Ngoasheng to obtain their copies.  Ngoasheng who is a jazz merchant at MoAfrika Jazz complimented Makhathini for his proficiency in choosing the appropriate line up of artists. The freedom of articulation he affords them on this project is a remarkable blessing.  “He tells the story of people above and beyond.  It’s a very significant recording that will be enjoyed by future generations. Its revolution unfolded”, he told Jazz It Out. Bathini Kowane who is a fashion designer, traveler and blogger has been following Makhathini’s music since the days when the much younger pianist was with saxophonist Zim Ngqawana. She has also attended countless of Nduduzo’s performances at venues such as The Orbit, Freedom Station and the Cape Town International Jazz Festival.

“His accomplishments through the years have always brought a lot of joy to all of us Jazz purists and supporters of the music.  Nduduzo’s humility and authenticity is widely known across the industry making him one of the most sought-after pianists of our time.  An amazing producer for other equally talented jazz and traditional music artists, an academic with a keen interest in the spiritual realm”, Bathini said.  As the first South African musician to release an album under the notable Blue Note label, Bathini is glad that Nduduzo has shown the Black African child that anything is possible if you believe.  Quite frankly, she was not surprised that Makhathini landed this amazing deal with the aforementioned record label. “Knowing and having witnessed his work ethic and dedication to his craft over the years, it felt like the way to the world had already been carved out for him way before he could envision it for himself”, she added.

Bathini also said this is one accomplishment has made Nduduzo a true pathfinder in South African Jazz, one that will be recorded in history books and covered in Course Curriculum for Music Theory and Practical studies across various institutions in South Africa.  “This latest offering under the Blue Note label feels personal to all of us.  He has officially put modern South African Jazz on the world stage and carries with him all the teachers that have influenced him through the years including Zim Ngqawana, Bheki Mseleku and Andile Yenana” battling to hold her excitement. She believes this album is commemorative of the culture of South African people, carrying their collective voices into the world.  Bathini believes this is only the beginning of great things to come and looking forward to more offering from Nduduzo on the global stage.

Molefe Mputamputa. Picture by Namhla Mputamputa

Molefe Mputamputa who is an avid collector of jazz and a petrochemical professional is one of those individuals that preordered his copy as he was just not prepared to wait.  “As a healer, Nduduzo Makhathini intends to connect us to the realms of our ancestors. I get it”, he told Jazz It Out.  Mputamputa believes these letters presented in this album are a remarkable presentation of messages that the listener can only appreciate when they listen to the music with their hearts and spirit.  The album showcases Nduduzo’s many talents as healer, philosopher, educator, composer, arranger and piano player.

Mputamputa was drawn to the first note of the first song, introduced with a cymbal and immediately followed by the great voice of Omagugu ushering the first message, a call to the ancestors for spiritual guidance and protection in our daily life challenges.  “Beneath the Earth” is another highlight for Molefe.  And the versality in the music reaches climax with the high tempo on “Unyazi” and “Umlayez’oPhuthumayo”.  This is not an offering that can be enjoyed in a rush.  It needs time and space to appreciate every little detail of the “message from the ancestors”.  A job well done by Nduduzo and the incredible array of musicians featured in this monumental album.  “It is probably one of the best 2020 releases for me”, Molefe added.

Communication Specialist and Cultural Activist, Writer, and Translator Menzi Maseko’s review of “Modes of Communication: Letters from the Underworld” is very poetic:

This is written in the spirit of the music that takes us on a journey of rediscovery

A music that is as communal as it is an expression of visionary audacity

The elevation of Makhathini into the hallowed halls of the Blue Note family

Is nothing more than a fulfilment of prophecies from Abdullah Ibrahim to Andile Yenana

From Mongezi Feza to Zoë Modiga…these Ancestors, elders, and contemporaries are the wind beneath Nduduzo Makhathini’s wings

As he flies through the skies of knowing and unknowing

His brethren in tow as kindred sojourners

He takes us all with him on a flight of intentional yet improvisational clarity

The clarity of waters travelling down ancient streams and ancient wells

We are the dusty feet dandling on the waters

Cooling our weary soles on the grasses of the Msunduzi river

Quenching our weary throats on the rushes of Umzimkhulu nese Ngwavuma

Sibe sihuba leyongoma yase Thongeni


Nduduzo told Jazz Times that: “I’m evoking meaning in what I do, but I’m also divining. In rituals, you have the knowing, the not knowing, so there’s always liminal space. And that’s jazz”.  If you consider yourself a jazz collector and don’t have a copy of the recording, the question is what are you waiting for?  His Facebook Page is Nduduzo Makhathini.  Follow him on Twitter @nduduzo_m and @nduduzomakhathini on Instagram.  Subscribe to his YouTube channel Nduduzo Makhathini