in 2014, pianist Nduduzo Makhathini started his own indie imprint, Gundu Entertainment, with his wife, Omagugu. Through it, the 37-year-old from South Africa’s KwaZulu-Natal province has released eight of his own albums, while also producing for other artists, along with playing festivals across the country and collecting accolades like the Standard Bank Young Artist Award for jazz.
Three years after his indie launched, Makhathini signed with Universal Music South Africa, making his major-label debut with the South African Music Award-winning Ikhambi, released in 2017. In early 2019, UMSA brought him to the attention of Blue Note (which is under the Universal Music Group banner), and last November, Makhathini officially became the first South African to sign to the iconic jazz label. (He remains signed to UMSA, with Blue Note releasing his music in the United States, while Gundu continues its licensing deal with UMSA with hopes of becoming a production house that produces for Blue Note Records and others.)
Makhathini is excited that the deal coincides with South Africa celebrating 80 years of jazz history. “That’s a long lineage, and even though there had never been any Blue Note signings in the past, we’ve always had a ‘Blue Note’ sound,” says Makhathini, citing artists like the late saxophonist Winston Mankunku Ngozi and singer Busi Mhlongo. “I feel like I encompass those other artists … I carry that whole lineage with me.”
While studying music at the Durban University of Technology, Makhathini discovered John Coltrane’s A Love Supreme, which introduced him to the pentatonic percussive style of McCoy Tyner, the pianist in Coltrane’s seminal quartet. Soon after, Makhathini met his mentor, the late Bheki Mseleku — one of South Africa’s most revered jazz pianists — who interpreted Tyner’s influence in an African idiom that Makhathini now continues.
Since signing to Blue Note, Makhathini released the single “Yehlisan’uMoya (Spirit Come Down),” which features the fervent vocals of Omagugu, who has appeared on all of his albums to date. His ninth full-length, Modes of Communication: Letters From the Underworlds, will arrive in April. The father of three also heads up the music department at South Africa’s University of Fort Hare and is a practicing sangoma (traditional healer). He believes his music is an offering or ritual that has the power to heal both himself and those who listen. “Historically,” says Makhathini, “Africans always have explored healing that resides within sound.” Seton Hawkins, Jazz at Lincoln Center’s director who introduced Makhathini at a gig hosted by Wynton Marsalis last year, adds that Makhathini “carries a sense of deep purpose in his art, recognizing its role in, and possibilities for, social and spiritual development.”