People were listening (Duke Ellington and Count Basie) at home because we thought it was our music and it’s our black heroes. The attraction…was that the rhythms were more like our mbaqanga.

So said the late South African jazz trumpeter Johnny Mekoa. He described how, as a child in the 1950s, black South African jazz fans heard explicitly African roots (mbaqanga is a form of South African township jive) in the American jazz they played.

This sense of shared cultural history has persisted, from the country’s first dance bands (the first The South African jazz record was cut in 1939) until today. Successive waves of South African jazz innovators have sought new ways to bring sound home, drawing on diverse sonic, lyrical and spiritual roots.

Currently, the new generation of jazz in the country focuses on the spiritual. Released in 2022 by pianist Nduduzo Makhathini, In the mind of Ntu, invoke “an ancient African philosophy… where our integrity resides”. The title of the 2021 edition compilation new South African jazz, Indaba is, invoked the writings of the philosopher and seer Credo Mutwa. It is in this line that Reedman Linda Sikhakhanethe third album of, Isambule (Revelation) belongs firmly.

Who is Linda Sikhakhane?

Saxophonist and composer Sikhakhane began his musical training in his community of Durban in the province of KwaZulu-Natal, at school as a clarinetist, then with trumpeter Brian Thusi Siyakhula Music Center. At the end of high school, he knew he wanted to pursue a university degree in music, but his teacher knew that there was no jazz clarinet instructor at UKZN (the University of KwaZulu-Natal) and advised him to choose the saxophone as a second instrument. “After a few days of translating everything I knew about the clarinet, my love for the saxophone deepened in such a way that it became my first instrument,” he says. I interviewed Sikhakhane for this article, part of my currently researching on South African jazz.

Isambulo/Linda Sikhakhane

During his university studies, he released his first album Two sides, one mirror and won a study abroad scholarship, earning his bachelor’s degree in music at the New School in New York. His second album, Open dialogreflects material from his graduation recital.

COVID-19 disruptions sent Sikhakhane home, where he worked again with Makhathini, and he is currently continuing his studies at the Norwegian Academy of Music in Oslo.

Zulu Spirituality

Isambulo was recorded during Sikhakhane’s six-week residency at Birds Eye Jazz Club in Basel, in collaboration with European and African co-actors. They are trumpeter Matthias Spillmann, pianist Lucca Fries, bassist Fabien Iannone, drummer Jonas Ruther, singers Anna Widauer and Paras (Dlamini) and percussionist El Hadji Ngari Ndong. Sikhakhane says:

Each brought originality and entered the space with such humility – qualities that must be at the heart of improvisation. They understood the vision.

This vision focuses on Zulu spirituality, the role of music in ceremonial rites and the heritage of ancestors, personal and musical. The shared heritage of music in jazz and his community “made jazz a safe space” for him from the start. Work with Makhathini, for example in the set on his album Listening to the fieldhelped him reflect on and appreciate his upbringing – “which was based on the notion of music as ritual”.

Ritual seeks new visions as well as a return to heritage, “a process of constant discovery”. Thus, the title track is the most abstract, its improvisation extending into the unknown. This is followed by uNongoma, the album’s most explicit allusion to traditional forms, as vocalist Paras employs vocals through jazz horns to allude to Sikhakhane’s hometown (Nongoma in KwaZulu- Natal) and aspire to a relative. “Paras wrote these lyrics,” says Sikhakhane, “projecting sonically from this place, imagining its stories, landscapes and cultural perspectives.”

Others of the album’s eight tracks reflect Sikhakhane’s current songwriting range. A Day Passed is a quirky, quirky ode to procrastination. Inner Freedom revisits a more richly textured melody from its 2017 debut, with Sikhakhane playing soprano and a larger role for Fries’ piano; still, like the original, based on Ngari Ndong’s convincing percussion.

Ikhandlela alludes to the light that sparkles in the dark, with a sweet bass solo from Iannone. Gog’uldah, in homage to his grandmother, is a slow, fractured and moving waltz theme, with the saxophonist praising his ancestor over a saxophone that fades into abstraction and eventually silence.

The trip

Despite the formal academic requirements that shaped the original recital material on Open Dialogue and Isambulo’s greater freedom, Sikhakhane says he still feels a “strong continuity” between the two albums. The outings are, for him, “the continuation of an endless journey”.

Read more: Spirit of Ntu: South African piano maestro Nduduzo Makhathini on his 10th album

He has describe in an interview with Alljazzradio how his journey of learning music has always been driven by a desire to move from an ‘international’ saxophone voice to one more radically shaped by South African spaces and sources. On this journey, music was both a tool for discovery and a tool “to speak my language”.

Isambulo ends with a tribute to these sources, Hymn for the Majors. Sikhakhane credits a long name calling, from family members to early teachers such as Thusi, and musicians he listens to and has worked with. “(Jean) Coltrane, (Abdallah) Ibrahim, (Zim) Ngqawana and Makhathini are kindred spirits and a line of masters that I follow. He adds:

Isambulo is about constant discovery and by following any master you are likely to find the revelation: sound is inspired by travel.