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Photo: Siphiwe Mhlambi. Courtesy of Blue Note.

Interview: South Africa's Nduduzo Makhathini On His Upcoming Blue Note Records Debut

We talk to the South African pianist about the otherworldly inspirations behind Modes of Communication: Letters from the Underworld and much more.

Nduduzo Makhathini has never needed the blessing of a major label to make and share his music.

The 37-year-old pianist from South Africa's Kwazulu Natal province started his own independent label with his wife, Omagugu, called Gundu Entertainment, six years ago. Through it, he released eight of his own albums, including Ikhambi, a record that became a turning point for Makhathini—it won a South African Music Award for Best Jazz Album and it was issued under Universal Music, through a licensing deal with Gundu.

After three years of courting Makhathini, the major label finally signed him in 2017, opening a pathway that led to this past year, when Makhathini became the first South African to sign to Blue Note, Universal's renowned American jazz imprint.

Joining the label that carries catalogues from Miles Davis and John Coltrane is an honor Makhathini believes could have been bestowed on any one of the greats of South African jazz. But as he sees it, it's an embrace beyond just any one individual. "More than it is for Nduduzo Makhathini, it is for the South African jazz community," he says. "To find its way into a greater portal of this music, and to find a voice within that, and to have a say in those jazz discourses that are broader, that are coming from the US."


Photo: Siphiwe Mhlambi. Courtesy of Blue Note.

Makhathini, a father of three who also heads up the music department at the University of Fort Hare, has been an active part of the story of jazz in contemporary South Africa and, indeed Africa, for almost a decade. Producing not just his own records, but those of others, and playing festivals, both local and international, as well as penning his thoughts about the genre for others to engage with, are all pieces of the quilt that connects his name to those jazz giants who have come before him — from Abdullah Ibrahim to the late Zim Ngqawana.

Discovering John Coltrane's A Love Supreme, while studying music at the Durban University of Technology, introduced Makhathini to McCoy Tyner, who played piano in Coltrane's band, and he soon after met his mentor, the late Bheki Mseleku, amongst South Africa's most revered jazz pianists. "There's a big connection, because if you think about it, Bheki Mseleku was influenced by McCoy Tyner," says Makhathini. "I think it's like we all love similar things—we love dance, we love percussiveness, we love storytelling. If you're interested in those three things, chances are you're going to sound like McCoy Tyner or Bheki Mseleku."

Mseleku, who Makhathini first met when he was 18, gave him more than just music inspiration. "He taught me a lot about ways of thinking," says Makhathini. "It's something that I'm very much aware of now, as a lecturer at the Fore Hare music department. I'm always thinking about: more than producing great musicians, how can we start producing great thinkers? And that's the Mseleku legacy there, he has given to us. How can we produce thinkers through the jazz matrix?"

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Makhathini considers his coming to jazz at quite a late stage in life, something that was unplanned. As he explains it, he went to study music, not necessarily jazz. "I came through a jazz programme. It wasn't my choice but in retrospect, a lot of the music that I was familiar with—traditional music and a lot of the church music—was already dealing with a lot of concepts within jazz, but I just didn't know it was jazz," he says. "Culturally, through heritage and history, I was already dealing with improvisation, with spirituality, so all of these themes were already embedded within the music I knew. So I think jazz just maybe is a space that enhanced some of the things that I was dealing with in my culture, in my upbringing."

A practicing sangoma (traditional healer), Makhathini found he had the gift at age 13, but only really accepted it a decade later, finding it to be in conflict with having grown up in the church. "There's something to be said about going from a Christian background and these sort of religious clashes between the precolonial imaginations and what the colonial period presented, and how much of that has been absorbed into our system. And how the music was a space to sort of negotiate identity again," he says. When he realized it was an important gift that he had to consider, he recorded his third album, Listening to the Ground. "That album really is me questioning notions of God in the sky versus the idea of our ancestors and this continuous invocation to tribute to the ground; the idea of a god as something that's in the underworld instead of up in the sky, and how that notion helps us to liberate ourselves in terms of our construct of a god, as African people."

Photo: Siphiwe Mhlambi. Courtesy of Blue Note.

Makhathini continues these thoughts and ideas on the debut album he's recorded for Blue Note, called Modes of Communication: Letters from the Underworld, which is due out in April. "Since I accepted the gift, I've been receiving these kinds of texts from the underworld, and this album now tries to document that and say, 'what do these soundings and these projections, what do they look like?' and I tried to incorporate that into the album titles, images, the music, choice of personal liner notes, and my commentary on the album sleeve."

The album expands on many of the big questions Makhathini wrestles with—both in his music and in essays that he writes for his blog. He sees his music as a kind of other planet, a utopia. "A space that is untouched by inequality, untouched by racism, by classification, compartments," he says. "It's really a space where people are equals and it's about a collective memory that exists before all of these human-made constructs — of slavery, coloniality, apartheid, and all of these things. So my music really strives against those things."

It also acts as a link between those in the diaspora and those in the motherland. "This album creates a bridge over the Atlantic Ocean, also questioning other narratives that have existed—like the slave trade over the Atlantic Ocean and how water was used as a mode of transport into slavery. Within African cosmology, water is thought of to create a healing space, so we're reversing these narratives, questioning things, and confronting things."

Being signed to an internationally-recognized label like Blue Note means he can share both his music and his message with a wider audience. "We are in need of healing," says Makhathini. "I think I'm an important part in terms of how people start looking for healing in music, and I think this is something universal and urgent that is necessary." For sure, Nduduzo Makhathini has never need the blessing of a major label, but the major label—and we—are blessed to have him.

Modes of Communication is available for pre-order now.

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Every week, we highlight the cream of the crop in music through our best music of the week column.

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Photo courtesy of CNOA

These Colombian Civil Rights Activists Are Fighting to Make Sure Afro-Colombians are Counted in the Census

When 30 percent of Colombia's Black citizens disappeared from the data overnight, a group of Afro-Colombian activists demanded an explanation.

It was the end of 2019 when various Black organizations protested in front of the census bureau—The National Institute of Statistics and Informatics (DANE)—in Bogotá, Colombia to show their dissatisfaction about what they called a "statistical genocide" of the black population. The census data, published that year, showed 2.9 million people, only 6 percent of the total population of the country, was counted as "Afro-Colombian," "Raizal," and "Palenquero"—the various terms identifying black Colombians.

For many years, Afro-Colombians have been considered the second largest ethno-racial group in the country. Regionally, Colombia has long been considered the country with the second highest number of Afro-descendants after Brazil, according to a civil society report.

Why did the population of Afro-Colombians drop so drastically?

Afro-Colombian, Black, Raizal, and Palenquero civil-rights activists protesting erasure of Afro-descendants in front of the census bureau.

Last year, a crowd of activists gathered in Bogota to protest what they saw as erasure of Black communities in the Colombian census.

Photo courtesy of CNOA

In the latest national census report from 2018/2019, there appeared to be a 30.8 percent reduction of the overall group of people that identified as Black, Afro-Colombian, Raizal, and Palenquero, as compared to the 2005. After this controversial report, an Afro-Colombian civil rights organization known as the National Conference of Afro Colombian Organizations (CNOA), officially urged DANE to explain the big undercounting of the black population.

This wasn't a small fight. Representatives who hold the special seats of Afro-Colombians in Colombia's congress asked the census bureau to attend a political control debate at the House of Representatives in November 2019 to deliver an accountability report. "The main goal of doing a political debate was to demand DANE to give us a strong reason about the mistaken data in the last census in regard to the Afro population," said Ariel Palacios, an activist and a member of CNOA.

At the debate, the state released an updated census data report saying that, almost 10 percent of the Colombian population—4.6 million people out of 50.3 million—considers themselves Afro-Colombians or other ethnicities (like Raizal, and Palenquero). But despite DANE trying to confirm the accuracy and reliability on the latest census report it was clear that, for a variety of reasons, Black people were missed by the census. The state argued that their main obstacles with data collection were related to the difficulties of the self-recognition question, as well as security reasons that didn't allow them to access certain regions. They also admitted to a lack of training, logistics and an overall lack of success in the way the data collectors conducted the census.

How could they have counted Black populations better?

Afro-Colombian, Black, Raizal, and Palenquero civil-rights activists playing drums in front of the census bureau.

Drummers performing during a protest against the Colombian census bureau's erasure of Afro-Colombians from the 2018 census.

Photo courtesy of CNOA

These arguments were not reasonable for the civil rights activists, partially because the state failed to properly partner with Afro-organizations like CNOA to conduct or facilitate extensive informational campaigns about the self-identification questions.

"CNOA has worked on self-recognition and visibility campaigns among the Afro community and this census ignored our work," says priest Emigdio Cuesta-Pino, the executive secretary of CNOA. Palacios also thinks that the majority of Afro-Colombians are aware of their identity "we self-identify because we know there is a public political debate and we know that there is a lack of investment on public policies."

That's why it is not enough to leave the statistical data to the official census bureau to ensure that Afro-Colombian communities are fully counted in the country. And the civil rights activists knows that. They made a big splash in the national media and achieved visibility in the international community.

Thanks to The Washington Office on Latin America (WOLA), a human rights organization, Palacios traveled to D.C to meet with Race and Equality institution and a Democratic Congressman. "We called for a meeting with representative Hank Johnson to talk about the implementation of Colombia's peace accords from an Afro-Colombian perspective but also to address the gross undercounts of its black population," says Palacios.

For the activists at CNOA, the statistical visibility of the Black population is one of their battles. They have fought for Afro population recognition for almost two decades. "Since the very beginning CNOA has worked on the census issue as one of our main commitments within the statistical visibility of the Afro-Colombian people," says priest Cuesta-Pina. Behind this civil organization are 270 local associations, who work for their rights and collective interests.

The activists want to raise awareness on identity. Because according to Palacios, "In Colombia, there is missing an identity debate—we don't know what we are. They [the census bureau] ask if we are black, or if we are Afro-Colombians. But what are the others being asked? If they are white, mestizo or indigenous?" Palacios believes that for "CNOA this debate is pending, and also it is relevant to know which is the character of this nation."

Afro-Colombian Populations and the Coronavirus

Afro-Colombian, Black, Raizal, and Palenquero civil-rights activists use mock coffins and statistics to protest erasure of Afro-descendants

Colombian civil-rights activist insist that undercounting Afro-descendants can have a real impact on the health of Afro-Colombian communities, especially during the COVID-19 coronavirus crisis.

Photo courtesy of CNOA

Even though the state recently "agreed with to give us a detailed census report" and make a different projection with the micro data, says Palacios, now with the Covid-19 emergency, CNOA and the government has suspended all meetings with them, including cancelling a second congressional debate and the expert round table meeting to analyze the data.

Unfortunately, it is exactly in situations like the Covid-19 emergency where data analysis and an accurate census report would have been useful. According to the professor and PhD in Sociology Edgar Benítez from Center for Afro Diasporic Studies—CEAF, "Now it is required to provide a reliable and timely information on how the contagion pattern will spread in those predominantly Afro regions in the country and what is the institutional capacity in those places to face it," says Benítez.

He adds that this information is "critical at the moment because the institutional capacity is not up to provide it at the current situation". That's why the Center for Afro Diasporic Studies plans to work with DANE information from the last census. According to Benítez, "We are thinking of making comparisons at the municipal level with the information reported in the 2018 Quality of Life Survey, in order to have a robust and extensive database as possible on the demographic, economic and social conditions of the black, afro, Raizal and Palenquera population in Colombia."









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Nigerian Officials Drop Charges Against Naira Marley for Violating Coronavirus Lockdown Order

The Nigerian star was arraigned on Wednesday for attending a party at the home of Nollywood actress Funke Akindele.

Naira Marley has been pardoned by Lagos authorities, after being arraigned in Lagos for attending a party at the home of Nollywood actress Funke Akindele last weekend, which violated the city-wide lockdown.

According to a report from Pulse Nigeria, the "Soapy" singer and two other defendants—politician Babatunde Gbadamosi and his wife—were ordered to write formal apologies to the Government of Lagos, give written assurance that he will follow the ordinance going forward, and go into self-isolation for 14 days.

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In Conversation With Cameroonian Drag Artist Bebe Zahara Benet: 'You Don't Stop Doing Your Work'

The U.S.-based Cameroonian artist speaks to us about her upcoming EP, Broken English, and how she's navigating the world of music amid the coronavirus outbreak.

Bebe Zahara Benet is three things: fierce. fabulous, and a force. For avid followers and fans of the reality show RuPaul's Drag Race, you may remember Bebe Zahara Benet as the winner of the inaugural season of the program back in 2009. Since then, she's gone on to star in TLC's Dragnificent and more recently, has been back in the recording studio working on her upcoming EP, Broken English.

Last week, she dropped "Banjo," the first single o the EP. It's a fun, energetic and uninhibited number that likens romantic pursuits to the sweet harmonies of the stringed instrument. Naturally, the accompanying music video is just as vibrant and light-hearted.

The Cameroonian drag artist moved to the United States when she was 19-years-old and has grown to see herself as belonging to two homes. She's put out a ton of music including including the EPs Face and Kisses & Feathers, as well as a number of singles including "Fun Tonite", "Get Fierce (Lose Yourself)" and "Starting a Fire." Currently based in Minneapolis, Minnesota, she says that it's been two years since she's put out original music and it's time to give her fans what they've been asking for.

We spoke with Bebe Zahara Benet on lockdown from her home in Minneapolis, and got to hear more of what went into creating her upcoming project, the challenges of being an alternative artist from a conservative African country and how she's navigating the world of music during the coronavirus outbreak.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

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