There are certain people you meet in life, who have something about them that makes them strikingly unforgettable, whether you encounter them briefly or for an extended period of time. Ndikho Xaba was such a person – and I had the great fortune to know him well.
I met Ndikho when I was in my early 20s, living in Washington, DC, trying to find my way into adulthood. Ndikho had been living in the US in exile for over a decade at this point, and DC was one of his many stops (these also, by the time he returned home in the 1990s, included New York, Providence, Los Angeles, San Francisco, Toronto, and Chicago). I was drawn not only to his uniquely powerful piano playing – unlike anything I’ve ever seen, before or since – but also to his qualities as a human being. As much as anyone I’ve known, he was a role model regarding what it means to be an artist. With his commitments to the anti-apartheid struggle (he defined himself as a “cultural worker” in that struggle) he connected his music to goals that transcended personal self-expression. He exemplified the concept of integrity, as a musician and in general. There was not an insincere or shallow molecule in his body. For him creativity was a way of life, manifested in marvelous ways both when performing and when dealing with day to day matters. (“I love it when you can circumvent capitalism,” I can still hear him saying one day after he had made a lamp out of objects he had found in the alley behind his apartment.) And, dead serious as he was, it was all done with a vibrant and infectious sense of humor.
Ndikho made choices based on what he felt were the important artistic truths, not based on what would be most commercially rewarding. “I think my role is to be underground,” he once told me. He embraced that role and had a profound impact on everyone he touched.
Ndikho was a remarkable musician. In addition to piano he played percussion, sang, and played a variety of home made instruments. He made all sorts of instruments – some traditional South African ones such as the one-stringed makhweyane, others his own concoctions. I recall one called “Task,” with one string inside a large metal container he had found somewhere; another involved his playing the spokes of a bicycle wheel. He mastered the technique of playing all of them, and more importantly breathed life into them with his musicality. Whatever the instrument, the music came from his whole being.
His sets truly went on a journey. From infectious danceable rhythms to more abstract pieces; from piano to other instruments; deeply-felt joy along with other profound emotions. Often he was joined on stage by his wife Nomusa, contributing poetry and dance. There were history lessons mixed in, as he educated his audience about recent and not-so-recent political developments in Africa. When his recording “Ndikho and the Natives,” made in the early 1970s when he was in San Francisco, was reissued a few years ago, reviewers commented on Ndikho’s unique place in the spectrum of South African jazz. Musically, he blended South African music with the jazz avant-garde in ways that other South African exiles did not. Politically, he bridged African anti-colonial struggles with the struggles of African Americans in the post-Civil Rights era.
He often told me I should come see him in South Africa, and in 2014 I did. By this time he had developed Parkinson’s disease and was limited physically, but his mind remained very sharp. One thing led to another and I began a project of arranging some of his compositions for big band. Very few of his pieces had been recorded, and none of them (as far as I know) written down. On a subsequent trip he and I spent hours at the piano going over different compositions – he could still play bass lines and melodies, as well as explain the important nuances. What a view into his musical world, and what a lesson!
I’m extremely glad that in 2016 I was able to work with the University of KwaZulu Natal big band to present these compositions – in Ndikho’s presence. Too often, we wait until someone has passed to “discover” their work and honor them. In this case we knew we had a limited window, and we made the most of it. It was a group effort to which many brought wonderful energy: Neal Gonsalves, Burton Naidoo, Salim Washington (our long time colleague, now teaching at UKZN), Thulile Zama, and the outstanding student musicians. The young musicians in Durban gravitated to his music and continued to play it in various contexts. It pleased him to know that.
Ndikho’s music has been in the Makanda Project’s “book” for the last several years, and it represented the beginning of our explorations of the richly rewarding world of South African jazz. We will continue to perform it. As Ndikho would put it, he is “now an ancestor,” which means he still is here to guide us.
- John Kordalewski