Ndikho Xaba 1934-2019

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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

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Dudley Library Concerts

For several years, the Makanda Project has performed four free concerts per year in the auditorium of the Dudley Branch of the Boston Public Library, located in Dudley Square, Roxbury. This has become our “home base.” The audience has grown steadily, and we can pretty much expect that the room will be filled when we perform there.  These concerts are meaningful in a number of ways, beyond the fact that they have helped keep the band working.

For one, we have produced them ourselves.  The “jazz business” is bleak these days to say the least, and we knew early on that the old standard practice of seeking musical employment – i.e. going to club owners with a demo and trying to get them to give us a gig – wasn’t going to work with this band.  (The band is too big, the music requires people’s attention, the clubs don’t exist anyway, etc. )  There are a handful of organizations in Boston that produce annual concert series, and we were fortunate to be included in a couple of those in our early years, but clearly there wasn’t enough of that kind of work to sustain us.  In such circumstances, it’s on the musicians ourselves to come up with new strategies and create our own opportunities.  It’s also important to find the right allies. An old friend, Lloyd King, director of the community organization Roxbury Action Program, had long seen the presence of jazz as a vital part of community development, and we worked with RAP to start an outdoor summer concert series that continues to the present. Lloyd also alerted me to how some community activists (including the very wonderful Mimi Jones) had advanced plans to develop the Dudley Library as a cultural center in Roxbury, and that group embraced the idea of our concerts being among the cultural activities offered.  We have been able to get funding for the concerts, not so much by competing for the limited dollars for jazz in the “arts world” but by approaching sources that are more interested in what we’re doing from a community development perspective.

It’s also important that the concerts are in Roxbury.  Roxbury is the heart of Boston’s African American community, and it is also where Makanda Ken McIntyre grew up.  In the 1950s, as Makanda was learning his craft, the community was a vibrant source of jazz activity.  There were many clubs where the music was performed, and the music permeated community life in ways beyond that.  Daoud Haroon (aka John Mancebo Lewis), trombonist who played on Makanda’s first album “Stone Blues,” told me a story which seemed to symbolize how the music was interwoven into daily activities and relationships: he was practicing a certain exercise every day in his apartment, and one day the mailman (also a saxophonist, and the father of the great drummer Tony Williams) knocked on the door and offered a tip based on what he had been hearing each day.  Now, though, the jazz clubs are gone.  (Connolly’s, the last one standing from the heyday, was torn down by the city in the mid 90s supposedly to make way for a retail development that would be good for the neighborhood.  The lot remains vacant today.)  The opportunities for jazz musicians to perform that do exist are in other parts of Greater Boston.  Roxbury residents are not well represented in the audience at those venues.  Similar phenomena have occurred in other cities across the U.S.

Many conclude from the above that there is no real jazz audience, or support for the music, in Roxbury or communities like it.  Our premise when we started the concerts was that this is not true; it is simply a matter of making the music accessible in an effective way.  Our experience has proven us correct.  I was reading a book about one of our heroes, pianist, composer, and bandleader Horace Tapscott: The Dark Tree: Jazz and the Community Arts in Los Angeles by Steven L. Isoardi.  I came a passage in the Preface where the author comments on ” . . . the inability of much of the jazz and mainstream media to see beyond commercial venues and into the areas that birthed this art form.  Much of the African American audience is where it has always been, in their communities and not in higher priced clubs, halls, and festivals far removed from those neighborhoods and their working-class populations.  While most of jazz journalism, history, and commerce have focused primarily on these typical venues, they have become increasingly removed from African American communities and the music emerging there over the last fifty years . . . .  Performances at parks, schools, social centers, and cultural festivals continue to attract substantial audiences.”  To this last list we could add libraries.

The concerts attract people from places an hour or more away – jazz fans who know, for instance, that these concerts are the only opportunity in the region to hear some of the guest artists who perform with us such as Oliver Lake, Craig Harris, or Odean Pope.  As such, the concerts have a welcoming multicultural flavor.  At the same time, the majority of the audience is from the neighborhood, and the feeling of the concerts is that of a community event.  I think it’s important that the audience includes not just the hard core jazz fans (from Roxbury as well as elsewhere), but also neighborhood folks who may not have a great deal of experience listening to jazz but who come because it’s an event in their community.  When we talk about making the music part of community life, it’s important that the “community” in question is not just the relatively narrow group of music insiders (i.e., the “jazz community”).  It’s also gratifying to observe that the relatively uninitiated jazz listeners do not seem to be scared off by the complexities of Makanda’s compositions.

Of special note, in terms of the audience composition, is that the library is a family friendly environment where children are welcome and do attend.

I hear from time to time of suburban residents who will not come to the concerts because it is “too dangerous” in Roxbury.  No amount of evidence will convince them otherwise.  This is too bad.  But this thought did occur to me: usually it’s the targets of stereotypes who end up missing out on things, rather than the holders of the stereotypes.  If it must be one way or the other, it’s probably more fair that this be reversed.

There are more things to write about concerning the Dudley Library concerts, but those will be in separate posts.

  • John Kordalewski