One of South Africa's top musicians was awarded a PhD at Stellenbosch University (SU) this week during the March graduation ceremonies. Pianist, composer, producer, educator and researcher Nduduzo Makhathini is a leading figure in the South African jazz scene with many accolades to his name. And now he'll be able to add another title – Dr Makhathini.
The award-winning musician regularly tours internationally and is the first South African jazz artist to be signed to the prestigious Blue Note jazz record label. Makhathini has collaborated with many renowned artists such as Wynton Marsalis, Shabaka Hutchings, Nasheet Waits, Somi and Black Coffee.
In addition to his prolific performance career, he is the Head of the Music Department at the University of Fort Hare. At SU, Makhathini pursued an integrated PhD, which refers to degrees where artistic practice and writing are employed as two modalities that mutually inform and articulate a single research project.
Makhathini, who hails from uMgungundlovu in KwaZula-Natal, describes himself as a healer, improviser and scholar. “I'm interested in improvisations in South African jazz and fellowships with spirituality. This comes from an upbringing in a musical family and community, and the blessing of learning about sound in a ritual context. These interests have led to a long itinerary of searching all around the world," he explains.
Makhathini says he wouldn't have been able to complete his research without the support of family, his colleagues at Fort Hare and friends. “I've been writing this PhD while traveling between soundchecks and spending time with really incredible thinkers and artists around the world." He is also grateful for spiritual inspiration. “In my research, I propose the notion of writing as a ritual. In this context, writing considers the spiritual paradigm as an active site for revelations and prophecies, so I want to also thank the dimension that I regard in my work as an 'elsewhere'."
Makhathini is full of praise for his SU supervisors, Prof Stephanus Muller, Dr Stephanie Vos, and Dr Uhuru Phalafala. “They played a huge role in helping me shape and crystallise my ideas," he says.
His wife and mother accompanied him to his doctoral graduation ceremony at the Coetzenburg Stadium. “This graduation means a lot to us as a family, we are very excited," he says. “We believe in the communal and we feel this is a product that represents my ancestry, it acknowledges our lineage."
The Makhathinis planned to celebrate with a dinner in Stellenbosch after the graduation ceremony, followed by breakfast with his supervisors the next day. “And when I get back home, I'll celebrate with my kids. But the best way to celebrate is to write more and do more research. I'm inspired to move forward with the inquiry and explore the questions beyond the scope of a PhD dissertation," he says.
Makhathini was a student at the Africa Open Institute for Music, Research and Innovation in the Faculty of Arts and Social Sciences at SU. His doctoral project, titled “Breaking into Sound: Dis/Locating Ntu Cosmology and Improvisation in South African Jazz", is deeply rooted in Zulu cosmology. This worldview is one that is largely absent in the literature on South African jazz, a lacuna that Makhathini's PhD addressed in arguing for the importance of African cosmologies and epistemologies as a lens for understanding South African jazz.
Taking an explicitly Africa-centred approach, Makhathini's research developed a framework for such an understanding, drawing on the literature on African cosmologies and ritual, the work of Philip Tabane, Busi Mhlongo, Bheki Mseleku and Zim Ngqawana as case studies of musicians in whose work spirituality is central, as well as his own artistic practice as improviser and healer.
“I am deeply inspired by the healing and motivational qualities of the Zulu or African warrior code. My style of music can be described as a fusion of spiritual jazz and modern stylings with my Zulu heritage," Makhathini says.
Makhathini has released eight albums since 2014, when he founded the recording label Gundu Entertainment along with his wife, Omagugu. Thanks to the success of his albums, he was signed by Universal Music South Africa in 2018. Soon after, he became the first South African artist to sign with iconic jazz label Blue Note Records for his albums Letters from the Underworlds (2020) and The Spirit of Ntu (2022).
He credits his wife for enabling him to juggle performing, composing, teaching and learning. “I'm blessed to have such a supportive partner. She is an incredible artist herself but has been selflessly supporting my journey for many years. She makes everything possible and I love her deeply."
Looking to the future, Makhathini would love an opportunity to travel to West Africa to learn about the practices of that region's griots, who function as storytellers, singers, musicians and oral historians. “I feel there are many aspects to the griots' practices that mirror my own. So, I'm excited about the possibility of learning more."