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Ndhiko Xaba: Way too hip

From the streets of Pietermaritzburg to Joburg’s Dorkay House and the jazz lofts of Chicago, this musician was a giant who fearlessly influenced many during his lifetime.

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25 June 2019

It’s the late 1990s at the Windybrow Theatre in Johannesburg and on to the stage walks a slight, goateed figure in a blue African-style shirt, who proceeds to draw astounding music from … a water cooler. “Damn,” says an American-born friend whose jazz tastes were shaped by the Chicago free music scene of the 1970s. “Why didn’t I know this guy before?”

Too many people didn’t know Ndikho Douglas Xaba, a multi-instrumentalist, instrument-maker, composer, actor, teacher and revolutionary. Hopefully, it isn’t too late for them to learn about the legacy and contribution of this musician’s musician, who died peacefully on 11 June at the age of 85.

Xaba’s journey took him from the streets of Pietermaritzburg and the surrounding countryside to the Little Jazz City of Queenstown, the musical ferment of Johannesburg’s Dorkay House, the Broadway stage, the jazz lofts of San Francisco, Chicago and New York in the United States, the training camps of the ANC in exile in Tanzania, the streets of post-liberation Soweto and, finally, back to his home province again.

His music spanned a similarly broad canvas, for he drew no artificial boundaries between styles or genres. He was as comfortable imagining fearless cosmic explorations – he shared a stage with American composer Sun Ra, known for his fantastical stage outfits – as with crafting instantly catchy hits such as Emavungweni, first covered by Hugh Masekela on the 1966 album Grrr! (and later on Uptownship, and by Miriam Makeba on Makeba!). You’ll know that tune as soon as you hear it. But you probably didn’t know it was created by Xaba.

A self-taught start

Xaba was born in Pietermaritzburg in 1934, the youngest of the six sons of Methodist minister James George Howard Xaba, a covert ANC operative and founder of the Natal African Teachers Union. His schoolteacher mother, Emily Selina Dingaan Xaba, was an organist and choir leader.*

Xaba’s family hoped he would study towards a profession and did not encourage him when it came to music, so he picked up a pennywhistle and subsequently often described himself as “proudly self-taught”.

In what was then Natal and later, when his father’s ministry was transferred to Queenstown in the Eastern Cape in 1953, he and at least one of his brothers were active in the ANC. Musicians interviewed for writer, director and producer Nhlanhla Masondo’s 2016 biographical documentary about Xaba, titled Shwabada: The Music of Ndikho Xaba, recalled that it was absolutely not cool to ask them what they were doing.

In Queenstown, Xaba joined his first band, Lex Mona’s Tympany Slickers. The Slickers often played at ANC fundraising events and this, plus the Xaba brothers’ political activities, led to a great deal of ducking and diving until the apartheid police’s Special Branch finally interrogated him. For his family’s sake, it was clear he had to move.

And so to Johannesburg and Dorkay House: sporadic work in a range of outfits, shows and recording sessions with, for example, EMI-label band the Globe Trotters. He commuted to Durban at times, for work and to visit family, and in 1960 was part of author and anti-apartheid activist Alan Paton’s production of Umkhumbane, with music by Todd Matshikiza, at the Playhouse Theatre.

Increasingly, not only police-state oppression but also the rigid cultural categories of apartheid and the denial of black originality and excellence became intolerable. When, playing at an SABC Studios recording session, his pianist was told by the producer, “‘Look, I don’t want you going anywhere with that tune. Just stay on that thing: ka-ting ka-ting. That’s all I want you to do.’ That’s when I said to myself: enough is enough. I’m not going to be involved in this degenerative artistry.”

Exile in the US

His ticket out came with another Alan Paton play, Sponono, with music by Gideon uMgibe Nxumalo and an all-black cast. Xaba played the part of a traditional praise singer. In 1964, the play was invited for a short Broadway run at the Cort Theatre in New York in the US. When the run ended, Xaba stayed. It was the beginning of 34 years of exile.

In the US, Xaba hooked up again with Makeba, Masekela and others. Their musical campaigning, he recalled, had a clear agenda: “One: we are black. Two: we have been colonised. Three: we were enslaved. Four: we were victims of imperialism. We are victims of racism collectively, so how can you divorce yourselves?”

He had no illusions about America. Arriving at Kennedy Airport on a snowy day and forced to pose for photographs in scanty Zulu attire, “our African-American brothers who worked in the airport didn’t want anything to do with us. Because to them, here was Tarzan – live! [But after we had changed into our suits], those same people are like, ‘Hey, my brother! How ya doin’ man?”

Shortly afterwards, he found what he saw clearly as “apartheid” in a New York Irish bar. “I remember noticing – hey, wait a bit, you don’t have black people coming in here; it’s just us … And the Irish guys were like: who are these guys? But we were just like: Hey, man, gin and tonic and a Steiner – this is freedom now, we’re in America!”

Xaba created a powerful sonic evocation of those days in the track It is Cold in America on his Sunsets: An Anthology of Creative Music album.

But he found a great deal in common with the underground free jazz scene across the US and its discourse of post-civil rights, African-American liberation. After New York, where he taught himself to play the piano, he worked in San Francisco. Here, he met his wife, the poet and activist Nomusa Xaba, while giving Zulu lessons at Malcolm X Unity House. He later moved to Chicago and then Canada before returning to South Africa in 1994.

In San Francisco, Xaba immersed himself in music-making and cultural education. Those days are described in Nomusa Xaba’s memoirIt’s Been A Long Time Coming. She describes him teaching how music had the power “to create powerful, meaningful, lasting change”.

The band he formed, Ndikho Xaba and the Natives, played at solidarity concerts and community events, mixing far-out improvisation, re-enactments of anticolonial history, solid, funky groove, spoken word and more in a single performance. Masondo recovered and restored close to two hours of archival footage of those performances for Shwabada.

Xaba’s work from the late 1960s and early 1970s was part of the countrywide radical cultural and political movement best known through the 1966-founded Art Ensemble of Chicago. Xaba is the only South African exile whose creativity in this context went on record. His music is compelling, surprising and unique – and it was influential.

Former Natives saxophonist J “Plunky Nkabinde” Branch said when the album was reissued: “I create message music, teach in schools and promote political awareness while entertaining … because of Ndikho Xaba.”

A born teacher

Xaba continued teaching throughout the rest of his life. He established musical instrument-making facilities and created a music curriculum for the ANC’s refugee school in Dakawa, Tanzania. On his return from exile, he held music and instrument-making classes at his Soweto home before moving back to Durban.

There, University of KwaZulu-Natal scholar Sazi Dlamini introduced Xaba’s work and ideas to music students in co-operation with Xaba. Meanwhile, in Boston, the Makanda Project – primarily dedicated to reedman Ken McIntyre – performs big band arrangements of Xaba’s work.

Xaba performed increasingly rarely in South Africa. He had little enthusiasm for an unimaginative and often reactionary commercial music scene and in his final years, Parkinson’s disease limited his mobility.

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So why is Xaba so little known outside of musical circles? Masondo says “the reason that Ndikho Xaba is rated an enigma is because he’s way too hip”.

But Xaba’s praxis retains the power to make a conventional music scene – and society – uneasy. His music could bowl you over with its inventiveness, and the breadth and erudition of its cultural references. He declared himself a son of Kemet half a century before British-Barbadian musician Shabaka Hutchings started jazz group Sons of Kemet in 2011.

Xaba’s life enacted the rejection of boundaries, including the bourgeois boundary between aesthetics and politics. He lived and played what he believed, uncompromisingly. He imagined beyond any category towards a world where all peoples were family, and where oppression could and would be thrown down. Hamba kahle to a soldier for the beauty of the future. 

*From Francis Gooding’s biographical notes on the Matsuli Music Ndikho Xaba and The Natives album.

This article was first published on Gwen Ansell’s blog, Sisgwenjazz.

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