– b. 22 May 1934 in Pietermaritzburg, KwaZulu-Natal Midlands. d. 11 June 2019 in Durban, KwaZulu-Natal.
Multi-instrumentalist Ndikho Xaba was a jazzman, composer, pianist, stage performer, percussionist, philosopher, music historian and multi-instrumentalist whose exceptionally spiritual, eclectic, edgy, earthy and groundbreaking music has been described as Afrocentric rhythm. His first public performance was in 1960 in Mkhumbane, a play that relates the cultural vibrancy of a multiracial community in Durban that fell victim to the apartheid bulldozers.
Mkhumbane was written by author Alan Paton, who, incidentally, was also born in Pietermaritzburg. Todd Matshikiza wrote the score of Mkhumbane. Unfortunately, being involved in a “political” play attracted the attention of the apartheid security police. Tired with living as a fugitive in his own country, Xaba eventually chose exile. Ndikho Xaba was playing the part of an imbongi (praise singer) in Paton and Krishna Shah’s Sponono alongside Caiphus Semenya when he left South Africa in 1964.
The play’s US premiere was on 2 April 1964 at the Cort Theatre in Broadway, New York City with a 22-member cast that included Cocky ‘Two-Bull’ Tlhotlhalemaje in the lead role of Sponono – a delinquent schoolboy from a reformatory – as well as Lionel Ngakane, Victor Shange, Philemon Hou and Nomhle Nkonyeni. During its opening a group of American activists picketed against the play. They wrongfully thought it was a pro-apartheid white production with black actors.
But they would later realise that it was a powerful show with performers who were gifted with genuine talent. After its run eleven of the cast members returned home but Xaba and Semenya chose to stay behind. With Miriam Makeba’s assistance and powerful connections they secured scholarships, accommodation and gigs. For the next thirty-four years, Ndikho Xaba lived in the West and Africa as an exile – primarily in the United States, Canada and Tanzania.
As a multi-instrumentalist, Xaba played an array of musical instruments – both indigenous and Western. Most of them were innovative hand-crafted designs that included ancient bow stringed instruments of his ancestors such as umakhweyana and ugubhu as well as wind instruments. In exile, besides sharing the stage with a variety of special acts including Sun Ra, he got involved in the anti-apartheid movement as a political activist, revolutionary musician and educator.
He also closely collaborated with trumpeter Phil Cohran, co-founder of the Association for the Advancement of Creative Musicians (AACM). Founded in 1965 as a non-profit organisation by Chicago-based jazz musicians – pianist Muhal Richard Abrams, pianist Jodie Christian, drummer Steve McCall and Cohran – its purpose was, according to its charter, to ‘perform, nurture and record serious, original music’.
Xaba’s debut self-titled album, Ndikho & The Natives is a landmark work that reflects this philosophy of original performance. It’s also an avant-garde recording that marries the black musical traditions of South Africa and the United States, bringing together the radical Black Power politics of Angela Davis and Stokely Carmichael and the spirit of the anti-apartheid struggles from his homeland.
As a pianist and composer Xaba’s astute musicianship on this album clearly indicates that he was very much in the same league as illustrious countrymen like Kippie Moeketsi, Hugh Masekela and Abdullah Ibrahim. Based in San Francisco, California, Ndikho Xaba and The Natives were already a household name by 1971. They had performed at historic events such as Free Angela Davis rallies and the Berkeley Jazz Festival alongside illustrious names such as Alice Coltrane and Pharoah Sanders. One of their shows in New York included reggae superstars Third World and Toots and the Maytals.
After the Natives broke up in 1971, Xaba performed with his wife, Nomusa Xaba between 1972 and 1986. Billed as The Xaba Duo and Ndikho & Nomusa Xaba, they performed frequently in the US, Canada and Tanzania with Nomusa doing percussion, poetry, vocals and dance. Described on the sleeve notes as ‘an inventive record of exceptional musicianship seeped in the African and spiritual traditions of the jazz avant-garde’, Ndikho’s debut album was re-issued in 2015 by Matsuli Music, a noble initiative that introduced the artist to a new generation of appreciators.
According to the label, the album is ‘arguably the most complete and complex South African jazz LP recorded in the United States’. The author also notes that it’s ‘a recording that stands out as a critical document in the history of transatlantic black solidarity and in the jazz culture of South African exiles.’ It’s also hailed as ‘a critical statement in the history of transatlantic black solidarity, unifying voices stretching from San Francisco to Johannesburg’.
Despite the fact that Xaba is still better known abroad than at home – thanks to many years in exile – his province has made sure that his memory lives on in the form of tribute concerts and accolades. He’s a recipient of the Ethekwini Living Legends (2011) and Mayor’s Award for Excellence/Icons of Democracy (2013), among others. Also worth mentioning is the remarkable tribute album that Mbizo Johnny Dyani and Mongezi Feza recorded in 1972 titled Music For Xaba. A classic.
Ndikho & The Natives (Trilyte, 1970).
Oneness of Juju – African Rhythms Oneness of Juju 1970-1982 (2001). An excellent compilation of deep, African and spiritual funk and jazz.
Spiritual Jazz: Esoteric Modal and Deep Jazz From the Underground 1968-77 (Jazzman Records, 2008). Various Artists.