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Reclamation by Jazz and Fire

Elitism and populism do not necessarily co-habit the same space. However, in the heart of Johannesburg, both embrace in the heat of a performance.
August 10, 2022
5:18 am
Photographed by Arthur Dlamini

Fire is a recurring theme in jazz musician, philosopher, and healer Nduduzo Makhathini’s music. His composition, ‘Emilweni’ on his new album ‘In the Spirit of Ntu’, is a response to the riots, looting and burning that took place in KZN last year. In May this year, he participated in a cleansing by fire performance organised by the Keleketla! Library at the Drill Hall in Jo’burg City.


The event was part of the lead up to Keleketla’s participation in Documenta, an exhibition incorporating site-specific art, culture and heritage projects that runs for 100 days every five years, in Kassel in Germany. A film of the event is part of Keleketla’s presentation.


Documenta was founded in 1955 by artist, teacher, and curator, Arnold Bode, with the aim of dispelling the cultural darkness of Nazism. The Keleketla team, Rangoato Hlasane and Malose Malahlela, who ran a vibrant evolving socio-cultural project at the Drill Hall 12 years ago, were forced to leave because of urban mismanagement and neglect, political indifference, and occupation by taxi bosses, thugs, fixers and dealers.


They have not given up hope and are once again on a mission to reclaim the Drill Hall, a historically charged inner city heritage site.



Unexpected rain, followed by hail threatened to derail the event but it stopped as suddenly as it started, leaving clear skies, which Makhathini interprets as a symbol of alignment with African cosmological forces.


Healing is intrinsic to Makhathini’s work.  “Healing is an essential property of sound in African cosmology and ritual is a way of keeping the African cosmological outlook intact.  All the brutalities and all the catastrophes of slave trade and apartheid and all these brutal things are a sign that people are out of tune,” Makhathini says.


Healing, involves pulling towards the essence of who we are in relation to the cosmos and a refusal to allow victimisation to dictate what kind of people we become, he explains.


Exactly according to schedule, the Blue Note jazz museum approached the piano situated in the middle of the empty square that was once used by for British soldiers for military drills and decades later became the site of the famous Treason Trial of 1956.


As Makhathini began to play, the historic Drill Hall pillars were engulfed with flames in a symbolic ritual.  “It is time to remove the colonial memory and project a new annunciation or a new symbolism,” Makhathini says.



Commenting on the unique setting for his performance, Makhathini says his music pays tribute to space, but jazz is also a produce of displacement.  “Forms of place and displacement are constantly dialoguing ,” in his music, he explains.  There are so many forms of displacement in South Africa, and the Drill Hall, though its various incarnations, speaks of displacement.


What does  it mean for sound to be measured by fire?  Makhathini reflects on this and explains that the music was “not only about creating a backdrop to socio-political, complex and difficult moments, but an expression of people’s tiredness and their hopes for freedom.”


The arresting image of a piano and a jazz musician in the centre of a square that has meant so many things to so many people will not be easily forgotten.


“There is a sense in which jazz and the piano is seen as something that is elite but the audience that was there was squatters; people who wouldn’t often see a piano, Makhathini says.  “Seeing those squatters looking and listening and this instrument in the middle and the burning fires… That is quite a strong symbol in South African history,” he observes.


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