Ayanda Sikade keeps the rhythm of South African jazz alive
By Philip Freeman January 18, 2022
Although he was a crucial figure in South African jazz for years, drummer Ayanda Sikade is only now getting the recognition he has long deserved – something you could say of the South African scene. as a whole, given the increased global visibility it has begun to enjoy in recent years. His second album as a frontman has just arrived, and the killer performances on other people’s records seem to be constantly emerging.
Born in Mdantsane Township, Eastern Cape Province of South Africa, on New Year’s Day 1981, Sikade began playing drums as a child. “I come from a traditional family, so we didn’t grow up with instruments at home,” he says via WhatsApp, after a day in the studio with trumpeter Siyanda Zulu. “We grew up with traditional music, which is sung, then handclapping and of course dancing. So I come from that. But there was a jazz band not far from my house that I went to see when they were rehearsing.
Watching the older men play, he learned about various instruments and how they worked together to create jazz, but he was not allowed to participate. “From time to time, I played the violin with an instrument. They would be mad at me if I touched the saxophone, which is a very sensitive instrument,” he says. “They didn’t have a piano, but they had an electric piano, and the owner of the piano didn’t want anyone touching it. So the drums were the only ones [instrument] that I could play the violin and try to do what they just did, try to imitate the way the drummer was playing, the rhythms, the different beats, 4/4 beats or a shuffle and all those sorts of things.
At the turn of the millennium, Sikade, who had been playing since the age of 10, entered the jazz program at the University of KwaZulu-Natal. There he met the pianist Nduduzo Makhathini. The two have been friends and collaborators ever since. They were both members of revered South African saxophonist Zim Ngqawana’s band Zimology in the mid-2000s, touring with him for several years; Sikade can be heard on Makhathini albums sketches of tomorrow, Mother tongue, Listen on the ground, Icilongo: The African Peace Suite, and Ikhambi.
Makhathini says, “Unlike me, Ayanda came to the jazz traditions of South Africa when he was very young. For me, jazz only came when I went to study music… I think Ayanda has a significant place in the traditions of jazz in South Africa that stem from learning it in its early years. In this sense, it also bears a much higher responsibility for the aesthetics of South African jazz and its heritage.
Saxophonist Linda Sikhakhane, who has recorded with both men, calls Sikade “a mentor and a bridge to a lot of knowledge from our masters. He and Makhathini pioneered an important movement in our jazz community that has allowed many young musicians to express themselves on the bandstand, creating a space for independence and encouraging musicians to release their works. He is the runner of many young cats.
When two musicians play together for so long, they begin to develop a common language. “You know, it’s like [we’re] a person,” Sikade says of the drum behind Makhathini. “All these years we have really sought to understand each other’s spiritual way of dealing with sound. We agree on everything about sound: where does it come from, where does it go, what is the future of sound, what should we do.
He shares a story from Zulu’s recording session as an example of the depth of their bond. “Today when we’re in the studio we recorded this track and he said he couldn’t hear the drums, the drums weren’t in his headphones. But because he knows what I’m thinking , he could just be playing without even hearing me. We really have a special combination when it comes to understanding sound and how we interpret it and how we think about it. It really is a special gift from God to us .
Makhathini appears on Sikade’s new album Umakhulu, featuring bassist Nhlanhla Radebe and alto saxophonist Simon Manana. The three veterans bring original compositions that allow Manana, who is only 23 years old, to move forward boldly. The saxophonist has a big and strong sound; he often sounds like he’s playing a tenor rather than an alto. He sat down with Makhathini and Sikade during a gig at the Johannesburg club Untitled Basement, and afterwards the drummer watched the video of the gig on Facebook. “He had all this knowledge of being like a purist about how he phrases and how he hits his notes and his lines… It really moved me and I thought, ‘I want to do something with this cat, man, because I like the way he interprets what he hears.'”
He formed a trio with Manana and bassist Herbie Tsoaeli, another former member of Zimology (Sikade played on Tsoaeli’s 2021 album At this point: the voices in the volumes). At the time the session was booked, however, Radebe was on bass; Sikade says, “We came into the studio as a trio plus, actually, and we came out as a quartet.”
The music on Umakhulu covers a wide range. The opening track, “Mdantsane”, named after Sikade’s hometown, is a slow blues with a very memorable and catchy melody. Manana plays with a surprising degree of patience for a young man, resisting the urge to lash out, and Makhathini’s piano solo has a late-night bar energy. Sikade’s game is loose but always on time, his strikes landing like bare feet clattering in the dust.
This is true even on tracks like “Nxarhuni River”, a fast bebop burn that delivers a burst of energy in the second half of the album. One of Makhathini’s biggest influences is McCoy Tyner, and those flowery outbursts of notes, anchored by hammered left-hand chords, are all over the track’s opening moments. Behind him, Sikade lays down a complex but driving rhythm that bounces all over the kit with tumbling fills, à la Max Roach.
The drummer explains that his rhythmic concept is rooted in African song and dance culture: “It starts with the dance, so basically you feel the pulse through the way you dance – the way you dance is the way you are going to play it… Dancing becomes a very important element for every musician, because culturally we dance and also we sing, so the singing is synchronized with the dancing.
He adds that this “humanity”, which sets South African jazz apart from its American and European counterparts, is part of what he loves about playing with Tsoaeli – who, at 57, has a lot of wisdom to impart. . “His music is based on how Africans deal with time, you know?” he says. “It’s not like the Europeans manage time, where if the train has to be there at seven o’clock and if you’re not there at seven o’clock, you miss the train. Sometimes it can come a little earlier, sometimes it can come later. It’s that kind of flexibility of time, elasticity of time—when we say we’re going to meet in the morning, we’re saying we’re going to meet when the sun comes up. So when the sun comes up it can be between seven and ten o’clock He has this kind of philosophy that he uses to describe his music… Music is not like we lay bricks so if I miss the pattern of the brick , that means this thing is wrong. You always come as you are, and we’re going to be elastic about the sound.
Umakhulu is Sikade’s second album as a frontman, but it’s a role he’s still not comfortable with. His beginnings, Movements, was recorded in 2010, but he stuck the recordings in the box for eight years. “In a way, I don’t think I was really ready to be a leader, for lack of a better word. I thought maybe I was still a little young and didn’t feel anything about myself at that time, because I believed [in being] a sideman… I thought I was in a group situation.
When I ask him if he considers himself an elder – he’s been playing professionally for more than two decades, and up-and-coming musicians like Sikhakhane and Manana see him as a mentor – he laughs. “I believe in the next 10 years South Africa, if not now, will be like the main hub for this music all over the world,” he says. “It’s awesome, and I’m really lucky and privileged to be part of such a movement that puts that sound front and center with these young cats and also Makhathini and Bra Herbie and all these other masters who are front and center. .but I’m not an oldie yet.I still feel young.I still feel like I’m in my early thirties in my mind and the way I do things,so maybe I’ll become a former in the next 20 years, and I think I’m going to take that trip.