It’s the late 1990s at the Windybrow Theatre in Johannesburg. I’m with an American-born friend whose jazz tastes were shaped by the Chicago free music scene of the 1970s. On to the stage walks a slight, goateed figure in a blue African shirt, who proceeds to draw astounding music from…a water-cooler. “Damn!” says my friend, “Why didn’t I know this guy before?”
Too many people didn’t know Ndikho Douglas Xaba – 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 June 11 aged 85.
Xaba’s journey took him from the streets of Pietermaritzburg and the countryside around it 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, 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 Sun Ra – 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 https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=5IHxYhKGND4 . You probably didn’t know it was created by Xaba.
Xaba was born in Pietermaritzburg in 1934, the youngest of the six sons of a 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.* But his family hoped their son would study towards a profession; they did not encourage him in music, so he picked up a penny-whistle, and often subsequently described himself as “proudly self-taught”.
In KZN, and later when his father’s ministry was transferred to Queenstown in the Eastern Cape in 1953, he and at least one brother were active in the ANC – musicians interviewed for Nhlanhla Masondo’s biographical documentary about Xaba, Shwabada,( https://sisgwenjazz.wordpress.com/2016/06/13/shwabada-at-last-a-film-about-music-that-talks-about-music/ ) 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 for ANC fundraising events and this plus the Xaba brothers’ own activities led to a great deal of ducking and diving, until finally the Special Branch interrogated him. For his family’s sake, it was clear he must 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 see his family, and in 1960 was part of the production of Alan Paton’s 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.”
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. When the run ended, Xaba stayed. It was the beginning of 34 years of exile.
In America, Xaba hooked up again with Miriam Makeba, Hugh 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’s Cold in New York on his Sunsets album https://www.amazon.com/Sunsets-Anthology-Creative-Ndikho-Xaba/dp/B008JEJVS6
But Xaba found a great deal in common with the underground free jazz scene across the United States, and its discourse of post-civil rights African-American liberation. After New York, where he taught himself piano, he worked in San Francisco – where he met his wife, poet and activist Nomusa Xaba while giving Zulu lessons at Malcolm X Unity House – and in Chicago and later Canada, before returning to South Africa in 1994.
In San Fransisco, Xaba immersed himself in music making and cultural education. Those days are described in Nomusa’s memoir It’s Been A Long Time Coming https://www.amazon.com/Been-Long-Time-Coming-Author/dp/B007S6F5WM . She describes him teaching how music had the power “to create powerful, meaningful, lasting change.” The band he formed, Ndikho and the Natives https://matsulimusic.bandcamp.com/album/ndikho-xaba-and-the-natives played 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. Close to two hours of archival footage of those performances was recovered and restored by film-maker Nhlanhla Masondo for the documentary Shwabada https://filmfreeway.com/Shwabada
Xaba’s late ‘60s/early 70s work 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 attested when the album was reissued: “I create message music, teach in schools, and promote political awareness while entertaining … because of Ndikho Xaba.”
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; and, on his return from exile, held music and instrument-making classes at his Soweto home, before moving back to Durban. There, UKZN scholar Dr Sazi Dlamini introduced Xaba’s work and ideas to music students, in co-operation with him. Meanwhile, in Boston, the Makanda Project (primarily dedicated to reedman Ken Mackintyre) also performs big-band arrangements of his work https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=PgomqWKjp9E. Xaba himself 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.
So why is Xaba so little known outside musical circles? Film-maker Masondo beleves: ““The reason that Ndikho Xaba is rated an enigma is because he’s way too hip.”
But Xaba’s praxis also retains the power to make a conventional music scene – and society – very 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 Shabaka Hutchings. His life enacted the rejection of boundaries, including the bourgeois boundary between aesthetics and politics. He lived and played what he believed, uncompromisingly; and 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.
* (For many factual details I’m indebted to Francis Gooding’s excellent biographical notes on the Matsuli Music Ndikho and The Natives album)