Linda Sikhakhane: Of Coltrane, Mirrors And Otherworlds

Linda Sikhakhane’s head is tilted back. His eyes are closed. He takes breaths at regular intervals while listening to the playback of a song him and the quartet have just tracked. He opens his eyes momentarily after being nudged, lets off a smile, and goes back to his position of comfort. His saxophone solo continues uninterrupted in the background.

The music is live, red and hot, and all the cats present in studio are vibing. Sphelelo Mazibuko’s shrills on the drumkit bring chills to the spine; heads bop along to his groove-laden embellishments as Sanele Phakathi coats the keys in tones and intonations known to those who’ve seen the yonder. Sakhile Simani’s trumpet licks carry the stories of entire civilizations, aided by El Hadji Ndong’s might on percussion, and cushioned by Nhlanhla Radebe’s hand motions up, down and to the sides of his double bass.

Nduduzo Makhathini, on producer duty throughout the album, suggests alternative approaches, his presence merely a pathway to possibilities, as opposed to a complete take-over of operations. The recording space feels safe as a result, like the perfect place for ideas to be realised; for the music to flourish.

The music on Two Sides, One Mirror stretches over two periods: from when Linda was a university student and earlier, to now, as a working musician thinking about his place in the world; being present in both mind and spirit.

“uBab’ Thusi made it possible man, for us. I mean, he’s the guy who introduced me to Coltrane. He gave me records of music,” says Linda of Brian Thusi, the musician, educator who mentored him.

Linda Sikhakhane
Sakhile Simani, master of storied trumpet licks

Days after the studio session while hanging out in Jozi and listening to the recordings, Linda turns his attention to one of the central pieces, a song dedicated to ugogo Gastina, his maternal grandmother. “She passed on a few years ago,” he says. “It is believed that she’s the person looking after me in terms of ancestral beliefs.” It’s a thank you note draped in bright, inviting colours which soothe the calloused spirit. The melodies are like ancestral methods of healing transported and given context by the here and now.

“I heard the whole melody of this song on the 25th of December. I was alone at home; my parents were away. This melody came as-is man. It was such an emotional time for me, thinking of her,” says the Umlazi native whose memories of childhood are a cross between time spent emakhaya in Nongoma (“It’s where my ancestors are from”) and visiting ugogo in Jozi where she lived.

“A Night in DC” is about a time in 2012 when he formed part of a contingent of musicians chosen to do an exchange programme in the States. They returned the next year to record a collaborative album. “We went to Washington for a day, and we caught Kendrick Scott’s performance.” Sakhile Simani, his long-time partner, communicating the mystics of music via the trumpet, was taking a shower back at the hotel room when the song came to him. “I just heard this melody with the bass…the whole song. ”

Sanele Phakathi Sanele coating the piano keys
El Hadji Ndong, the West African spirit carrier

There’s no doubting John Coltrane’s influence on Linda’s approach on sax. “I think he’s just a spiritual player, and I really get touched when he plays, the way he executes everything through that horn. I really dig his sound over everything,” he says.

Linda Sikhakhane’s one of those in-demand cats whose path towards greatness is guarded by his gentle manner, and by his cool and calm disposition. Lest you were tuned to secret frequencies, you wouldn’t know that he’s one of the most in-demand cats working in South African jazz today. He garnered extensive praise following his win at the SAMRO Schools Overseas’ competition in 2016, and hasn’t had a reason to slow down since. The next step shall be him casting an eye onto New York, the city where some of the jazz masters he holds in high regard have called home throughout the years.

There’s no denying that Two Sides, One Mirror is an important body of work. It is a crucial document, underpinned by shifting tides in the socio-economic fabric of South Africa.

“For me this album is honest. I’m not really trying to be someone else; I’m just trying to express what I hear in the music. This is a reflection of the life I live, executed through sound. It has to do with all the influences from the masters; from home.”

  • Linda’s album is available at select independent music stores in Cape Town and Jozi, for now
Sakhile Simani (trumpet), Sphelelo Mazibuko (drums), Nduduzo Makhathini (producer), Peter Auret (recording engineer), Luyanda Molao (assistant. engineer), Sanele Phakathi (bass), El Hadji Ndong (percussion), Linda Sikhakhane (saxophone), Sanele Phakathi (keys)

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