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Linda Sikhakhane. Pic by Siphiwe Mhlambi

“Every time I get home sick, I listen to Home at Last by bab’u Bheki Mseleku.  Phone calls from home always make me happy.  Besides, there are few South Africans I know that live in New York”, Linda Sikhakhane said on his final weekend in Durban before flying back to the US. He looks quite relaxed for a person who has done so many interviews and was the very first artist to perform at popular jazz venue The Orbit this year. He was on a short break from his music studies overseas.

Marabi Jazz Lounge spoke with the 25-year-old saxophonist about what looks like an interesting life in the Big Apple.  “I still can’t get used to being in the same room with legendary saxophonist Billy Harper”, he said.  Harper is one of his lecturers at New School University in New York after being awarded the South African Music Rights Organisation (SAMRO) Overseas Scholarship in 2016.

Sikhakhane is a son to mother Gugu and father Mbongeleni.  His siblings are sister Thembile, brothers Senzo and Thabo. The latter is also a musician. His family roots are in KwaNongoma, in the rural part of KwaZulu Natal.  The opening song from his debut album, entitled “Ezinkalweni”, is a tribute to KwaNongoma, an area that bears the origins of his family.  For economic reasons, the family located to eMlazi Township, outside Durban, which is where the Sikhakhane’s still live.

Like at any other young person growing up in eMlazi, he was exposed to many types of music including church music, maskandi, house, classical music and jazz.  “My early mentors were Mrs V Rajmoney, Mr Khulekani Bhengu, Ms Nontukuso Mlangeni and Mr Werner Dannewitz”, he told Marabi Jazz Lounge relaxing in the wooden chairs at The Bat Centre in Durban on a very humid Friday.

He describes Bhengu as someone that has the most amazing gift of nurturing young talent that can lead to success, and a very special person that is God sent.  “Ms Mlangeni is my longest music teacher that spent quality time with me for years before enrolling at The Durban Music School”, with a smile expressing a sense of appreciation to those that shaped his musical journey.  Mr Dannewitz was his clarinet teacher at Durban Music School and conductor for the KZN Youth Wind Band.

Performing live. Pic by Tseliso Monaheng

“My life has always been musical having been exposed to the richness of culture in KZN and hearing a lot of sound through ceremonies that took place at KwaNongoma and eMlazi”, recalling his early childhood while sipping mineral water.  It was Mrs Rajmoney that taught a 9-year-old Sikhakhane fundamentals of music theory and practicals on recorder while at Clairwood Primary School.  One of his neighbours who was a member of The Salvation Army – Umlazi suggested that the youngster be included in a community project called Siyakhula Music Centre, led by Dr Brian Thusi, which changed his life.

Like most Black families in the townships, his parents were not convinced that their beloved son should take music as a career.  It took a strong convincing from Dr Thusi, whom he describes as his musical father, that made his parents see the light.  Beyond matric, he enrolled at University of KwaZulu Natal (UKZN) Centre for Jazz and Popular Music where he enrolled for a diploma, majoring in Performance and Composition & Arranging.  “I have always wanted to study at UKZN because of its reputation and its alumni which in includes musicians like Sthembiso Ntuli.  The institution’s curriculum is very empowering”, he told Marabi Jazz Lounge.

As a person who started as a classical musician at a young musician, his first instrument was the clarinet, before getting exposed to the saxophone as a jazz music student.  After graduating at UKZN, he was involved with so many projects.  One of those was a role he played as a saxophonist in the recording of the album Words Unspoken by IT HAS TO BE JAZZ“Being part of IT HAS TO BE JAZZ showed me the importance of improvisation as a musician”, he said.  He co-wrote four of the songs from that album which included Sophitcho and Almost Forgot.

In 2016, he released his debut album entitled Two Sides, One Mirror which was well received by jazz critics.  The album was produced by multi-award-winning pianist and music lecturer Nduduzo Makhathini.  In recording the album, he worked with drummer Sphelelo Mazibuko, percussionist El Hadji Ngari Ndong, bassist Nhlanhla Radebe, pianist Sanele Phakathi , trumpeter Sakhele Simani, and a duet with Omagugu Makhathini on the tune Hidden Love.  He composed the tune in 2011 and Ms Makhathini added the lyrics to it.

His debut album

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 following year to do 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.”

There’s no doubting John Coltrane’s influence on Sikhakhane’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 said.  It was Dr Thusi who first exposed Sikhakhane to the music of Coltrane.  Other tunes on the album include Ibuzwa Kwabaphambili, Influential Moments and Closer To The Heart.  The recording space feels safe as a result, like the perfect place for ideas to be realized; for the music to go through.

He describes New York as a cosmopolitan city that never goes to sleep.  “Jazz is big in the US”, he said.  The place is really great for networking, growth and inspiration.  “My best memories are bumping into musicians that I look up to on a daily basis”, he told Marabi Jazz Lounge.  Asked how the Americans are reacting to South African jazz, he said the ones that he has been exposed to receive it very well.  “I have been fortunate enough to meet people who are really trying to trace their origins and show so much love when we meet in jazz spaces”, he added.

Sikhakhane has been writing new material which he hopes to release in the future. Despite living in New York, he says his South African roots are way too strong to forget.  “I want to collaborate with a lot of musicians and participate in music education and influence those that are planning to study jazz that their dreams can be realised”, as he stood up to do his final packing and say goodbyes to family and neighbours at eMlazi.

Zishaphi – Where it’s happening

The Orbit Jazz Club & Bistro – Johannesburg

2 February 20h30: Carlo Mombelli: Angels & Demons – R150

3 February 20h30: Bokani Dyer Trio: Album Preview – R150

6 February 20h00: Comedy & Jazz Night In Orbit hosted by Kagiso Lediga &

Luyanda Madope Quartet – R130

The CRYPT Jazz Restaurant – Cape Town

2 February 20h00 – 23h00: Tina Schouw – R100

3 February 20h00 – 23h00: Hassan’Adas – R100

7 February 20h00 – 23h00: Anna-Lucia Rupp Trio – R50

8 February 20h00 – 23h00: The Angelo Danster Trio – R100