By David Mann
Linda Sikhakhane is taking off. It seems we have caught him at just the right time. The KZN-born saxophonist is abroad so often these days – both gigging and studying – that seeing him perform on South African soil feels like a rare opportunity.
In Illadi: A Thanksgiving Meditation In Two Movements, Sikakhane presents his musical offering as this year’s Standard Bank Young Artist for Jazz. Iladi is an exploration of Sikhakhane’s relationship to sound and its links to his Nguni culture and traditions. Moreover, it’s “a meditation for reaching a heightened level of spiritual awareness through sound.”
For the first of his two performances at DSG Hall, Sikhakhane is joined by Ayanda Sikade on drums, Shane Cooper on double bass, and Afrika Mkhize on keys. They waste no time on introductions, diving straight into the first three songs with abandon. Opening the set is ‘iGosa’, which holds enough room for consistently high-energy performances from each musician. The result is a rich, heady composition with little room for stillness. We relish in it, as does Sikhakhane who emerges from the solos with single, sonorous notes held up right until the last second.
Later, he shares a bit about the narrative of the song, and its roots in mentorship and learning. “These guys have played with some of the greatest musicians in the world,” he says, gesturing to his fellow musicians on stage. “They carry that experience and that teaching with them, so when I perform with them, it’s like I’m performing with those other musicians, too.”
‘Hymn for the Majors’ is up next, with its long, full, shimmering conversations between Mkhize and Sikade. Sikhakhane lets them do their thing for a while before laying down strong, poised notes of his own –replete with a few flourishes. ‘Umbedesho’ follows, but “I won’t say too much about that one,” Sikhakhane later adds. It’s a wiry number with steady percussion that really lets Cooper open up on bass.
At the halfway mark there is a surprise performance by Sikhakhane’s brother, Thabo Sikhakhane, who joins on trumpet. Here, the five of them savour the moment, slowing to a strong, steady melody. To witness the two brothers connect through music is to understand Sikhakhane’s belief in sound as a bridge of communication and ancestry.
Other highlights include a solo from Sikhakhane on sax, rooted in the lower notes of Mkhize’s piano, that’s able to soar to a high, heady space above the stage. Cooper’s main solo is also a joy to witness. Here, he spends a great deal of time laying the foundations – slow, steady work on the strings – for his experiments with the full sonic range of the instrument. He elicits a few choice, impactful percussive moments on the side of the instrument and ultimately whips the room into a frenzy, before bringing it back down and straight into the next song.
Together, the quartet of seasoned improvisers and collaborators produce a rich and vivid soundscape. It’s the rolling hills and misty reaches of KwaZulu-Natal where Sikhakhane was raised. Sikade’s drums move like a rumble, and Mkhize’s keys fall like rain. Outside, appropriately, a storm rolls over Makhanda.
The show ends with the same high energy with which it began, although now they have opened up the sky – crashing cymbals converse with thunderclaps and the sound of rain. We’ve changed, too. We are somehow elevated, enriched, all the better for having shared in Sikhakhane’s process.
Iladi: A Thanksgiving Meditation in Two Movements is on at DSG Hall on 30 June.