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Jonas Gwangwa


Jonas Mosa Gwangwa has the late Archbishop Trevor Huddleston to thank after he gave him the first instrument to play jazz music. While in high school in 1954, Gwangwa was part of the Huddleston Jazz Band - a name he coined at the time.

Now aged 72, the legendary Gwangwa had a long way to go be to where he is today - even sacrificing his life to go and live overseas - as a sign of fighting apartheid.

The Orlando East, Soweto lad Gwangwa has been an important figure in South African jazz for over 40 years. After being a member of The Jazz Epistles where he played trombone, he became a member of the King Kong Orchestra where he played alongside another icon, Hugh Masekela. After the Jazz Epistles broke up, he continued to be important to the South African music scene and then later abroad.

In 1961, Gwangwa left South Africa to tour England with the hit musical King Kong, and when the tour ended, he ventured to the United States to further his education at New York’s prestigious Manhattan School of Music. He only returned to his home country in 1991.

A prolific composer, Gwangwa is the only South African musician in the continent to be nominated for two Oscar awards in the US, a Grammy award and a Bafta, short for British Academy of Film and Television Arts award.

The Oscar nomination was for the film Cry Freedom for original song and score in 1987 and 1988. And while in the US, he fought for the cause of the then banned African National Congress.

"Apart from playing the trombone all over the world, I was able to raise funds, food and clothing for the ANC. I travelled the world extensively and always pushed the struggle of the ANC. Other countries and their governments were sympathetic to the cause of the ANC during the years of apartheid.

It was surprising that the ANC had offices all over the world. I was able to speak to a wider audience - from people in the former Soviet Union, the then Eastern/Western Union. I also travelled to places like Nigeria, Ghana - the whole of East and West Africa just to talk to their governments to support the ANC," says Gwangwa.

While in exile, he wrote many songs, and when he came back in 1991, he released material which he did there. He even named one his albums Sounds From Exile, which he followed A Temporary Inconvenience. He says the album was made just to show that he was inconvenienced by the apartheid government, and then later released an album which was dominated by the sounds he did while in exile. Hence his new album is titled Kukude (Lapho Si Ya Khona) - meaning the journey continues after the days of struggle, and since the liberation, the journey continues. "I was in the US when Barack Obama was still fighting to get into power and he too has a long way to go. In my musical history and journey, it's been a trip where I started out of nothing and later achieved. Even our government has done a lot for us and it's good to have an ANC government like it which fought for us for decades," he says. He is also grateful to Nelson Mandela for unifying the ANC while he was still incarcerated. So to the world icon that while in exile in 1973, he wrote a song titled Malenda - a reverse for Mandela. The song is in his new 12-track album. "When I wrote that song, I was told that that song won't be played back at home - even if I call Mandela in a reversed way. But I recorded it despite the drama surrounding the great man. Finally the song is out and every South African will be able to listen to it," says Gwangwa. Keeping in line with his music of doing wedding and fun songs like he did with Africa Le Fatshe Badimo, the opener, Umyalo, has the sounds of Dinaka - Sepedi instruments. The song Umyalo talks about a bride who should listen to his in-laws and to his parents to make her marriage a success. The song talks about celebrating love - something that is not jealous but where there is true love. In his new offering, Gwangwa works with the best local musicians - from backing vocalists to the musicians he plays with. These include the likes of Thulane Tshabalala (saxophone), Mzamo Bhengu (trumpet), Victor Masondo (Double Bass), Babes Ndamase (Drums), Khaya Mahlangu (trumpet), Glen Mafoko (bass guitar), Rob Watson (drums and tenor sax solo), Sabelo Mtshali (drums), Paul Hanmer (keyboards), Kenny Mathaba (Synth Banjo, Acoustic and Electric guitars), Tlale Makhene (percussion) and backing vocalists - Stella Khumalo, Faith Kekana, Beaullah Hashe. Some musicians include: Barney Rachabane (Clarinet), Prince Lengoasa (Trumpet), Wigzaro Vise (Drum Loop), Tseka Bien Venu (DRC guitar), Helene Ulster (vocalist), Backing Vocalists Kuki Mokubetsi, Thobekile Masinga and Portia Thwala. In the new album, he has dedicated the album to his wife, saying: "Dedicated to my wife Violet and all my children, for the love and patience that inspired me through the making of this CD." In his new album, Gwangwa shows that he is growing musicially everytime he releases an album. He is known for taking a couple of years before releasing an album - and when he eventually releases an album, rest assured that you will be able to listen to qaulity sounds. Gwangwa's music, as they say, matures like good wine. Even in the 1960s, Gwangwa got noticed in the United States and in 1965 he was featured in a Sound Of Africa concert at Carnegie Hall. That concert included his contemporaries like Miriam Makeba, Hugh Masekela, and Letta Mbulu. Despite that he was not seen favourably by the apartheid government so he left his homeland in the early 1970s. Some of his highlights was to compose scores of films like Cry Freedom and at the 60th Annual Academy Awards in 1988, he performed his nominated song Cry Freedom. Also in 1988 he performed at the Nelson Mandela 70th Birthday Tribute in Wembley Stadium in the UK. In 1991 he returned to South Africa and in 1997 he composed the theme for their Olympic bid. Fans of the longest running soapie opera in South Africa know him for the theme song he did for Generations. His tune appeared from the first scene of the soapie which is watched by millions of viewers. IT would be difficult to find a more accomplished and versatile jazz musician than Jonas Mosa Gwangwa. This South African paragon has thrilled audiences around the world with his artistry as a composer and all around creative genius. The span of his musical career and the range of his accomplishments, make it difficult to categorise his talents. For over 30 years, he transversed the world as an exile, collecting accolades at every stop along the way.

A product of the turbulent but musically significant 1950's, Gwangwa emerged from the humble environs of Orlando East in Soweto. He electrified the famous Sophiatown music scene until it became illegal for Blacks to congregate and South African musicians were regularly thrown in jail merely for performing their craft.

In spite of the restrictions, he blazed a fiery path in South Africa by establishing and playing with virtually every important band of the era, including the Jazz Epistles, a group that included such icons as Kippie Moeketsi, Abdullah Ibrahim, Johnny Gertse and Makhaya Ntshoko. The Epistles were the first South African band to record a long playing record.

He has also worked with the musical legend Harry Belafonte. Over the years, Belafonte has been a staunch supporter of both the ANC and Jonas Gwangwa’s personal career. Gwangwa has also been a compatriot of a virtual who’s who of world music including Ahmad Jamal, Herb Alpert and contemporaries Hugh Masekela, Miriam Makeba, and Caiphus Semenya.

Believing that "politics and culture cannot be separated," Gwangwa’s total commitment to the struggle to end apartheid is intrinsic to his music. An official "enemy of the state" for many years, Gwangwa narrowly escaped death in 1985 when his home was blown up by South African security forces. (He now walks with a limp - several of his close friends were killed.)

His lifework crystallised when he served as composer, arranger and musical director of Amandla for 10 years, the much heralded worldwide ANC cultural ensemble tour to which he devoted ten years of his life.

A prolific composer, Gwangwa joined forces with George Fenton to create the original score and theme song for the much heralded Richard Attenborough film, "Cry Freedom". The score achieved Oscar, Grammy Bafta, Golden Globe and Anthony Asquith award nominations and won an Ivor Novello and Black Emmy Awards. In 1987 and 1988, he collaborated with George Fenton to compose the score for the Richard Attenborough film, Cry Freedom.

Gwangwa returned to South Africa in 1991. His life-long dream of freedom was realised in 1994 when Nelson Mandela was elected president of a democratic new South Africa.



Standard Bank Arts Department of Art and Culture T-Musicman
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