The musician who almost wasn’t

If Ngwako Manamela in his youth had been a man of some resolve and not strayed from his budget, you would not be reading this article today.

Back in the 1980s the young Pretoria township man went shopping, with every intention of spending his R2 000 on the fashionable Florsheim shoes and Brentwood pants his ilk were wearing at the time.

Instead, after looking through shop windows he had no business peering through, he bought a set of vibraphones and forsook the Florsheims. Not only did it mean that Manamela would have to make do with the wardrobe he already had, but he needed to raise an extra R3 000 if he wanted the “table” he had seen on the covers of music albums.

What was bizarre was that Manamela did not even play the instrument. In fact, he played no instrument at all and had never tried his hand at any. He was a regular guy who held a regular job at a regular factory.

Last year, Manamela, at the age of 50, released his debut album, Ramelodi, after Hugh Masekela convinced him that the time had come for him to share his talents with music lovers.

Despite growing up around musicians in Mamelodi in the 1960s and 1970s, where jazz was en vogue and the likes of Philip Tabane and Mabi Thobejane were neighbours, Manamela never imagined himself as a musician.

The closest he had come to being one was listening to his elder brothers’ LP collections — mostly the sounds of one of jazz’s greatest vibraphonists, Milt “Bags” Jackson, playing with the Modern Jazz Quartet (MJQ).

“Bags taught me to play without us even meeting,” says Manamela.

The music of one of the tightest jazz quartets ever was as instrumental as were the pictures on its album covers in putting the Florsheim shoes and Brentwood pants on the back burner.

“Looking at the pictures, it seemed like he [Jackson] was having fun,” says Manamela, re-enacting the poses on some of the MJQ covers.

Though there were many other great vibraphonists, such as the swinging Lionel Hampton, “it was the soulful way that Bags played, for example in Pyramid [the MJQ’s most memorable record], that made me fall in love with the vibraphone”.

Multi-instrumentalist Bheki Mseleku offered his expertise on the finer aspects of playing vibes. Soon Manamela was using words such as improvisation, harmony and scales in his conversations.

“Sometimes I would arrive home late at night from a drinking binge and start playing. It was when I could play in the dark and still strike the right chords that I knew I was ready to play,” he says.

Two years after the impulsive buy, and after many sessions of practising alone, Manamela was confident he could play.

He joined the band Four Sounds+Three. It was the beginning of a journey that would see him play with the likes of Zim Nqawana, Moses Molelekwa, Mseleku and the legendary Kippie Moeketsi. He later formed the African Jazz Moods, an outfit that is still going strong.

Now the musician who almost wasn’t is making sure that those who have the talent hone their skills early in their lives.

“I teach children at various Pretoria schools to play musical instruments. The instruments are donated by [the charitable organisation] Music is a Great Investment and we teach kids from the ages of 10 to 25.”

Manamela has neither regrets about the Florsheims nor qualms about the way his life turned out. In music he found his vocation. “You don’t choose whether you become a musician,” he says. He should know.

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