Jazz maestro Winston Mankunku Ngozi dies aged 66

Winston Monwabisi Mankunku Ngozi passed away on Monday night. The acclaimed tenor and soprano saxophonist was 66 years old.

According to his younger brother, Thuli Ngozi, Mankunku had been suffering from a long-term heart ailment and had died at about 2am in Cape Town’s Victoria Hospital after “his kidneys and liver packed up”.

Thuli described his brother as a “feisty somebody and a perfectionist when it came to music and how it should be played”.

“He’s always been, colloquially, our father, and even when we went to see him on Saturday, he was more concerned with how we were doing than with his own health,” said Thuli Ngozi of a brother he described as caring as deeply for loved ones as for the music he played.

Several musicians who were interviewed by the Mail & Guardian Online described an unschooled musician who lived the notes he played, bridging the gap between South African and American jazz music.

Close friend and Cape Town International Jazz Festival organiser Rashid Lombard remembered a “shy, humble man who through his music, has left a serious legacy” behind.

“His compositions are already standards, they’re anthems for South African jazz music,” said Lombard, who reiterated Mankunku’s popularity by noting that “he was one of four musicians [the others being Miriam Makeba, Hugh Masekela and Jimmy Dludlu] who have performed more than once at the CTJF. We usually never call artists back, but we couldn’t ignore the public’s insistence with Mankunku.”

Born in Retreat in Cape Town in 1943, Mankunku’s debut, Yakhal’ Inkomo (literally translated from Xhosa, meaning “the bellowing bull”) was the first of such seminal albums. It was released in 1968, the year he also walked away with the Castle Lager Jazz Musician of the Year Award in South Africa.

Another album lauded for its musicality and it political consciousness was the 1986 collaboration with pianist Mike Perry, Jika that featured exiled musos Bheki Mseleku and Russell Herman.

Mankunku refused to go into exile, also refusing several invitations to tour internationally by the likes of Duke Ellington — for him, his music was deeply connected to South Africa and its people.

Winston Mankunku Ngozi, is survived by his two brothers, Thuli and Patrick.

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Niren Tolsi
Niren Tolsi is a freelance journalist whose interests include social justice, citizen mobilisation and state violence, protest, the Constitution and Constitutional Court, football and Test cricket.

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