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Winston Mankunku Ngozi ‘lived what he played’

At 2am on October 13, the curtain fell on the life of saxophonist and composer Winston Monwabisi ”Mankunku” Ngozi. He was 66 years old.

Tenor saxophone to his lips, Mankunku was the sound of the bull going to its sacrificial death, imagined in his debut 1968 album, Yakhal’ Inkomo (isiXhosa for ”the bull bellows”). It is estimated to have sold more than 100 000 copies in the first five years of release — making it one of the most successful South African jazz albums.

In his hands the sax wailed, evoking the anguish and the irrepressible defiance of South Africans living the reality of forced removals, government-ordered massacres and petty and grand oppression.

Yakhal’ Inkomo mourned the Sharpeville massacre, pass laws and apartheid legislation promulgated a decade earlier. Jika, produced in 1987 in collaboration with pianist Mike Perry, was drenched in the state of emergency’s tear gas, mourning and the need for what could be the last dance.

Said trumpeter Feya Faku, who appeared as a guest on Mankunku’s 1998 Molo Africa album, which won a South African Music Award for best traditional jazz album the following year: ”He really taught me that with each and every breath, with each and every note, you must become part of the music — you had to live what you played.”

Faku, who with pianist Melvin Peters and bassist Lex Futshane was a student at the former University of Natal’s jazz school, remembers Mankunku’s encouragement and mentorship of the trio, who performed regularly with him, especially at the Rainbow Jazz Club in Pinetown — a haven of non-racialism during the 1980s.

A small, introverted and shy man with a big heart, Mankunku was a ”perfectionist” and someone with ”incredible patience” in nurturing young talent, Faku said.

Born in Retreat in the Cape in 1943, Mankunku started playing a neighbour’s piano at the age of seven, drawing musical inspiration from his mother, Gertrude, who sang in the local church choir.

After dabbling with the trumpet, Mankunku took up the sax in his teens and, as with many musos in the 1960s, was influenced by the work of John Coltrane. Mankunku recognised this enduring influence in one of his later compositions, Defiance, which was subtitled Daddy Trane and Brother Silver — for Coltrane and pianist Horace Silver.

But jazz historian and critic Gwen Ansell said it would be ”insultingly reductive to dub him ‘our Coltrane’. He was his own Winston Mankunku.”

He was a musician who melded African references such as mbaqanga with American jazz and the ”spirituality” and ”intensity” of Coltrane. He was someone who married ”a relatively straightforward rhythmic feel and a highly advanced set of harmonic ideas,” said Ansell.

According to his brother, Thuli, Mankunku was the ”colloquial father” to his siblings; even on his deathbed he was more concerned with their wellbeing than his own.

It was both family obligation and a political choice that saw Mankunku refuse to follow many other musicians of his time into exile. Thuli said he even spurned offers to tour with the likes of Duke Ellington.

Perry said Mankunku’s refusal to leave South Africa ”was a conscious decision — It was more important for him to play the truth and to play it here at home.” Mankunku felt inextricably linked to South Africa and its audiences.

And he suffered, both personally and professionally, for it. Between the release of Yakhal’ Inkomo and Jika, apparently disillusioned with the local recording industry, he recorded nothing personally. Under a pseudonym, he appeared only on Sunny Hartman’s 1976 District Six LP.

Because of the Separate Amenities Act, he suffered the indignity of having to perform behind curtains when supported by a white band or playing to a white audience, as was the case at a 1964 gig at Greenpoint Arts Centre, where he appeared under the name Winston Mann.

But he burned those curtains with his horn, lovingly nicknamed koekie (girlfriend), when he played venues such as The Rainbow. Remembers the club’s founder, Ben Pretorius: ”Each and every gig was special — both politically and musically.”

More recently Mankunku recorded Abantwana Be Afrika (2003) and made two live recordings in 1993: one on Radio SA’s Live at the — series and on CCV TV’s Jazz Studio. His 1996 release, Dudulu, was imbued with the optimism that followed the 1994 elections.

That was Mankunku’s forte: he articulated both our tears and our laughter.

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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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