Get more Mail & Guardian
Subscribe or Login

Zim Ngqawana: The silence between the notes

On this day, 17 years ago, Nelson Mandela was inaugurated as the first democratically elected president of South Africa. It was musician Zim Ngqawana who led the group of 100 drummers, singers, and dancers at the event, composing the soundtrack to one of the most important days in South Africa’s history.

Zim Ngqawana passed away this morning. He was 52 years old.

Ngqawana was born in New Brighton, Port Elizabeth, where he grew up in his grandparents’ home. As a young boy, he used to sing with his friends at traditional gatherings and weddings. His interest in music started to develop when he made his first flute from a reed.

The well-respected jazz musician won a place at the University of KwaZulu-Natal based on his musical talents, despite dropping out of school before matric. He also completed a diploma in jazz performance. He was offered scholarships to the Max Roach/Wynton Marsalis jazz workshop and the University of Massachusetts, where he studied with jazz legends Archie Shepp and Yusef Lateef.

On his return to South Africa, he soon became established as one of jazz’s most exciting and talented musicians and composers, and was given the opportunity to work with greats such as Hugh Masakela and Abdullah Ibrahim and record albums with both local and international, as well as being asked to compose music for Mandela’s inauguration.

He recorded his first solo album, Zimology, in Norway in 1998.

In an interview with the Mail & Guardian at the time, Ngqawana described Zimology as “a study of the self. It’s about who I am, what I’ve done, what I’m doing and where I’m heading with my music”.

Since then, Ngqawana’s musical journey included recording 10 albums, including a recorded concert that was released on DVD in 2009 to celebrate his 50th birthday. He also appeared n the documentary Giant Steps (2005), directed by Geoff Mphakati and Aryan Kaganof. He has also recorded with his New York-based band, the Collective Quartet. The latter part of his career, he told the M&G, was aimed at producing music “free from race, class and the specificity of history”.

One of his most enduring legacies will be the Zimology Institute, which mentors young jazz musicians (or, as he called them, “fellow travellers”). Established on a farm outside Johannesburg, the institute offers an alternative to the formal music education system, drawing rather on the same kind of mentorship approach that he experienced under Archie Shepp and Yusef Lateef.

Young Cape jazz musician Kyle Shepard is an alumnus of the Institute.

In a reflective interview at the time of his 50th birthday, Ngqawana told the M&G that he had started thinking about death as he got older. He said “death can be studied through the silent moment after every exhalation when you breathe”.

He described it musically, as the “silence between the notes that provides for a meditation”, and that “all great music is supposed to lead you to silence — towards yourself”.

Subscribe for R500/year

Thanks for enjoying the Mail & Guardian, we’re proud of our 36 year history, throughout which we have delivered to readers the most important, unbiased stories in South Africa. Good journalism costs, though, and right from our very first edition we’ve relied on reader subscriptions to protect our independence.

Digital subscribers get access to all of our award-winning journalism, including premium features, as well as exclusive events, newsletters, webinars and the cryptic crossword. Click here to find out how to join them and get a 57% discount in your first year.

Lisa Van Wyk
Lisa van Wyk is the arts editor, which somehow justifies her looking at pretty pictures all day, reading cool art and culture blogs and having the messiest desk in the office. She likes people who share her passion for art, music, food, wine, travel and all things Turkish. She can't ride a bike, but she can read ancient languages and totally understands the offside rule.

Related stories

WELCOME TO YOUR M&G

If you’re reading this, you clearly have great taste

If you haven’t already, you can subscribe to the Mail & Guardian for less than the cost of a cup of coffee a week, and get more great reads.

Already a subscriber? Sign in here

Advertising

Subscribers only

‘The children cannot cope any more’: Suicide in Calvinia highlights...

How Covid-19 has intensified the physical and emotional burdens placed on children’s shoulders.

Capitec Bank flies high above Viceroy’s arrow

The bank took a knock after being labelled a loan shark by the short seller, but this has not stymied its growth

More top stories

Covid-19: No vaccine booster shots needed yet

Scientists agree it is important to get most of the population vaccinated before giving booster jabs

The convenient myth of an Africa spared from Covid-19

There are few, if any, studies to support Pfizer chief executive’s assertion that the global south would be more vaccine-hesitant than the north

Council wants Hawks, SIU probe into BAT’s Zimbabwe scandal

The cigarette maker has been accused of giving up to $500 000 in bribes and spying on competitors
Advertising

press releases

Loading latest Press Releases…
×