Oscar Rachabane (22) is a quirky hipster from Soweto. As he plays Miriam Makeba’s Lakutshon Ilanga on his saxophone, he taps his shiny shoes on the floor and sways his shoulders with attitude. The room is bustling with energy.
Wynton Marsalis leans back on his chair, closes his eyes and takes in the music. In a heart-beat, he has picked up the popular tune and blasts his trumpet into Oscar’s groove. The youngster didn’t see it coming. In a moment of panic he loses his balance, but Marsalis woos him back into the song, and the two start weaving magic.
At lunch time, Oscar, already nostalgic about his experience with Marsalis, describes the experience as “inspirational”.
“Playing with Marsalis is great for the students’ self-esteem,” says Johnny Mekoa, founder of MAG and one of South Africa’s jazz legends. “These kids are passionate about jazz. Now they are fuelled to keep playing — and listening to good music.”
Since its inception in 1994, MAG has become an internationally-acclaimed jazz school which nurtures the talent of students from disadvantaged backgrounds. Mekoa is super-proud of his “prodigies” — some of whom now play with South Africa’s greatest artists, like Victor Ntoni.
Genre and culture
Marsalis, who is not only an astounding musician but also an experienced teacher, tells the MAG students: “Jazz has many things to teach. It allows for a great amount of freedom, but with it comes great responsibility. It teaches you maturity, intelligence, and how to respect people’s cultures.”
When asked how difficult it is to engage young people in what may seem like an intimidating musical genre, he replies: “Children like to follow in the footsteps of adults. Our job is to provide them with the leadership that will nurture them into adulthood.”
Eighteen-year-old Siyabonga Zwane attends high school in the East Rand, but sneaks in as much after-hours practice at MAG as he can. He started playing when he was fourteen. “I was never intimidated by jazz,” he explains. “But now I know that the music is bigger than me. Sometimes I just want to listen to hip-hop. But I can’t run away from jazz.”
It seems that the students at MAG are not intimidated by anything. Take Thembi Nhlapo (22) and her baritone saxophone. They seem like an unlikely duo, but appearances are deceptive.
Thembi came to the academy for voice training, but when she joined MAG’s big band, they were short of a baritone saxophone player. She willingly took up the challenge. “As a woman, you have to have balls to play that instrument. You have to prove that you are worthy when you’re standing up there with the guys,” she explains.
At the end of Wednesday’s intense workshop, the MAG students turn the tables on Marsalis, and try to teach him a thing or two about how to “jam” South African style. They swing into a rendition of Our Kind of Jazz by Zakes Nkosi. But the maestro is unfazed. His celebrated trumpet brings new radiance to a well-loved local melody.
So what’s the most important lesson MAG students have learned from their morning with Marsalis? Mapule Tshabala closes her eyes and thinks about it.
“When he was coaching us and telling us to correct our mistakes, he told that he was coming from a place of love, so we should accept his advice with love,” she says.