Victor Mheli Ntoni — or simply Bra Vic — died of a heart attack on Monday January 28 at Johannesburg’s Helen Joseph Hospital.
The legendary jazz bassist, singer, arranger and composer, who would have turned 66 on June 21, was scheduled to perform at the annual Cape Town Jazz Festival and the Mangaung Cultural Festival later this year. He had much to look forward to but, now, as the Cape Town festival director Rashid Lombard says, Bra Vic, instead of playing, will have a tribute concert played in his honour.
Not that this will be the first time that Cape Town will be honouring the maestro. Victor Ntoni Plays Victor Ntoni was a tribute concert played at the Artscape Theatre in Cape Town on Heritage Day in 2011.Very few artists in this country are so honoured during their lifetime. But then Bra Vic was no ordinary musician: as the jazz trumpeter Feya Faku says, one of the remarkable things about him was that “he could arrange for a whole orchestra, without touching the piano — which was unheard of — and all would work out perfectly in the end. I called him a genius — a word I don’t use flippantly.”
Indeed, most musicians who worked with Bra Vic, from Hugh Masekela to Vusi Khumalo, Lawrence Matshiza, Sylvia Mdunyelwa, Andile Yenana and Faku himself, have nothing but admiration for Bra Vic. Speaking of the 2005 production Mzansi Sings a Tribute to OR Tambo, a homage to the former African National Congress leader in exile, the South African poet laureate Keorapetse Kgositsile said last week: “You know, OR loved choral music so much, and what Victor did with that show, what he managed to bring to life on stage, was, I think, very much a proper homage to the memory of OR.”
Bra Vic was born in Cape Town’s Langa township. Initially not formally trained, Bra Vic’s first public performance as a singer was at the Savoy Hotel in Durban in 1963 with Jonathan Butler and Roy Peterson. In the 1970s, he teamed up with Abdullah Ibrahim (then Dollar Brand), recording together the album Peace.
In 1973, Bra Vic ventured into theatre as a composer, actor and musical director for the stage musical Meropa, which went on to be staged in London’s West End and participated in the Royal Variety Performance concert.
In 1976, Bra Vic performed with American jazz legend Dave Brubeck, of the 1960s hit Take Five, at the Colloseum Theatre in Johannesburg. Impressed with Bra Vic, Brubeck arranged a scholarship for him at the Berklee School of Music in Boston. There he studied harmony and composition — skills that would prove invaluable on his return to South Africa.
Bra Vic is survived by his ex-wife Linda, six children and three grandchildren.