Some refer to the Afrikan Freedom Station as a “hole in the wall” on Thornton Street in the Johannesburg suburb of Westdene.
It may be a tiny space, but one that has an impressive track record of incubating a new era of South African art.
It is from this space that the country has witnessed the emergence of jazz drummer Tumi Mogorosi’s Project Elo, pianist Thandi Ntuli’s album The Offering, The Amandla Freedom Ensemble’s album Bhekisizwe, Msaki’s album Zaneliza, Percy Mabandu’s book Yakhal’inkomo: Portrait of a Jazz Classic and the visual art of Malcolm Jiyane, Mzwandile Buthelezi and Mabandu, not to mention some of the most magical live gigs taking place in our republic.
The Freedom Station has created a space for artists from across various disciplines to interact, collaborate, workshop and produce — the results speak for themselves.
On Freedom Day this week, Johannesburg’s best-kept secret turned four. Station master Bra Steve Kwena Mokwena loves jazz. Sure, he is known as a painter and a filmmaker, but when he paints and films it’s often about jazz musicians.
Frustrated by seeing great South African jazz musicians playing in mediocre venues where audiences didn’t pay attention, he began to dream of a venue where the audience respected the musicians. In 2011 Mokwena spotted an opportunity to get a shop in his neighbourhood of Westdene at a reasonable price.
“I wanted a space that I could show my work within my own community,” he says. “Too much has been put between our people and art.” He says he was shaken by the number of people who flocked to the space and felt the same way he did. “We all wanted to exist in spaces that don’t demand anything except that you be yourself,” he says.
“We were all hungry for the same thing and we were not getting it. It’s quite something to be in Johannesburg and not have a place, while you are constantly bombarded with messages telling you to consume more or you are fuck all. We spent the first two years fearing that this place would close down,” he says, laughing about it now. “I was terrified.”
Mokwena says the Freedom Station can’t afford the music that happens within its four walls. “It happens because the artists want to see it happen,” he says.
The audience treats the musicians with respect. This comes from Mokwena’s example, even if he admits it has resulted in his reputation as a “grumpy rasta”.
“I like to think that the Freedom Station is a shrine to the creative ancestors, the unnamed ancestors,” he says. “We have instigated something and what we instigated is a critique to what exists.”
Pianist, trombonist, drummer and visual artist Malcolm Jiyane is a station regular, often the first one there in the morning and the last to leave.
He has taken ownership of the space, in a way, and is involved in organising gigs, film screenings, a market and spoken word and comedy evenings at the station. “This place is a shelter,” he says. “If you love art and are creative you can come; it’s like home.”
Afrikan Freedom Station founder Steve Mokoena. (Troy Enekvist, M&G)
Jiyane regularly plays solo at the Freedom Station, with his trio, as part of Tumi Mogorosi’s Project Elo, as a member of former BLK JKS guitarist Linda Buthelezi’s new band GSand and as part of many jams that take place.
In 2015 he also had a major exhibition of his art at the station: I Paint What I Like, and has since gone on to take part in three more exhibitions in Johannesburg and Pretoria. Furthermore, he is contributing artwork to a new album from drummer Tumi Mogorosi, who is another station regular. He says he met Bra Steve before the venue opened.
“He was always talking about opening a space,” says Mogorosi. “When he did, we were the guys he called.”
In 2012, the first year of the Freedom Station, Mogorosi and Jiyane were part of a 12-part Young Lions Ensemble that featured two drummers, which saw drummer Ayanda Sikade and Mogorosi positioned at either end of the room. Present that night in the ensemble were many musicians who have since become institutions at the venue. Mokwena refers to this night as one in which the Freedom Station stated its intentions.
“There are a lot of young musicians coming up now,” says veteran jazz bassist Carlo Mombelli. “And they are all starting at the Freedom Station. It’s such an important place for experimenting.”
Mogorosi is sceptical of any romantic ideas about the Freedom Station as a utopia considering the sociopolitical circumstances people find themselves in. For him the focus is not even necessarily the art, but the process, the knowledge sharing, the learning.
In these much less romantic details, he insists, lie the true value of the Freedom Station. He refers to the venue as a “university of sorts”, an alternative learning space that continues a lineage of knowledge creation and documentation.
He says it is a cultural hub, where ideas can be workshopped and creative ideas can come to fruition. It was at the Freedom Station in 2013 that Mogorosi rehearsed his album Project Elo. It was released a few months later. Project Elo rocked the South African jazz world, with international jazz audiences paying attention when the album was reissued on Jazzman Records internationally in May 2014.
The album was nominated for a South African Music Award for best jazz album in 2014 and won a golden ovation award at the National Arts Festival. “I was talking to people in France who had heard Tumi Mogorosi and Project Elo and they said they wept when they heard it,” says Mokwena. “I said that project was rehearsed at the Afrikan Freedom Station.”
Mogorosi has two new albums scheduled for release this year, and he is collaborating with visual artists and writers who themselves are entrenched as Freedom Station regulars. The forthcoming album Deliverance will feature artwork from Mzwandile Buthelezi and liner notes from Percy Mabandu. The other album, Sanctum Sanctorum, will feature artwork from Jiyane.
The Freedom Station is not just a home for Jo’burg musicians. Eastern Cape musician Msaki describes it as her “landing spot” when she gets to Johannesburg. “It’s the culture of the audience, the intimate gigs.” She says the station functions as a “centre for the oppressed mind”.
“As a young writer embracing an awakening to the genius of African artistry, it is a place to deepen one’s well, a place to self-educate,” she says. Her debut album Zaneliza, released a few weeks ago, features many artists she would not have known if it wasn’t for the Freedom Station, Msaki says.
Pianist Thandi Ntuli moved from Cape Town to Johannesburg in 2013 and at the Freedom Station she found a friendly home in the big smoke.
Afrikan Freedom Station has emerged as a venue where audiences respect the musicians. (Troy Enekvist, M&G)
“The thing with the Freedom Station is it allows you to be as crazy as you want,” she says. It was there that Ntuli met Buthelezi, who designed the art for her 2014 album The Offering.
Buthelezi says it was the music that drew him to the venue. “It’s quite something to sit so close to the musicians,” says Buthelezi. “At the station you get to really feel the music.”
He says another thing that attracted him was the variety of people from different artistic disciplines that hung out there. “I made friends and then we naturally started talking about collaborating,” he says. It was Mokwena who had suggested that Buthelezi do the artwork for her album, Ntuli says.
Since then Buthelezi has worked on covers and packaging design for albums by bassist Benjamin Jephta, The Amandla Freedom Ensemble and the Born to be Black jazz project, featuring Blue Notes drummer Louis Moholo.
He is working on artwork for a new album Deliverance, recorded by Tumi Mogorosi and veteran South African jazz pianist Pule Pheto. “It is important to create a visual language for the music that is happening right now,” says Buthelezi. “The way it looks is being influenced by our environment, by the political situation.”
The Amandla Freedom Ensemble’s album Bhekisizwe, released in late 2015, is a perfect example of what Buthelezi is talking about. Its artwork by Dathini Mzayiya, liner notes by poet Lesego Rampolokeng and design by Buthelezi, speak to the current political moment in South Africa.
Bhekisizwe is named after trumpeter and band leader Mandla Mlangeni’s father Bheki Mlangeni, who was killed by a letter bomb sent by Eugene de Kok when Mandla was four in 1991. Mlangeni jokes that people call his band the African Freedom Ensemble, because they play there so much.
Buthelezi says he met Mlangeni, “a funny cat”, at the Freedom Station. His album art thing happened organically. “It’s not like I made a decision. But now it’s become a thing where I do want to develop my own catalogue. I could exhibit my work at some fancy gallery at 70 Juta in Braamfontein, but the response I get from the jazz crowd, beats that.”
Mabandu is another visual artist who values the audience at the Freedom Station. “When I decided to do an exhibition, I decided I wanted to do it here,” he says. “I could have gone to another corporate gallery, but this is the place, this place is real.”
Mabandu’s recently released book Yakhal’ Inkomo: A Portrait of a Jazz Classic (see sidebar) is about the eponymous song and album released in 1968 by Winston Monwabisi “Mankunku” Ngozi, arguably one of the biggest-selling South African jazz records of all time.
His book spun off into a visual art exhibition at the Freedom Station and he recently took part in a week-long residency at the space, which saw him collaborating with Jiyane, Mogorosi and guitarist Sifiso Buthelezi for a performance of Yakhal’ Inkomo.
That was one of those truly magical moments that happen at the Freedom Station. By now Bra Steve is used to the magic that happens at the venue, but he says he is still rocked every day by the ideas springing up from his space. “The station is fine as a venue that inspires critical work, but its ability to replicate itself is more important,” he says.
He is right, but a lot of the venue’s success is down to his guidance. Over four years Mokwena has discovered an alternative art education and incubation model. He describes the last few years as a “golden age”.
“It’s fantastic, like wow, rewind the clocks, man,” he says. “It’s an amazing time to be living in South Africa. There is a spirit of we deserve better than this, we are capable of better than this, in fact we deserve way more than we are being afforded. “There is a generation coming of age that understands that. This is the most historically optimistic moment that we have had. The most honest thing you could do for a generation is to invite them into the solution.”