What the lives of two SA music giants tell us about culture under apartheid

Back in 2000, musicians interviewed for my book on music and politics in South Africa, Soweto Blues, regularly asserted:

I’m not a politician.

How could this be, the interview team wondered, when these same people had just described being tear gassed, playing at illegal gatherings and making recordings they knew could be banned? When we dug deeper, what emerged was:

I didn’t say I wasn’t political. But I’m not a politician: I couldn’t compare myself to somebody like Mandela.

In the past 10 days, two towering figures in the history of South African music have died. Both were in their seventh decade: trumpet and flugelhorn player Johnny Mekoa was 72; guitarist Ray Chikapa Phiri, 70. Reflecting on their lives and work tells us a great deal about the intersection of black politics and culture under apartheid, and also about the ways South Africans see the music the world calls jazz.

Bustling mining town

Mekoa was born on the East Rand, where gold had been discovered in 1887. By the 1940s, his birthplace of Benoni was a bustling, relatively prosperous mining town pitted by reservoirs where whites sailed and picnicked while black citizens were confined to the neighbouring townships of Daveyton and Wattville.


In the townships, jazz bands abounded; Mekoa’s brother Fred was already a trumpeter, and from him, in gigs, and at the central Johannesburg rehearsal and education space of Dorkay House, the young Johnny honed his chops.

Johnny Mekoa performing in Johannesburg, South Africa. Busisiwe Mbatha/Sowetan

Phiri was born in Nelspruit, an agricultural town near the Mozambican border. Phiri’s father had come from Malawi: he was both a wage worker and the organiser of puppet shows that toured the area, and at which the young Raymond learned dancing and music.

The metropolitan pull of Johannesburg and Soweto drew both musicians to the city.

Around Dorkay House, Mekoa met up with the players with whom he founded the Jazz Ministers in 1967. The Ministers built a reputation in township clubs and at the jazz festivals launched by liquor companies after prohibition for black drinkers was ended in 1961.

On a parallel track, Phiri had hooked up with drummer Isaac Mtshali and others to form The Cannibals, a Soweto Soul outfit which, with many others, was melding the feel of the US soul styles of Motown and Stax with South African roots idioms. They developed their skills playing backing for female smanje-manje groups such as the Mahotella Queens (smanje-manje was a fast-tempo, neo-traditional women’s performance style).

By the 1970s, the Jazz Ministers with albums “Zandile” and “Nomvula’s Jazz Dance”, were making sufficient waves for them to be invited to play Newport: something they finally achieved in 1976, stalled three times previously by the refusal of the authorities to grant Mekoa a visa. 

Black pride and defiance

Both, in their own musical arenas, nurtured black pride and defiance. The Ministers’ jazz was the music of a non-tribal urban, black working class whose very existence apartheid denied. In America – it was Bicentennial year – they were invited to perform on the deck of a South African warship. It was 1976; they refused. On their return, they were all hauled in for questioning by the police’s special branch, and remained under intermittent observation.

The Cannibals morphed into what became one of South Africa’s greatest bands, Stimela, joined by additional players. In both incarnations they reflected community resistance and hope. They recorded in English and the Malawian language Chichewa at a time when the apartheid regime, the recording industry, and the South African Broadcasting Corporation were insisting on a policy of “retribalisation” and black music sung in one African language only. Their track “Highland Drifter” stayed on the Zimbabwe charts for 18 weeks, but was banned in South Africa.

The zenith of their defiance, however, came with the 1986 album “Look, Listen and Decide”, whose track “Whispers In The Deep/ Phinda Mzala” became an anthem of resistance wherever it was played.

‘Whispers in the deep’ by Ray Phiri and Stimela.

And the lines between Phiri’s popular music and Mekoa’s jazz were always highly permeable. When jazz festivals happened – increasingly less often after 1976 and into the repressive 1980s – audiences appreciated and danced to both. Levels of virtuosity were often equally high.

Young lions of jazz

Johnny Mekoa in front of the Gauteng Music Academy building. Tladi Khuele/Sowetan

Jazzmen regularly played in popular bands: on Stimela’s 1989 “Thoughts, Visions and Dreams”, the horn line includes saxophonists McCoy Mrubata, Teaspoon Ndlelu and Mandla Masuku. And a song like “Ngena Mntan’am” from 1984 was a popular song enjoyed by every radio listener, not jazz fans alone.

While he never stopped playing, Mekoa rapidly transitioned into a respected jazz scholar after he gained his first degree in the waning years of apartheid. He had earlier tried to enter formal music education in 1964, but found the doors closed to a man of colour. Instead, he trained as an optician. But in the mid 1980s he won a Fulbright Scholarship to Indiana University, and went on to found the Music Academy of Gauteng, offering jazz education to the most deprived youngsters in his old home town. From that academy, a whole new generation of “young lion” players have emerged: Oscar Rachabane, Mthunzi Mvubu; Nhlanhla Mahlangu, Linda Tshabalala (“Why shouldn’t a sister play a horn?” Mekoa demanded), Malcolm Jiyane and more.

‘A Temporary Inconvenience’ by Johnny Mekoa with the Music Academy of Gauteng.

Phiri featured on both Paul Simon music tours, “Graceland” and “Rhythm of the Saints”, and collaborated with Laurie Anderson on the album “Strange Angels”.

He continued to compose and work with Stimela post-liberation (in May of this year, he told the website Music in Africa that he had material for three new albums finished and mastered). He also founded a music school, the Ray Phiri Artists’ Institute, at Ka Nyamazane in his home province of Mpumalanga.

One poignant contrast

Ray Phiri performing at the Johannesburg Africa Day Jazz Concert in 2017. Masi Losi/TheTimes

Both musicians were awarded the South African national Order of Ikhamanga (Silver). But one other, poignant, contrast emerged at the time of their deaths. Although many aficionados knew of Mekoa’s death within hours of the event, it took most of the media days to catch up, tailing after tributes from government ministers.

The death of Phiri hit the headlines within hours of his death. The permeable, flexible terrain between genres that the careers of Phiri and Mekoa negotiated, is being replaced by the rigidities of marketing categories and media information slots.

As Phiri observed back in May,

You’re going to destroy the music for the sake of money. Young musicians nowadays … become a product; their art becomes tied up with the product.

Yet for those who love and listen – really listen – the legacy of both men will live on equally in the music they made, and the fresh players, with fresh vision, they nurtured. May their spirits rest in peace; hamba kahle (go well).

Essential listening:

Johnny Mekoa: (Very little available online, but check the excellent Electric Jive site)

‘Ndize Bonono Na?’ by Johnny Mekoa with Jonas Gwangwa.

Ray Phiri: (with The Cannibals):

Ray Phiri with The Cannibals – ‘Get funky’.

(with Stimela):

Ray Phiri with Stimela and their hit ‘Where did we go wrong?’

(with Paul Simon):

Ray Phiri playing with Paul Simon on ‘Sound of silence’.
Ray Phiri playing with Paul Simon on ‘I know what I know’.

Gwen Ansell, Associate of the Gordon Institute for Business Science, University of Pretoria

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

The Conversation

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Gwen Ansell
Gwen Ansell is a freelance writer, writing teacher, media consultant and creative industries researcher. She is the author of various books, including the cultural history ‘Soweto Blues: Jazz, Politics and Popular Music in South Africa’ and the writers’ guide, ‘Introduction to Journalism’.
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