/ 14 July 2017

Musician. Teacher. Raconteur

Jazz giant: Johnny Mekoa
Jazz giant: Johnny Mekoa

I was ushered into a large room with the traits of an office — bookshelves, filing cabinets and a desk — but looking more like a storage room for instruments. Cases of all shapes and sizes containing various musical equipment, some piled up higher than my head, filled the room.

The reason I was here was because of a suggestion I kept hearing when I spoke to the peers of Johannesburg-based jazz musician and visual artist Malcolm Jiyane: “You need to speak to Bra Johnny Mekoa,” they said, one after the other.

Jiyane is a pianist, trombonist and drummer who can often be found mesmerising audiences at the Afrikan Freedom Station in Westdene, Johannesburg.

I had been working on a feature on Jiyane and, after the fourth or fifth suggestion that I interview Johnny Mekoa, I decided to track him down.

That’s how I found myself sitting in this office/musical storage room at the Music Academy of Gauteng.

When Bra Johnny entered the room and greeted me warmly, it was clear I was about to talk to a man who was larger than life. His white hair brought to mind snapshots of the 1980s boxing promoter Don King. His long, oversized collared shirt was hanging almost to his knees. Mekoa was extremely confident, in an unapologetic way.

As he spoke, he delivered stories from his past with such precise timing, it was clear he was a raconteur. I had come to find out about the time that a young Jiyane had spent at the school. What I got was the three-hour story of Johnny Mekoa and, at times, how Jiyane fitted into that story.

As I processed this encounter in the weeks following that day, I started to realise that Mekoa’s and Jiyane’s lives were parts of the same story.

In telling me his story, Mekoa had been telling me about the circumstances that resulted in him pursuing a career as a jazz educator — a decision that, for many of South Africa’s young jazz lions in 2017, was a necessary one.

Mekoa was a man who had had the foot of the apartheid system at his throat, but had fought back with everything he had.

Denied a music education

Mekoa, who died on July 3 at the age of 72 — and was buried this week — was born John Ramakhobotla Mekoa on April 11 1945. He was born into a family of horn players from the Etwatwa township in Benoni and he said it was his brother, Mbuzi, who was his initial musical tutor, as well as a record by the great American trumpeter, Clifford Brown.

Mekoa said Mbuzi used to play with Hugh Masekela and introduced a young Johnny to Caiphus Semenya, who grew up in his neighbourhood. It was Semenya who introduced Mekoa to Dorkay House in downtown Jo’burg, where he played regularly with musicians such as alto saxophonist Barney Rachabane and pianist Pat Matshikiza.

When Mekoa decided in 1964 that he wanted to take his musical education further, he came up against the mechanisms of apartheid. At the age of 18, he was denied entry to a music institution because of his skin colour. The injustice of this act was one that would leave a lasting imprint on his psyche and clearly define his life. As Mekoa told me his story of this time, it was clear that the anger against a society that refused education to young black South Africans still raged in the septuagenarian.

Early music career

In 1967, Mekoa started performing professionally with the Early Mabuza Big Five, playing trumpet and flugelhorn. “It was an incredible band,” recalls Mekoa.

The band comprised Mabuza on drums, Ernest Mothle on double bass and Busi Mhlongo on vocals, as well as Rachabane and Matshikiza.

Mekoa broke away in 1968 and formed his band, the Jazz Ministers, with founding members Aubrey Simani (alto), Furnace Goduka (tenor), Duncan Madondo (tenor), Fanyana Sehloho (bass), Shepstone Sothoane (drums) and Boy Ngwenya (piano). Composer Victor Ndlazilwana joined later as musical director.

In 1972, the band was invited to perform at the Newport Jazz Festival in the United States, but were denied visas for the trip. Mekoa said he was bitterly disappointed. It was a disappointment he got used to; he was denied visas constantly to travel overseas until 1976. In 1975, the Jazz Ministers released their second album, Zandile. Two compositions from that album — the title track and Sekumanxa — have since gone on to become standards in the South African jazz canon.

Again they were invited to perform at the Newport Jazz Festival in 1976, and this time Mekoa and his fellow band members were granted a short visa for the trip, becoming the first African jazz band to play the festival. The Jazz Ministers would continue on till 1979, but broke up after Bheki Mseleku left the band and Sothoane quit music to go into business.

Becoming an educator

Mekoa quit his full-time job in an optometrist’s office in the mid-1980s to seek the jazz education he was earlier denied.

By 1986 he had enrolled in the music programme of the then University of Natal. As a man in his 40s, he was the oldest music student at the university and, when he graduated in 1990, he became the first black South African to earn a degree in music.

While at the university, he was involved with Zim Ngqawana and Lulu Gontsana in the formation of a band named the Jazzanians. By 1988 their album, We Have Waited Too Long, was winning over fans at home and abroad.

In 1991, Abdullah Ibrahim, recently returned from exile, heard Mekoa performing and invited him to a two-week recording session at Cape Town’s Baxter Theatre for what would become the album Mantra Mode.

Mekoa went on to tour the album throughout Europe with Ibrahim, a time in his life that he talked about with great affection.

After the tour, Mekoa applied for a Fulbright scholarship. It was granted and he did his master’s degree in jazz pedagogy at Indiana University.

Mekoa said his quest to get a music education at the University of Natal and Indiana University was with one goal in mind: “I had this thing in me that one day I was going to open a music school.”

As Mekoa recalled this time in his life, he told me an amusing anecdote that spoke to the contradictions of a 40-year-old legend of South African jazz going back to school. He told me about a lecturer at Indiana University who came into the lecture hall with a tape player one day and proceeded to play Ibrahim’s Mantra Mode to the class.

The lecturer singled out the trumpet playing on the album, praising the recording.

Mekoa said the lecturer, knowing he was from South Africa, asked him to find out who the trumpeter was. Mekoa agreed, declining to tell his lecturer in front of the class that it was him playing.

A few weeks later, when the lecturer got a proper copy of the album with the liner notes, which listed the musicians involved, Mekoa says they shared a laugh about it.

The music school

The Music Academy of Gauteng opened its doors in 1994 with 20 students from the township of Daveyton. In trying to measure its success, one only need take a look at the young musicians who have emerged from it.

Malcolm Jiyane, Mthunzi Mvubu, Oscar Rachabane, Mpho Mabogoane, Ayanda Zalekile, Oscar Kgware, Nthabiseng Mokoena and Linda Tshabalala are just some of the musicians strutting their stuff on South African stages who got their education at the Music Academy of Gauteng.

“I have trained brilliant musicians here,” Mekoa told me proudly. “They are all over now … It’s my mandate to go out there and show these kids, ‘Hey, you too can learn this’. ”

As we spoke about the history of the school, Mekoa railed against the formal music education institutions in the country, saying they had tried to thwart his school’s quest to become an accredited music school and were quite happy to poach his promising students.

He told me how the school had grown from strength to strength, regaled me with anecdotes about jazz dignitaries being awestruck by the performances of his students and organised for me to take a guided tour of the newly added dormitories and the recording studio the school had built.

I left the Music Academy of Gauteng with a deep sense of gratitude that Bra Johnny Mekoa had devoted himself to jazz education.

I thought about all those young musicians who might never have graced a stage without his intervention. Artists such as Malcolm Jiyane, who had impressed me greatly with his performances and visual art over the past few years.

A giant has died, but his legacy lives on in jazz venues across the country, and in the school that was his life’s dream.