/ 6 May 2020

Billy Monama: stringing together South African guitar history

Jazz Musician Billy Monama Photo Delwyn Verasamy
Jazz Musician Billy Monama (Delwyn Verasamy)

“It’s like a treasure hunt,” says guitarist Billy Monama. “It’s wonderful. Everyday I discover something new.” Monama’s talking about what’s becoming his lifetime project and passion: mapping the history and features of South African guitar playing. Seven years ago, Monama was writing a textbook on guitar basics. It covered all the bases, but had only his own solid reputation as a performer to distinguish it from the other guitar primers out there. When he realised its reception would be unpredictable, Monama pressed pause and thought about the book some more.

And, in the time since, he’s turned it into something unique.

Introduction to South African Guitar Styles: Volume One, due out at the end of this year, will present the comprehensive story of what makes our guitar music special, from the earliest days to the 1980s, and from Durban and Giyani to Jozi. Accompanying audio and video will present live demonstrations and musical conversations with veterans such as Themba Mokoena. “I don’t have my own music school,” Monama says. “But if I do a book, it’s available for everybody in the world. Each and every day since I started discussing this project, I get online messages. Everybody wants to study these styles.”

Monama’s first roots were in the gospel style: like many South African players, he began learning his instrument in church. Only after some very tough negotiations with his parents was the erstwhile political science student permitted to switch to music full time. His book, he says, was inspired by the playalong primers of Jamey Aebersold, which he consulted in the period when he was teaching himself. Now, Monama’s career has flowered, with one album, Rebounce, to his credit as leader, an engaging duo release, Brothers, with Andy Innes, and multiple appearances on stages near and far.

Despite Monama’s lack of  sleep — there’s a six-month-old baby in his life now too — discussing the project lights him up. He runs out of breath reeling off the magic names he’s discovered: the fathers of various streams of South African guitar playing. He’s moved beyond the players everybody refers to — Mokoena, Allen Kwela, General Duze — to other groundbreaking figures buried far more deeply in historical discographies: Willie Gumede, “Cowboy Superman”, Enoch Thabethe, Frans Pilane and more.

Yet as somebody with no formal background in musicology, Monama has met mixed responses to his searches. Some scholars and experts — he acknowledges Professor David Coplan, Dr Sazi Dlamini, musician Themba Mkhize and archivist Rob Allingham — have given him priceless support and guidance. “Others,” he says, “won’t even talk to me unless I give them proof of what university programme I’m registered on — and I’m not, yet!” Among veteran players too, Monama occasionally encounters suspicion, an attitude he attributes to the exploitative way they and their music were treated under apartheid — and often since. 

“But on the other hand, I’m honoured to have developed friendships with some of those legends,” he says. “Even people I know say to me: ‘How can you do this? You’re not a scholar.’ Well, I may not have a doctorate, but I consult people and books where I don’t have the knowledge. I may not be a student, but I’ve taught myself to become a researcher.”

A self-taught researcher

Monama started with the books: classics such as Coplan’s In Township Tonight, dissertations such as Lara Allen’s work on kwela, and much more. “I just studied. Read and read. Now, I’m interpreting what the historians wrote, and taking it into practical steps.” As well as that that, he was listening to every old recording he could access, “but when I took the guitar and tried to play what I was hearing, I was like: ‘Damn!’” And so he needed to meet and observe the veteran players too — Mokoena and Madala Kunene among them — and travel to, for example, Inanda, to get to grips with maskandi guitar on its home ground. The promise of a National Arts Council grant fuels the work, though Monama is still covering expenses out of his own pocket.

The result is a new, much more ambitious textbook manuscript, split into eras from the birth of popular guitar music here to 1980. Within each era, there are short biographies of players (“Do you know how hard those are to construct? There’s nothing!” Monama says) and transcriptions of their playing.

“My selection of players is always going to be controversial,” he concedes, “because there were so many great guitarists and everybody will have their favourites — I do too. But I have tried to limit it to the ground-breakers and innovators: people who brought something fresh to a style. For example, Philip Tabane, who brought in traditional tuning to change the guitar sound during the Black Consciousness era; Baba Mokoena, who was a great moderniser, Allen Kwela …

“The audio and video demonstrations break down the improv and solos, and they’re done in slo-mo with repetitions and guidance on tuning, so it’s user-friendly,” he says. “Even if you can’t read music, or you are visually handicapped or you’re stuck somewhere far distant from a music teacher, you’ll find something out of all that to help you.”

Monama himself is still learning too. “I know so much more about South African guitar than when I started. In many of the books, it just talks about the I:IV:V chords. Well, they are there, but they sound different when players of the African jazz period play them than when popular mbaqanga players do. Sometimes, they’re implied rather than expressed. In many ways, it’s much more a feeling — articulation — rather than just the chord progression that defines our style,” he  says. “But then, to explain those details very clearly to a learner … Especially when there have been waves of fashion in South African guitar styles and there are multiple sub-styles and instrumental variations within each ‘school’.”

The book couldn’t possibly be limited only to South African jazz guitar, Monama says, because even among players who embrace the jazz label, “you can hear things from maskandi, or Xitsonga music, or something else born here”. Nevertheless, “America has been with us from very early.” As soon as there were recordings, Monama knows, records from the United States were finding their way here.

He sighs. “We’re sitting on such a rich heritage. We give so much praise to other countries preserving their heritage, while here the veteran players are getting older and we risk losing their skill and memories. There’s so much we haven’t got round to learning from them, it makes me afraid.”

That “so much” is why this publication will be only volume one. “To do justice to what I already had, I needed to stop somewhere,” he says. “Volume two needs to go through the 1980s and beyond, coming closer to today. And probably the choice of guitarists there will be just as difficult, although one obvious name is the late Frank Leepa from Lesotho …”

Monama recalls the last time he and I discussed publishing his textbook, back in 2013. “If I’d published that book seven years ago,” he reflects, “ooh, I’d be so regretting it now!”

This article was first published on sisgwenjazz.wordpress.com