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Brass, class, steel and sorrow: Jonas Gwangwa cut close to the bone

Joni Mitchell put it best in Big Yellow Taxi: “Don’t it always seem to go/ That you don’t know what you’ve lost/Till it’s gone.” So it is with the passing of Jonas Mosa Gwangwa. Only now, after a full week of sadness and tributes, does it even start feeling real that there will be no more new songs from the mind, voice and trombone that gave us Morwa, Diphororo and Ulibambe Lingashoni.

Another sadness is how much of his recorded work South Africans may not have heard. Only fragments of the early material have been reissued. Albums made in exile were never sold here. Some, like Amandla, were banned. There was much uncredited work in America, and one of his most fruitful composing periods, with the Medu Art Ensemble band, Shakawe, in Botswana, was never recorded in original versions.

So compiling a complete discography for his life story had, for me, aspects of a treasure hunt, and moments that combined triumph and tragedy: getting another piece of the jigsaw to fit, and then talking to the composer and finding he hadn’t heard that music for decades. The nomadic life forced on the Gwangwa family by apartheid’s murderers meant too much had been mislaid along the way.  

We’re fortunate that Gwangwa’s first-ever composition, written as a St Peter’s schoolboy for the Father Huddleston Band, has survived. Last I checked, Mfishane was still available on a Gallo compilation, Township Swing Jazz Volume 1, along with two other Huddleston Band tracks on which he plays. 

Gwangwa found his first national fame with the jazz supergroup of its day: Mackay Davashe’s Jazz Dazzlers. He was scouted because his instrument gave the Dazzlers a distinctive front-line sound:  “The Dazzlers,” he recalled, “were the top musicians of the land … the only thing they didn’t have was a trombone.” Other Gallo compilations also carry tracks from Gwangwa’s time with the Dazzlers: Diepkloof Ekhaya and Hamba Gwi

The Dazzlers had a far larger popular following than the small group of modern jazz intellectuals coalescing at the time around organiser Pinocchio Mokaleng’s Jazz at the Odin (Cinema) series in Sophiatown. But when visiting American piano teacher John Mehegan looked for collaborators to record with, those players were chosen for Jazz in Africa, Volumes I & II, on which Gwangwa is heard with trumpeter Hugh Masekela, reedman Kippie Moeketsi, the Shange brothers and drummer Gene Latimore.

Those 1959 recordings are often confused (they were in The Guardian this week) with the legendary 1960 LP that followed them: The Jazz Epistles Verse One, with the same three hornmen plus pianist Abdullah Ibrahim, bassist Johnny Gertze and drummer Makhaya Ntshoko. Only 500 copies were pressed of this first South African 33rpm recording by a Black modern jazz group of their own original material, including Gwangwa’s Carol’s Drive.

“It was in Cape Town and I was left alone,” he recalled. “I was thinking: I can improvise, so why can’t I compose? I mean, improvisation is just spontaneous composition, right? I spent the whole day messing around on the piano and came up with that tune.” If you want to hear just how edgy, intense and accomplished South African jazz already was 60 years ago, this is your disc.

Gwangwa plays in the pit band on the original 1961 cast recording of Todd Matshikiza’s jazz opera, King Kong — and that production’s London tour was his ticket out, eventually to the Manhattan School of Music in New York.

In the United States, his recordings span collaborators and genres. We know the Grammy-winning 1965 An Evening with Miriam Makeba and Harry Belafonte, for which he was arranger and conductor (although, after some creative disagreements during production “when the album came out, my name was in such tiny letters you could hardly read it,” he recalled). But Gwangwa also worked on the 1963 World of Miriam Makeba, the 1965 Makeba Sings, and the 1967 Miriam Makeba in Concert. We know the 1971 Hugh Masekela and the Union of South Africa with the trumpeter and Caiphus Semenya, but he also worked on Masekela’s 1966 recording Grrr and 1968’s Africa ’68.

But at the same time, Gwangwa was creating club music that delighted dancers. With Letta Mbulu and her group The Safaris (a reunion for former King Kong vocalists from the London days), he composed and co-produced the 1966 single Walkin’ Around. With his own band, African Explosion, he recorded another single, Goin’ Home/Africadelic, for Decca in 1968. 

The next year, pianist Ahmad Jamal gave Explosion the chance to record an 11-track album, Ngubani? on his newly founded Jamal label, with a spin-off single African Sausage/Szaba-Szaba. Ngubani? features reedman Dudu Pukwana and includes a tribute to Gwangwa’s mentor, saxophonist Kippie Moeketsi: two tracks based on Moeketsi’s Switch

“The recording was a jam session — no rehearsal,” Gwangwa recalled, “and the label wasn’t really set up to do promotion; people liked the music but getting gigs was still difficult.”

There were many other sessions too. “There were just people who used to come to the apartment,” Gwangwa recalled. “‘We’re doing a record — what do you think?’ … almost accidental. A lot of my projects were like that, then … Sometimes there was money, sometimes not; sometimes you never even saw a record. We didn’t mind: we were in it together. 

“There could be a lot of sessions from that time that I don’t remember, where you’ll find an uncredited trombone — and that was me!” (As I type those words, I can feel the discography nerds stirring: good luck!)

Out of that period came the breathtaking Dragon Suite, recorded with the Marc Levin Free Unit in 1968. Multi-instrumentalist Levin is leader, Cecil McBee, bassist — but the performance is a tour de force of free trombone improvisation from Gwangwa. It is wholly recognisable as his voice, but a stylistic revelation. 

For a colleague from the Belafonte sessions, Howard Roberts, Gwangwa co-arranged and played on his 1968 spirituals album, Let My People Go. The trombonist also arranged and provided ’bone overdubs for reedman Robin Kenyatta’s 1973 fusion album Terra Nova. For the West African-oriented US label Makossa International, Gwangwa recorded the single Yebo in 1976.

Gwangwa quit his jazz career in the US in the late 1970s, to dedicate his next decade to the Amandla Cultural Ensemble of the ANC. 

He left on a high note. His last American recording, the 1978 Main Event Live (it wasn’t: the audience is dubbed in) with Herb Alpert and Hugh Masekela, reprised material that, on Alpert’s tour, had won the trombonist curtain calls every night for his barnstorming solos on his own Shame the Devil and Foreign Natives. “They kept on clapping, and I asked myself: ‘What’s happening?’” Gwangwa remembered. “And he [Alpert] kept saying ‘Go out [on stage] again; go out.’ I couldn’t believe it.” 

Amandla’s two albums, the Swedish Amandla First Tour Live (1983) and the 1982 Russian-label Amandla African National Congress Cultural Group were, of course, banned by the apartheid regime. People caught with the precious cassettes faced prison.

Equally hard to find these days is the recording he made with bassist Johnny Mbizo Dyani in 1984, Born Under the Heat. Gwangwa features on two tracks, Song for the Workers and The Boys from Somafco — that last one particularly poignant and personal because some of the young family he was parted from so often were studying at Tanzania’s Solomon Mahlangu Freedom College.

During the same period, from his family home in Gaborone, Botswana, Gwangwa developed the Medu band Shakawe. Around a regular core of Batswana and South African players, Shakawe made room for aspiring local Botswana Defence Force musicians and visiting South African stars alike. Two aspects of Shakawe were important for Gwangwa: revisiting indigenous roots to shape songs with a powerful social meaning, and a collective working style that gave everybody a voice, anticipating the kind of creative praxis that the arts in the new South Africa ought to have. 

Steve Dyer, Shakawe saxophonist, remembers: “Bra JG was very generous with his knowledge. He gave other members of the band the space they needed to grow.” As well as “a beautiful and distinctive tone on the trombone, for him it was not about the notes. It’s not about the theory. It is about the feeling and emotion behind the notes …  So when we played, people came to have a good time and they got entertained — and the message was still coming through. It is inextricably tied up with the struggle for freedom: this was freedom music we were playing.”

Much of the music we associate with Gwangwa today came out of that time. But the trombonist’s fear of piracy meant none of those joyous Gaborone club sessions was ever recorded. However, some of Shakawe’s repertoire is reprised on the 1990, London-recorded, Flowers of the Nation. Made just after the Wembley Mandela concert, the recording included trumpeter Dennis Mpale, a former Shakawe member, alongside drummer Kulu Radebe from Amandla and a raft of United Kingdom-based and visiting South Africans. 

The Oscar-nominated Cry Freedom soundtrack album, and the post-exile albums A Temporary Inconvenience, Sounds from Exile, Kukude, a Sony/BMG Best of … collection and the DVD Live at the Standard Bank International Jazz Festival, are the recordings South Africans already know better. Cherish them — but some digital crate-diving will introduce you to fresh facets of a musician whose moving, committed sounds for marching, celebrating or mourning only grow in power with rehearing. 

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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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