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The Portfolio: Siphiwe Mhlambi on Jonas Gwanga, ‘a proper human being’

You photographed Jonas Gwangwa several times. What qualities did he exude in person that you felt translated on the stage or in the photographs when you look back at them?

Ntate Jonas, when he is off stage, he is a proper, proper human being. He is like your uncle or your father or your grandfather. He has a son who is more or less the same age as me, Mojalefa. We get along very well. Whenever I see him [Ntate Jonas] — I suppose maybe I see him a lot because he lives in the same neighbourhood — there is that naturality that exists between us. 

Some artists give you stage fright; some artists allow you into their space; some artists are just professionals. You know, they give you that professional feel or look and you must just deal with that. Ntate Jonas goes beyond that. He’s got that professional feel, but he is very accepting. He sees you and he is aware that you are there. His posture will move. 

Lately, he’s been sitting on a stool when he plays. He does move around, but he doesn’t move a lot. He’s a very straightforward musician. He likes to engage with his audience when he performs. He loves his sound to be perfect. He makes time to go and do his soundcheck and then his son is always there to make sure everything is okay around him. 

As a photographer, you develop a sense of how to work with particular people: How much leniency and respect do you give them? It is different with Ntate Jonas. He is a real person. When you see him in real life, you don’t even consider him as somebody with that stature. This is a person who did it all. The Grammys [Gwangwa was nominated for a Grammy in the Best Song Written Specifically for a Motion Picture category, for the song Cry Freedom], the project he worked on with Quincy Jones … he does not give you that. You see your own regular uncle, father, grandfather next to you. 

You mention that you are working on a book about South African jazz. How does he figure in your book, both as a photographic subject, but also as part of this lineage of music?

The book is based in my lifetime [as a photographer]. I started in 1990, but there are a lot of things that happened before me. This past weekend, I had a chat with Ntate Mike Mzileni at his house in Diepkloof. As a matter of fact, this is how I got the news of the passing of Ntate Jonas. 

We were sitting at Mike Mzileni’s house. This is my mentor, my teacher. He was my boss when I was at City Press. I thought, “You know what, he is long retired. He is home. He probably could be bored.” So I took my camera, brought some friends with, and we sat with him. 

As we were sitting there, Sandile Memela shows me, “Hey monna, we just got the news that Ntate Jonas just left, now.” And we all just jumped. And this is when Mike Mzileni started relating the story of how he met Jonas, and what kind of work he did with him, from 1959 — all the way. These are the people that entice you. “The sea is deep. You can swim but how far can you go?”

With people like these, that are legends before me, sharing all of that information with you, I felt like this is a God-given space for me to be here. Mike Mzileni is a legend. He is all of those. Moffat Zungu, Alf Kumalo. But I was a youngster when I worked with them. 

In the book, I feature the [Jazz] Epistles [Gwangwa’s group with Abdullah Ibrahim and Hugh Masekela]. They are very prominent in the book. There is the Union of South Africa, where he appears with Hugh Masekela and Caiphus Semenya. Then there are the Divas of Kofifi and Dorkay House, abo Sis’ Dorothy Masuka, Abigail Kubheka, Thandi Klaasen and Sophie Mgcina. Not sure if Sophie Mgcina is in that group. Those are groups I thought should dominate the book, as a way of paying respect to them, and going down all the way to the current guys like Nduduzo [Makhathini] and Thandi Ntuli and Sibongile Khumalo. But the book will focus mainly on those legends. It will be the first in a series.

What are your memories of him?

He was a teacher just by talking. When his wife was still around … you know when people call you by your name and know who you are, it sort of humbles you, in a way. You restrict yourself and try not to engage too much because you probably think you must respect them that far, but they bring you closer. Every time I sat with Ntate Jonas, he’d tell you the history of South African jazz. And most of the things I read about him in the news, these are things he told me personally, sitting with him. Every gig where I’d see him, we’d have a chat, either backstage, on his way out or somewhere. He was that kind of a person. 

He’s got this thing that Nelson Mandela used to have of remembering people, events and dates. He was a teacher and you’d always want to be around him to learn more things. He had lots of stories to tell. I enjoyed photographing him. I’d go just about anywhere. My jazz pictures are not commissioned by a record label or a publication. It’s just me dedicating time to document South African jazz, wholly, as it is. I could drive now to Durban and sit with Rafs Mayet and he will just enlighten you about things that he knows about jazz, and you go behind the scenes. 

What do you make of his sensibility as a musician?

I’m not sure who he was sitting with, Dizzy Gillespie or someone who was giving him a note to play, and then obviously these guys who were in exile, they’d like to emulate what American music sounded like and get approval from that. And then somebody said, “Play me [something] South African. You’ve mastered this, I hear that. Play me something that is you.” Obviously that’s when they explore. He is very distinct in his sound. If you hear any piece by Jonas Gwangwa you hear that it is Jonas Gwangwa. Whether vocally, or on his instrument, the trombone. You hear Diphororo, you know it’s Jonas Gwangwa playing that. 

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