/ 19 January 2024

Mlungisi Gegana: A page-turner of a career

Picture Credit Eddie Adams (1) 2
Eastern Cape bassist, composer and teacher Mlungisi Gegana has taken a decade to put out his third album My Time, My Space. Photo: Eddie Adams

“With enough time and space,” says Queenstown-based bassist and composer Mlungisi Gegana, “we can make music that speaks to people. It really doesn’t matter how long it takes.” 

Gegana is reflecting on the title of his just-released third album My Time, My Space and the nearly 10-year gap between it and his second album as leader, the 2014 I Am Who Am I, as well as on a four-decade career marked by moves between many South African performance spaces. 

“I call it ‘turning the page’,” the self-taught musician says of these moves. At 11, in Queenstown, Eastern Cape, he was experimenting with a homemade oilcan guitar, and getting hooked on music, though he initially played percussion.

“And then, one day in 1986, I was helping my grandmother in her garden, and I told her: 

“I have to do something with this music thing!’” 

With family in Cape Town, the Mother City was an obvious destination. There, he encountered established musicians and one, Godfrey Ntsila, invited him into the outfit where he played bass. 

The guitarist was the late musician and music organiser Christian Syren. They formed an instant bond, and when the latter mooted turning some of his rented home into a jazz club, Gegana became co-founder of the city’s legendary Jazz Den.

He wasn’t yet playing bass but living beside the performance space, where instruments were left overnight: “I used to look at that bass standing in the corner and wonder.” 

He hungrily borrowed jazz LPs from a library and a Stanley Clarke bass solo was his first transcription. 

The late bassist Spencer Mbadu became a mentor and stellar club guests, including saxophonists Robbie Jansen and Basil Coetzee, and bands Peto, Sakhile, Bayete and more expanded his musical circle.

“Then I needed to turn the page,” Gegana says. It was around the year 2000, he now really was a bassist — and it was time for Joburg. 

Friends such as saxophonist McCoy Mrubata had arrived there before him. Reedman Kaya Mahlangu invited him into the house band for the sadly short-lived TV music show Bejazzled

That brought work with more stellar names, including trombonist Jonas Gwangwa and multi-instrumentalist Pops Mohamed, “but it was nerve-wracking, my first time playing at that level”. 

Gegana stayed in Gauteng for 17 years, working across multiple contexts, and releasing his 2004 debut One Step Forward and later I Am Who Am I.

Time to turn the page again. 

Gegana considered America, where fellow bassist Bakithi Khumalo had offered hospitality, or France, “Or perhaps I should go home and help with development?” he wondered. The last option won. 

Now back living in Queenstown, Gegana continues performing and composing, working with the International Library of African Music (ILAM), and teaching at his eMlungisi Music Academy (named after its township, not him). 

And out of all those experiences has emerged My Time, My Space, which launched in Cape Town over the holiday season, with Joburg launch events scheduled for March.

The 10-track album features an eight-piece band, the largest instrumental ensemble he has worked with across a whole album (although some tracks on his debut used as many musicians, counting vocalists). 

That’s not the only innovation. It’s the first album for which Gegana has composed from the piano, rather than simply on his bass. 

“That made a lot of changes to my composing,” he says. “Before, I’d work outwards from a bass line. Now, I could play and hear both harmony and melody at the same time.”

That’s helped create bigger, more textured, arrangements and particularly a rich set of brass harmonies, using trumpet and trombone. 

“That brass sound was a dominating sound in my head when I was composing,” Gegana says. “The trombone had to be there! “I hadn’t known Kyle [du Preez] but got to know his work with [saxophonist] Sisonke Xonti and met him when I played at Stirling High School, where he teaches.”

Alongside trombonist Du Preez, the band comprises trumpeter Sakhile Simani; reedmen Phumlani Mtiti and Anthony Drake; pianists Chester Summerton and Andile Yenana and drummer Ayanda Sikade. 

The compositions reflect Gegana’s journeys and pay homage to his mentors. The contemplative opener East to West, for example, with its thoughtful solos from Simani and Summerton, reflects his dilemmas wondering where to move next. 

He had settled in Pretoria as part of a plan to save money for a possible air ticket and the tune began to germinate “when I was moving from the east of Pretoria to the west” — a microcosm of all the other moves he had made and was considering. 

The expansive brass and reed sound of Sibamba Ngazo Sozbini expresses “the respect you show by receiving something from somebody else with both hands”. 

“It’s giving respect to all my mentors, Spencer, Sipho Gumede  and other elders like [pianist] Pat Matshikiza and [singer] Stompie Mavi — some never moved from Queenstown, but still gave us so much.”

The closer, Introspection, where soloists including Du Preez stretch out, reflect “looking deep inside yourself to determine what you want to say … As much as we are instrumentalists, our music still carries deep messages.” 

The twists and turns of Gegana’s melody and bass solo on Be Happy With What You Have, urge “in music and life, not copying or wanting what others have but drawing on who you really are”.

Those inward-looking tracks also reflect Gegana’s experience during Covid, which forced him, like many creatives, to draw on inner resources to stay motivated. “And, of course, Covid was part of the delay in creating the album — as well as organising finance to make it happen.”

Today, he says, he’s “still learning from the elders — I work a lot with [veteran singer] Retsi Pule through ILAM [Rhodes University’s International Library of African Music]” but Gegana is now also a teacher through his community music academy. 

The school accepts youngsters from 12, but if younger children want to sit in, he doesn’t turn them away. He cheerfully admits to being a tough taskmaster, strictly instructing even on such matters as how to sit at a piano stool. 

“I think some of them find all that intimidating,” he says. “But music is work: all your life. I’ve been learning for more than 40 years. 

“You’ll never finish with this music thing until the day you die.”