THE TRAGEDY OF genius
Remembering Moses Molelekwa
Saturday, February 13 marked 15 years since the passing of South African jazz musician Moses Molelekwa and his wife, Florence Mtoba. On that fateful date in 2001, the bodies of Molelekwa and Mtoba were discovered in an office, which they shared, in downtown Johannesburg.
Molelekwa’s body was found hanging from a beam and Mtoba had been strangled. The case remains unsolved. At the time, news reports said he was taking drugs and spending time with some of kwaito’s bad boys.
The passing of Molelekwa shocked South Africans, particularly because this great jazz musician was only just beginning his journey in music.
The mystery surrounding the circumstances of the two deaths still casts a dark cloud over his short life.
As City Press spent the past few weeks interviewing his family, friends and fellow musicians, it was clear the wounds following his passing are still very raw – but the regard his fellow musicians have for his work is not in doubt.
This is perhaps best summed up by Sibongile Khumalo, whose 1996 album Ancient Evenings and 2000 album Immortal Secrets were produced by Molelekwa.
“Moses did not produce a huge body of work,” says Khumalo. “But he did produce seminal work that defined a sound for a generation of young musicians in the 1990s,” she says.
“Moses was special,” says McCoy Mrubata, one of Molelekwa’s first mentors. “Khaya Mahlangu once said something like, ‘Geniuses like that come along once in 100 years’ – and I agree.”
Molelekwa would release only two albums during his life: his 1995 debut album, Finding One’s Self, and its follow-up in 1998, titled Genes and Spirits.
Both would go on to win SA Music Awards (Samas) and are seen as seminal albums in the South African jazz canon.
Moses’ father, Jerry Molelekwa, says the family home in Tembisa was a musical one, with Miles Davis, Thelonious Monk, Hugh Masekela and Abdullah Ibrahim blasting from the turntable.
He says after he took his 11-year-old son for the first time to the Federated Union of Black Artists (Fuba) School of Music, it was a love affair that never ended.
The school was run by the Fuba Academy and founded in 1978.
“Moses used to travel all the way to Johannesburg from Tembisa on his own on Saturdays,” says his dad.
“There was not a single day I remember him saying: ‘I can’t go, I’m sick.’
“He used to come home late at night and he was mugged twice – they stole his books,” adds Jerry.
Mrubata remembers the first time he met Moses. “Fuba was right next to the old Kippies jazz club. I used to have a band there, McCoy’s Brotherhood,” he says.
“During a break, I heard this beautiful music coming from one of the rooms of the school.
“I went up and there was this tiny 14-year-old kid named Moses,” recalls Mrubata. “He was very young.”
Mrubata soon took the young Moses in, so he didn’t have to travel to and from Tembisa.
Mrubata remembers Moses as a very soft-spoken, respectful boy.
Khumalo says she used to call Molelekwa “the young man who was born old”.
“In his playing, in his demeanour, in his speech, he was slow and deliberate and wise,” she says. “Even when he was agitated or annoyed, I don’t remember him talking loudly or rudely.
“He poured his angst into the music with a low intensity that could flare up into a volcano of deeply felt emotion.”
Jerry says his father was a very good stride piano player and Moses picked up a lot from his grandfather.
He says Moses’ grandfather taught him the song Marabi A Aremogolo, which features on his debut album.
“He was always interested in the roots,” says Jerry. “He always said he wanted to play the piano the way Philip Tabane played the guitar.
“When he was making Genes and Spirits, I questioned what he was doing. He said: ‘Today you don’t understand the music, but in the future you will understand it.’”
Drummer Kesivan Naidoo, who is currently studying at Berklee College of Music in Boston in the US, says Moses was one of the most influential musicians of his generation.
“His impact was so significant to the new wave of South African jazz that I can still hear his influences in the sounds of the current vanguard of our music,” says Naidoo.
“What was remarkable was he had established his own voice in music at such a young age.”
Naidoo says he thinks it was Molelekwa’s ability to find the connections in the different styles he was fusing that made him so unique.
“I remember when he passed; it was a total shock,” says Naidoo. “How could this happen to someone who had not yet peaked?”
“I was with Buddy Wells in the car – on our way to a Tribe rehearsal – when we heard about his death over the radio,” says Naidoo. “We pulled over and started to sob.
“Just a week before, Moses had said he would like to work with Buddy and me. That music was never made.”
Guitarist Louis Mhlanga, who played with Molelekwa throughout his career, recalls that weeks before his death, Molelekwa had asked to play some of his guitar lines on the keys.
“We started experimenting with those ideas, which were very interesting,” says Mhlanga. “He was always searching for the new.”
Trumpeter Marcus Wyatt says he was never in Molelekwa’s band, but he did play a few shows with him.
“I liked his approach,” he says. “He wasn’t a jazz purist; he was all about how the music must go forward.”
Wyatt says what he likes about Molelekwa’s music is that he embraced influences from across the African continent.
“I think Moses, especially on the Genes and Spirits album, drew a lot from west Africa,” he says.
South African jazz legend Carlo Mombelli says he remembers popping over to the Bassline in Melville to watch Molelekwa play whenever he could.
“I loved his music and his pure passion for it,” he says. “He was a great pianist and musician.
“I still wanted to make some music with him and was shocked to hear of his passing. Moses left a vacuum in the jazz music scene of South Africa.”
Jazz pianist and educator Andile Yenana says Molelekwa was very important to South African jazz as he showed that the music was not just for the older generation.
He recalls at one of the first Samas that Lebo Mathosa came on stage and announced there would now be an award for the old people.
“Straight after her, Moses came out and defended us,” says Yenana. “He said: ‘I am young. This is not music for old people. I have a stake in this music.’” “He is our pride and joy,” says Siyabonga Mthembu from The Brother Moves On. “For all of us who call Tembisa home, Moses is our son. “Here was a guy from one hood away from where I grew up, making this incredible spiritual music.”
Mpumi Mcata, guitarist in the BLK JKS and Motel Mari, says Molelekwa was like South Africa’s Jimi Hendrix.
“Ever since Finding One’s Self, he was already pushing the boundaries of what was, tapping into the nether regions of African spirituality, bridging the gap between the ancients and the futurists,” says Mcata.
“His musical voice spoke to my generation with an unmatched depth and earnestness.” Jerry says the plan for the Moses Molelekwa Arts Foundation in Tembisa is to have his son’s influence play an active role within it. “We want to bring music lessons closer to the people, so they don’t have to travel like Moses did,” says Jerry.
He says, during the week, the foundation conducts an outreach programme, travelling to primary schools that don’t have music teachers and giving music lessons there. On Saturdays, students from the age of seven and upwards come to the foundation to learn. Jerry says when his son died, h e had been planning to attend Berklee College of Music to study further. Moses may not have realised that dream, but Jerry has seen other youngsters go on from the foundation to realise theirs. One of the foundation’s most successful students is Witness Matlou, who went on to study piano at Berklee College, graduating in 2015.
“That dream never happened for Moses, but it happens today for me,” he says, adding that it is important to teach young musicians about how to deal with success and fame, to prevent them from resorting to drink and drugs to cope.
He doesn’t have to say that he wishes his son had had this kind of guidance – it is clearly implied. Then Jerry begins to talk about Zoe Mtoba Molelekwa, Moses’ son. Now 21 years old, Zoe is also a budding jazz musician, having studied piano at the University of KwaZulu-Natal. He is also actively involved at the foundation. “We don’t expect him to be Moses,” says Jerry. “Like Moses, he must establish himself as his own artist.” Jerry says Zoe does not need to compete with his dad. “His father changed a number of lives,” says Jerry. “It was amazing the impact this youngster had on an entire nation.
“At his funeral, the artists all said they had never encountered someone who could influence everybody.”
He is clearly still touched by the outpouring of grief and loss that happened when Moses passed back in 2001. Jerry looks down as he pauses. “What happened to Senzo [Meyiwa, the soccer star who was murdered in 2014 and whose case remains unsolved],” he says slowly, “brought all those memories back.”
It’s clear Molelekwa is missed, but his music remains with us.