TRIB­UTE TO SA JAZZ LEG­END

De­ter­mined to never see a door shut on a child be­cause of race

The Star Early Edition - - FRONT PAGE - SAM MATHE

THE pass­ing of sea­soned jazz trum­peter, band­leader and jazz ed­u­ca­tor, Johnny Mekoa, 72, on Mon­day closes an in­ter­est­ing and in­for­ma­tive chap­ter in the colour­ful his­tory of South African mu­sic.

The found­ing di­rec­tor of the Mu­sic Academy of Gaut­eng ded­i­cated his life to the un­earthing and nur­tur­ing of young mu­si­cal tal­ent.

Born John Ra­makhobotla Mekoa on April 11, 1945 in a Benoni fam­ily of brass mu­si­cians, he was re­fused en­try to a mu­sic in­sti­tu­tion be­cause of his skin colour at 18.

The re­jec­tion left a last­ing im­print on his psy­che and would later de­fine the course of his mu­si­cal jour­ney.

The re­spon­si­bil­ity to teach him the ba­sics fell on the shoul­ders of his broth­ers. At the same time, he played with lo­cal am­a­teur bands and started per­form­ing pro­fes­sion­ally in 1967 as a trum­pet and flugel­horn player with lead­ing jazz mu­si­cians such as the late drum­mer and band­leader, Early Mabuza.

In 1968, he formed his own band, the Jazz Min­is­ters. The sex­tet’s orig­i­nal line-up in­cluded Aubrey Si­mani (alto), Fur­nace Go­duka (tenor), Dun­can Madondo (tenor), bassist Fanyana Sehloho, drum­mer Shep­stone Sothoane and pi­anist, Boy Ng­wenya.

The Jazz Min­is­ters be­came one of the coun­try’s lead­ing fes­ti­val bands after Vic­tor Nd­lazil­wane joined them in 1970 as prin­ci­pal com­poser and mu­si­cal di­rec­tor. Nd­lazil­wane was a re­mark­ably multi-tal­ented artist who led the Woody Wood­peck­ers, an in­flu­en­tial vo­cal quar­tet that earned a place in the ground­break­ing King Kong jazz opera in 1959.

He brought to his new en­sem­ble a wealth of mu­si­cal tal­ent, no­tably pro­lific com­po­si­tional skills and an in­ven­tive touch that com­bined Xhosa folk rhythms and town­ship jazz el­e­ments to pro­duce some of the coun­try’s pop­u­lar ra­dio sta­ples and stan­dards in the discog­ra­phy of African jazz.

There was a 12-year age gap be­tween the two mu­si­cians, which made Nd­lazil­wane a brother, men­tor and friend to the younger Mekoa.

At the apex of their act in 1975 when the Jazz Min­is­ters re­leased their se­cond al­bum

Zandile (Gallo) with pro­ducer Ray Nkwe, the line-up fea­tured Mekoa on flugel­horn, Sothoane on drums and cow bells, as well as Nd­lazil­wane on tenor sax and vo­cals. Ng­wenya had switched from the ivories to bass to make way for Nd­lazil­wane’s 15-year-old daugh­ter, Nomvula.

Two of the tracks from their best-sell­ing 1975 re­lease,

Zandile and Seku­manxa have be­come some of the coun­try’s beloved jazz clas­sics, hav­ing been cov­ered by a new gen­er­a­tion of South African artists such as Si­bongile Khu­malo.

A reg­u­lar head­line item dur­ing many fes­ti­vals in the seven­ties, the Jazz Min­is­ters’ finest hour was dur­ing their his­toric par­tic­i­pa­tion at the New­port Jazz Fes­ti­val in the US – an achieve­ment which made them the first African jazz band to play at the pres­ti­gious mu­sic event.

When the Soweto stu­dent ri­ots erupted on June 16, 1976, the Jazz Min­is­ters were en­ter­tain­ing the jazz world in New­port dur­ing Amer­ica’s bi­cen­ten­nial in­de­pen­dence cel­e­bra­tions. Play­ing there was a big deal and def­i­nitely a rar­ity for a South African out­fit.

The story goes that they were first in­vited in 1972, but the apartheid govern­ment re­fused them pass­ports. How­ever, it is not clear why in 1976 the South African au­thor­i­ties agreed to grant them pass­ports. But it is ev­i­dent that the govern­ment was un­happy with them when they re­turned home that July.

The trou­ble started when the Jazz Min­is­ters were in­vited to per­form on the deck of a South African war­ship, the Paul Kruger, which was in­vited by then US Pres­i­dent Ger­ald Ford to par­tic­i­pate in the cel­e­bra­tions. They snubbed the ges­ture and upon re­turn home, Mekoa was de­tained and in­ter­ro­gated by the se­cu­rity po­lice about the in­ci­dent and his po­lit­i­cal views.

He was even­tu­ally re­leased on warn­ing. The po­lit­i­cal per­se­cu­tion was a com­mon oc­cur­rence for jazz mu­si­cians and the Jazz Min­is­ters’ new­ly­found in­ter­na­tional ac­claim came with no of­fi­cial recognition or fi­nan­cial re­wards.

In those days, it was com­mon for band mem­bers to hold day jobs to sup­port their fam­i­lies. After work­ing in a lab­o­ra­tory as an op­ti­cal dis­penser for 20 years, Mekoa even­tu­ally quit his well-pay­ing day job in 1986 to pur­sue his child­hood dream of be­ing a mu­sic ed­u­ca­tor.

He was de­ter­mined to nur­ture young tal­ent and in 1987, at 41, he be­came the old­est first-year stu­dent at Natal Univer­sity’s School of Mu­sic. He later be­came the first re­cip­i­ent of the Ron­nie Madon­sela schol­ar­ship and its first grad­u­ate.

He joined The Jaz­za­ni­ans, a stu­dent band founded at the be­hest of depart­ment head, Pro­fes­sor Dar­ius Brubeck. Fel­low stu­dents in the band were Zim Ngqawana (sax), Lulu Gontsana (drums), Kevin Gib­son (drums), Sibu­siso Masondo (bass), Melvin Peters (piano), Nic Paton (sax), Rick van Heer­den (sax) and gui­tarist, An­drew Ea­gle.

The Jaz­za­ni­ans’ first and only al­bum, We Have Waited

Too Long (1988), was pro­duced by Brubeck and re­leased un­der the in­de­pen­dent la­bel, Umkhonto Records.

It was warmly greeted by the jazz com­mu­nity and re­ceived rave re­views in the main­stream me­dia. The en­sem­ble’s per­for­mances took them to the US in 1988, where they also at­tended sem­i­nars.

In Detroit, Michi­gan, they at­tended a con­fer­ence of jazz ed­u­ca­tors with the theme, “Jazz – An In­ter­na­tional Lan­guage with Par­tic­u­lar Em­pha­sis

on the Third World”.

In New York, they per­formed at the Philip Ran­dolph Foun­da­tion – or­gan­ised by leg­endary jazz vi­bra­phon­ist and hu­man­i­tar­ian, Lionel Hamp­ton.

In 1990, Mekoa ob­tained a Bach­e­lor of Mu­sic in jazz stud­ies and since then added a string of other qual­i­fi­ca­tions, in­clud­ing a Master of Mu­sic de­gree from In­di­ana Univer­sity, US, where he was a Ful­bright scholar. He also holds hon­orary doc­tor­ates in mu­sic from Unisa and Univer­sity of Pre­to­ria.

In 1991, he taught at FUBA in Joburg. One of his stu­dents was young pi­anist, Moses Molelekwa.

In 1994, he re­alised his life­long dream of run­ning a cen­tre of jazz ex­cel­lence when the Mu­sic Academy of Gaut­eng opened its doors to 20 stu­dents in a small town­ship house in Davey­ton, Benoni.

Since the day when he was de­nied en­rol­ment at a mu­sic school be­cause of his race, he had har­boured a burn­ing am­bi­tion to one day es­tab­lish his own school that would ad­mit all chil­dren, re­gard­less of their colour.

“From that day, I vowed that I will open my own school where doors would never be slammed in the face of any child. Apartheid was a ter­ri­ble evil, which shat­tered young dreams and robbed thou­sands of chil­dren of their po­ten­tial. But where there is mu­sic, there is no evil…”

Most of his stu­dents were home­less chil­dren that he had plucked from the evils of street life. The academy didn’t have mu­si­cal in­stru­ments or proper liv­ing fa­cil­i­ties for its new re­cruits.

But Mekoa was de­ter­mined to over­come what­ever fi­nan­cial hur­dles to re­alise his am­bi­tion of run­ning a world-class mu­sic in­sti­tu­tion, with­out the ben­e­fit of tu­ition fees.

In 2004, the in­sti­tute cel­e­brated its 10th an­niver­sary in style when it re­lo­cated to a new build­ing with state-of-theart fa­cil­i­ties that in­cluded a 350-seater au­di­to­rium, li­brary and staff of­fices.

The com­plex was funded by the late min­ing mag­nate Clive Menell, who was well known for his love of jazz and phi­lan­thropy.

In 2012, the academy added to its fa­cil­i­ties a pro­fes­sional record­ing stu­dio, with cut­ting-edge sound tech­nol­ogy.

He is sur­vived by his wife, Bu­sisiwe, six chil­dren and nine grand­chil­dren.

CEL­E­BRATED: Johnny Mekoa at his Gaut­eng Mu­sic Academy which he founded. He was re­jected as a mu­sic stu­dent at 18 be­cause of his skin colour. PIC­TURE: DU­MISANI SIBEKO

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