TRIBUTE TO SA JAZZ LEGEND
Determined to never see a door shut on a child because of race
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