An appreciation of South Africa’s jazz stalwart Jonas Gwangwa

APRIL 13, 2018

Music galore marked the passing early in 2018 of two South African titans of culture, Poet Laureate Keorapetse Kgositsile and trumpeter Hugh Masekela. Notable at their memorial events were powerfully moving tributes by two veterans still living: Caiphus Semenya and Jonas Gwangwa. They have shared stages and the perils of exile with both.

Semenya and Gwangwa’s histories raise a persistent question – why, given the scale of their achievements, are they not more famous? The answer may be rooted in the prominence of live performance over composition: everybody remembers the man or woman on stage. Fewer enquire about who wrote – let alone arranged – the song.

So the 80-year-old Jonas Mosa Gwangwa can command instant warmth and recognition on stage, singing or playing trombone. That music has won him friends and fans around the world. The democratic South African government acknowledged his role in, as they termed it, “singing down apartheid” with the Order of Ikhamanga (Gold) in 2010. But even the citation for that award omitted much about the scope of his work as composer, arranger and director of stage shows.

Gwangwa was born in Orlando East, outside Johannesburg in 1937. As a student, he became a founder-member of the influential Huddleston Jazz Band alongside Masekela. And, like his contemporary, he also moonlighted wherever there was band work – for example, in trumpeter Elijah Nwanyane’s Rhythm Kings.

When American pianist John Mehegan visited South Africa in the late 1950s, Gwangwa was one of the improvisers with whom he chose to work.

Those and other collaborations led, in turn, to the 1960 release of the “Jazz Epistles, Verse One”. It was the first LP released by black modern jazz players in South Africa. It also featured Kippie Moeketsi, Masekela, Dollar Brand (Abdullah Ibrahim) and more.

His music writing skills grew when he was engaged as a copyist and pit player for the famous musical “King Kong”. When the production toured abroad in 1961, Gwangwa was one of many cast members who chose not to return to apartheid South Africa after the show’s run concluded. He ended up with Masekela at the Manhattan School of Music in New York.

Gwangwa played a pivotal role in selling South African music to initially uninterested US audiences. He was arranger and orchestra director on Harry Belafonte and Miriam Makeba’s 1965 Grammy winning album “An Evening with Makeba and Belafonte”.

Over the following decade, he also had his own projects, touring with Masekela and Semenya in the band, Union of South Africa, alongside American jazz band, The Crusaders.

Gwangwa also released infectious Afro-pop with his band African Explosion.

To read more about Gwangwa and his historic career, read the full article at:


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