It is sad when a party loses talented people. It is sadder when one has worked for decades to build a party to see it teetering on the brink of a major setback.
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Dr Ramakgobotla John (“Bra Johnny”) Mekoa
11/04/1945 – 3/07/2017
by Gwen Ansell
It’s 2010, in a bare college hall in Daveyton. Joy of Jazz stars saxophonist Ravi Coltrane and drummer EJ Strickland are on their way in to conduct a workshop, chatting easily to each other.
Suddenly, they both stop, transfixed and surprised by what’s coming from the stage, from young reedmen Nhlanhla Mahlangu and Oscar Rachabane. “No, but listen,” drawls Strickland, “these cats are really playing.”
Sad news of the death of the man who made that possible, Dr Ramakgobotla John “Bra Johnny” Mekoa, arrived on Monday. It didn’t come from a media obsessed with commodified showbiz trivia, but via the network of friends, fundis and admirers still keeping culture alive.
Few musicians had more friends and admirers than the 72-year-old trumpeter, flugelhorn player, composer, leader and educator.
Etwatwa-born Mekoa is best known today for his work with the Music Academy of Gauteng, which he founded in Daveyton in 1994. He was fired by a determination that untapped young black talent should no longer meet the neglect and rejection he encountered under apartheid.
Mekoa relentlessly lobbied until donors coughed up to support a music school that ended up winning the International Jazz Education Network Award for five years running; produced a succession of highly acclaimed young originals (trombonist/pianist Malcolm Jiyane and reedman Mthunzi Mvubu are only another two of many); and effectively nurtured instrumental skills among his community’s most deprived youngsters. “There’s talent like diamonds in the townships.
You spot a rough diamond, you don’t have to cut it up; all you do is clean it up,” he once declared.
Mekoa: music advocate, organiser and educator
Mekoa held a Bachelor of Music degree from the University of KwaZulu-Natal (UKZN) and, as a Fullbright Scholar, a Master of Music degree from Indiana University.
He had also received honorary doctorates from the University of SA (Unisa) and the University of Pretoria, a Lifetime Achievement Award from the Swedish Jazz Federation, multiple mayoral awards, the ACT Lifetime Achievement Award for Arts Advocacy and the national Order of Ikhamanga Silver.
He was a founder of the SA Jazz Educators’ Network, helped lay the foundations of the Standard Bank National Youth Jazz Festival at the National Arts Festival in Grahamstown, and served on both the SA Music Rights Organisation and Unisa music examination boards.
All those accolades arrived late, after liberation, and shine the spotlight on Mekoa the music advocate, organiser and educator. All were richly deserved. But they shouldn’t draw attention away from the place where it all started: his fierce and formidable talent as a horn player.
It was in 1964 that Mekoa first applied to study music formally. He came from a musical family and his brother Fred “Mbuzi” Mekoa was already a talented player. He’d already been jamming regularly with the many bands in the East Rand area: his first outing had been with Shadow Raphiri’s No-Name Swingsters.
Like all jazz fundis, he listened to whatever he could find, inspired by spiritual messages as well as new musical ideas: “We had our own traditions too,” he told the Mail & Guardian, “but walk down the street in the township during the struggle and you’d hear [John Coltrane’s] Naima. That music sustained us”.
A neighbour, Caiphus Semenya, introduced him to the music learning opportunities at Johannesburg’s Dorkay House in 1962.
But the rules of apartheid barred Mekoa from admission to a “white” higher education course.
It didn’t stop him learning, at Dorkay and whenever Mbuzi could spare time for an informal lesson, and it didn’t stop him playing: with Early Mabuza’s Big Five and more, in gigs increasingly constrained by the segregation of places of entertainment.
'Because the music was strong, we held on'
Frustrated by the narrowing space for music, Mekoa (with reedmen Aubrey Simani, Furnace Goduka and Duncan Madondo, pianist Boy Ngwenya, bassist Fana Sehlohlo and drummer Shepstone Sethoane) founded the Jazz Ministers in 1967, “cos you couldn’t stop playing the music – it was one’s life; it was one’s journey”, he told me.
Ngwenya had worked with the Woody Woodpeckers and another musician from that outfit, composer and singer Victor Ndlazilwane, joined as musical director. His additional skills, Mekoa told scholar Chats Devroop, gave the outfit “a very strong and positive direction”.
Later, the band also acquired Ndlazilwane’s preternaturally talented young piano-playing daughter, Nomvula.
Three times – in 1973, 1974 and 1975 – the Ministers were invited to the New York Jazz Festival. Three times, Mekoa was refused a passport. In 1976, the band recorded tracks on the live album of the Michelangelo and Woolmark National Jazz Festival.
Finally, in that same year – and after a convoluted and still today argued set of circumstances also involving Port Elizabeth’s Soul Jazzmen – Mekoa got a three-month exit visa, the band played Newport and some other events, and a performance album ensued.
All this time, Mekoa had also been working full-time as an optician (he had qualified in 1967). “It was very difficult,” he recalled. “ … but because the music was strong, we held on.”
The New York trip made life even tougher when Mekoa returned home. Invited to play on a South African warship, the Paul Kruger, visiting for the bicentennial, the Ministers refused. Almost as soon as they stepped of the plane in Johannesburg, Mekoa and the others were detained and interrogated.
Despite official scrutiny, Mekoa continued playing: the Ministers recorded another album, Ndize Bonono Na? in 1984. He was also teaching local youngsters. In 1986, the pull of music became too strong.
He resigned from his day job, briefly became part of the faculty at Fuba, and then enrolled in Darius Brubeck’s pioneering jazz studies programme at UKZN, where his fellow students included Zim Ngqawana.
A recording with the Jazzanians, We have Waited Too Long, and a US tour followed. Then another tour and a recording with Abdullah Ibrahim (Mantra Mode).
Then, in 1991, at the dawn of liberation, that Fullbright. The rest, as they say, is history, and magnificent history at that.
Tall and broad, with a loud, infectious laugh, Mekoa was always a physically imposing presence in the room. But it was his achievements, and what he gave to generations of young musicians, that made him a real giant. Hamba Kahle.
Ansell’s tribute to Mekoa can also be read on sisgwenjazz.wordpress.com
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