Music

Jazz musician who rivaled Hugh Masekela dies

Omar-3

South African legend Jonas Gwangwa. PHOTO | COURTESY

Summary

  • Gwangwa's most internationally celebrated work was the original film score for the 1990 Academy Award-winning movie “Cry Freedom” starring Hollywood star Denzel Washington in the role of the slain South African freedom fighter Steve Biko.
  • That work earned Gwangwa two Oscar nominations in 1988, Best Original Score and Best Original Song for “Cry Freedom”.
  • The soundtrack was also nominated for a Grammy Award for Best Song written for a Motion Picture or Television.

His death may have passed quietly outside South Africa last week, but musician Jonas Gwangwa was one of the most influential musicians that the continent has produced in the course of a career spanning more than 60 years.

His death from what his family described as cardiac complications on January 23, came exactly three years to the day his contemporary and friend Hugh Masekela passed on, and just two weeks after the passing of his wife Violet. (Incidentally, another African music icon Oliver Mtukudzi also died on January 23 two years ago).

Gwangwa's most internationally celebrated work was the original film score for the 1990 Academy Award-winning movie “Cry Freedom” starring Hollywood star Denzel Washington in the role of the slain South African freedom fighter Steve Biko.

That work earned Gwangwa two Oscar nominations in 1988, Best Original Score and Best Original Song for “Cry Freedom”. The soundtrack was also nominated for a Grammy Award for Best Song written for a Motion Picture or Television.

Just like other renowned musicians of his generation, the 83-year-old music’s career was intertwined with the liberation struggle in South Africa and he was a firm believer that politics and culture are two sides of the same coin.

South African President Cyril Ramaphosa eulogised him as a “giant of our revolutionary cultural movement and our democratic creative industries.”

“The trombone that boomed with boldness and bravery, and equally warned our hearts with a mellow melody has lost its life force,” said Ramaphosa.

The apartheid regime banned his music from South Africa without even bothering to listen to the records and he was banished into exile, just like other musical comrades like Masekela and Miriam Makeba. He escaped death in 1985 when his home in Botswana was blown up by apartheid security forces who had crossed the border from South Africa.

The renowned jazz musician, composer, arranger, and trombone player was a product of the 1950s scene in Soweto, Johannesburg. Together with Masekela, he started playing music in the Huddleston Jazz Band in Johannesburg in 1955 (there is a famous picture taken of two teenage boys at the famous St. Peter’s School in Johannesburg under the watchful eye of the school’s chaplain Fr. Trevor Huddleston).

He entertained audiences in the townships until gatherings by black people were banned and musicians risked jail if caught performing. Gwangwa was a member of the Jazz Epistles alongside the finest generation of South African musicians, pianist Abdullah Dollar Brand” Ibrahim, Masekela on trumpet, and alto saxophonist Kippie Moeketsi. They recorded “Jazz Epistles: Verse One” acclaimed as the first modern jazz album from a black South African band.

The band did not last long because the government declared a State of Emergency and clamped down on the arts, especially jazz that was viewed as a form of African expression.

After the breakup of the group, Gwangwa started gaining international status and was among the musicians that performed at the Sound of Africa concert produced by Harry Belafonte, at the Carnegie Hall New York, in 1965, alongside Masekela, Miriam Makeba and Letta Mbulu. He also travelled to London with the first all-black South African stage musical “King Kong”, whose cast included Makeba and Mbulu, in what was to start a lifelong affinity for theatre musicals.

Gwangwa was admitted at the Manhattan School of Music in New York on a scholarship for four years and shared a flat with Masekela. He was the arranger and conductor for the 1965 Grammy Award winning album “An Evening with Harry Belafonte and Miriam Makeba” that included Makeba's version of “Malaika.”

He was the composer, arranger and musical director of the Amandla Cultural Ensemble, a group of musicians, dancers and actors, formed by Africa National Congress activists that travelled around the world spreading awareness about South African art and culture.

He told his biographer Gwen Ansell that of all the achievements in his career, he was proudest of the ten years with Amandla because it involved brining all things in music together and was created for the people.

Gwangwa was among the international stars that performed at the famous concert celebrating Nelson Mandela’s 70th birthday celebrations at Wembley Stadium, London in 1988.

He returned to South Africa in 1991 and composed the theme music for the country’s 2004 Olympic bid and scored for film and TV shows like the popular “Generations.”