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Jonas Gwangwa: The South African jazz icon who stood up to apartheid

By Mo Allie

BBC News, Cape Town

image copyrightThe Times/Gallo Images/Getty Images

South African and world music has lost an icon with the death of jazz trombonist, composer and organiser Jonas Gwangwa.

The musician, who was 83, died on 23 January succumbing to cardiac complications.

He passed away on the same date that his great friend Hugh Masekela had died three years earlier, and two years to the day after Zimbabwean great Oliver Mtukudzi.

Gwangwa, who spent the prime of his life in exile, not only won acclaim for his music, he was also deeply involved in the struggle against white-minority rule in the country.

Born in the Johannesburg township of Soweto on 19 October 1937, Gwangwa went on to enjoy a highly successful musical career spanning six decades.

image copyrightCity Press/Gallo Images/Getty Images

image captionSoweto, famous for the 1976 student-led uprising, was the birthplace of many South African political and cultural heavyweights

During that time he answered the call by Oliver Tambo, then-president of the ANC, to lead the Amandla Cultural Ensemble. The group was formed in 1980 to show a softer side to the anti-apartheid struggle, and win support in different parts of the world.

The white-minority National Party government regarded Gwangwa’s musical and cultural activism as a big enough threat for their security forces to bomb his house in Botswana in 1985. Fortunately the musician and the other occupants were elsewhere.

His commitment to the liberation struggle together with his exceptional musical talent saw Gwangwa being awarded South Africa’s Order of Ikhamanga in Gold – the nation’s highest honour.

The citation for the national order, which he received in 2010, recalls how he “enthralled the world with his artistry as a composer and all-round creative genius. For more than 30 years he travelled the world as an exile collecting accolades wherever he went”.

‘A mirror for society’

Paying tribute to Jonas Gwangwa, President Cyril Ramaphosa said in a statement that he “ascends to our great orchestra of musical ancestors, whose creative genius and dedication to the freedom of all South Africans inspired millions in our country – and mobilised the international community against the apartheid system”.

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image captionJonas Gwangwa (left) at the Cape Town International Jazz Festival in 2017

Former president Thabo Mbeki paid his own tribute via his foundation: “Bra JG, as he was affectionately known, understood the potent combination of culture and the arts as an effective instrument for national liberation from the beginning of his career.

“Together with others of his generation, Gwangwa harnessed the enthralling capacity of music not just to entertain, but also to hold up the mirror to society and bare the evil soul of the Apartheid regime to the world.”

A young Gwangwa delighted audiences in Johannesburg’s vibrant multi-racial cultural hub of Sophiatown, until it became illegal for black people to congregate and the apartheid government censored jazz performances in 1960.

Along with other leading South African musicians like Masekela, Abdullah Ibrahim and Miriam Makeba, Gwangwa went into exile rather than bow to apartheid censorship.

image copyrightReferns/Getty Images

image captionHugh Masekela and Miriam Makeba were among those who went into exile

He rose to worldwide prominence in 1965 performing at a Sound of Africa concert at New York’s Carnegie Hall with the likes of Makeba, Masekela, and Letta Mbulu.

It was the start of an international career that he used in service of the constantly growing struggle against white-minority rule.

In 1987, alongside English composer George Fenton, Gwangwa composed the score for the film Cry Freedom, earning two Oscar nominations for best original score and song.

He also received numerous awards at home, including at the South African Music Awards in the jazz category.

‘Boy, did he play the trombone’

Like most other exiles Gwangwa returned home in the 1990s. Ike Phaahla, one of the country’s leading radio jazz presenters, remembers the musician’s first performance back home – at the famous Kippies jazz club in Johannesburg in 1991.

“Backstage he regaled us with stories from his time in exile, but boy did he play the trombone that night.

“He was not only an artist but also an activist and freedom fighter. He was insightful but very humble. He always enjoyed the stage and had lots of fun with his band,” said Phaahla.

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Despite being out of the country, internationally renowned artists like Gwangwa had a huge impact on those at home, including saxophonist Khaya Mahlangu.

“He was one of the pioneers alongside Abdullah Ibrahim, Caiphus Semenya and Hugh Masekela,” Mahlangu said.

“They were the trailblazers, guys who hoisted our cultural flag high up on the international stage, and they shaped the cumulative me because much as they spent so much time abroad, they kept the sound of South Africa alive.”

image copyrightSowetan/Gallo Images/Getty Images

image captionFans and friends remember him as both a trailblazing pioneer and humble personality

Gwangwa’s death, just two weeks after that of his wife Violet, is a huge loss to South Africa’s music fraternity.

But at least the world will still be able to tap their feet and lift their spirits when listening to his music.

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