LOVED AND LOST: Jonas Gwangwa (1937-2021)

The jazz giant who gave his all for justice

Everson Luhanga

It is a testament to his long life that Jonas Mosa Gwangwa played trombone in the school band from St Peter’s College in Johannesburg at the adoption of the Freedom Charter in Kliptown in June 1955 – a pivotal moment in South African history.

Jazz expert Gwen Ansell, who’s writing a biography of Gwangwa, said that he more than any other artist “embodied South Africa’s struggle for a national culture”.

Along with Hugh Masakela on trumpet and Abdullah Ibrahim on keyboard, trombonist Gwangwa formed a band in the late fifties called the Jazz Epistles. Together they cut the first modern jazz album from a black South African band.

Gwangwa’s commitment to the struggle against apartheid took him into exile in 1961. He left as a member of the cast of the great African musical opera King Kong. It was from there that he launched onto the international stage, performing with Masakela, Miriam Makeba, Letta Mbulu and Harry Belafonte.

In 1980 he set aside his international career to create a band of musicians, the Amandla Cultural Ensemble, from the young talent in the ANC’s military camps in Angola to popularise the music of the struggle.

In 1985 his family home in Gaborone was destroyed by the apartheid military in a cross border raid that they were lucky to survive.

He wrote the soundtrack to the movie Cry Freedom in 1986 starring Denzel Washington and Kevin Kline and was nominated for an Oscar.

In 1991 Gwangwa returned home where he continued to compose and perform until a mysterious illness in 2019 left him bedridden.

His second-born son, Mojalefa Gwangwa, who spoke to Scrolla.Africa from his home in Observatory east of Johannesburg on Sunday, said Gwangwa continued to make music from his sickbed.

Mojalefa said his father was planning to release yet another album which he was working on with some young artists who would come to the studio. “My dad at times would wake up at 1 o’clock in the morning and start playing his piano.”

He said that when his father was home, he loved to cook. “He would walk to the kitchen wearing his apron ready and start cooking.  Then we all knew he was going to cook up a storm for us all.”

Besides being a busy musician, Mojalefa said his dad, father of six, “loved his family more than anything else”.

He loved nature and would spend time in his garden but everyone knew the real green fingers were those of his wife Violet who he met in 1951. 

They had been together for almost 70 years – though they were separated for 14 years while he was in exile – when she died on 6 January. 

Jonas followed her on Saturday to ascend to what President Cyril Ramaphosa called “the great orchestra of our musical ancestors”.

Three years to the day after his long-term comrade Hugh Masakela and two years after the great Zimbabwean musician Oliver Mtukudzi.

“I think he was lonely without mama,” said Mojalefa.

Picture source: @CTJazzFest