Dr Ramakgobotla John Mekoa 1945-2017

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 one another. 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.”

The late Dr Johnny Mekoa takes a solo with the Music Academy of Gauteng

Sad news of the death of the man who made that possible, Dr Ramakgobotla John (“Bra Johnny”) Mekoa, arrived yesterday. 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. And 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. (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=x1lIqb36Fpk ) He was fired by a determination that untapped young black talent should no longer meet the neglect and rejection he had 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 held a B. Mus. from UKZN, and, as a Fullbright Scholar, an M.Mus from Indiana University . He had also received honorary doctorates from 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 South African 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 SAMRO 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.Nomvula

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.

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. Two albums from that period can still be found: Nomvula’s Jazz Dance from 1972, and Zandile (http://electricjive.blogspot.co.za/2011/09/jazz-ministers-zandile.html ) (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=_cqFSSkxL6I ), from 1975.

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 Michaelangelo and Woolmark National Jazz Festival. Finally, in that same year – and after a convoluted and still today argued set of circumstances also involving PE’s Soul Jazzmen – Mekoa got a three-month exit visa, the band played Newport and some other events, and a performance album ensued (http://electricjive.blogspot.co.za/2012/11/jazz-ministers-live-at-newport-1976.html ).

jazz mins newport back.jpg

All this time, Mekoa had also been also 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, (http://afrosynth.blogspot.co.za/2012/01/jazzanians-we-have-waited-too-long-1988.html ), and a US tour followed (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=8V6B8XvxX_c ) Then another tour and a recording with Abdullah Ibrahim (Mantra Mode: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=1dd-WgaZ3mM ). 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 following generations of young musicians, that made him a real giant. Hamba Kahle.

SEE ALSO: http://www.gov.za/speeches/mec-mazibuko-pays-tribute-legendary-music-educator-dr-johnny-mekoa-4-jul-2017-0000

Surrealism lives – and it is black, female and revolutionary


Robin D G Kelley

Word got round quite slowly about the presence of distinguished jazz scholar and UCLA professor Robin DG Kelley in Johannesburg last week. That’s a pity, because as well as being the author of a mammoth biography of Thelonious Monk (and more), Kelley has a strong interest in the relationship of jazz in Africa and jazz in America, not only as a line of descent, but also in its more contemporary manifestations of cultural circulation and solidarity, discussed in his most recent book, Africa Speaks, America Answers: modern jazz in revolutionary times (https://www.amazon.com/Africa-Speaks-America-Answers-Revolutionary/dp/0674046242 ).

Kelley book

By the time he spoke at the Afrikan Freedom Station on June 29, however, it was clear that news was finally spreading; the room was packed for his conversation with Unisa’s Tendayi Sithole on Surrealism/Thelonious Monk and the Psychic (spiritual) Debt to Black Genius.

Surrealism is often discussed as a European phenomenon. However, Kelley was clear that the roots of the movement were assertively African, revolutionary and anti-colonialist. (For more on this, see the volume he co-edited with Franklin Rosemont: Black Brown & Beige: Surrealist Writings from Africa and the Diaspora https://www.amazon.com/Black-Brown-Beige-Surrealist-Revolution/dp/0292725817). As French Surrealists declared in their 1932 manifesto, Murderous Humanitarianism: “We surrealists pronounced ourselves in favor of changing the imperialist war, in its chronic and colonial form, into a civil war. Thus we placed our energies at the disposal of the revolution, of the proletariat and its struggles, and defined our attitude towards the colonial problem, and hence towards the colour question.”

Monk was a hero to many surrealists in Europe (poet Claude Tarnaud imagined him jamming with Rimbaud) but, like many African-American writers and artists, his surrealism related not only to a cultural heritage that was wider, deeper and more playful than narrow puritan positivism, but also to a lived experience as a person of colour in racist America that was regularly, literally, surreal. Responding to audience questions, Kelley noted that overturning the rigid, inhumane and commoditised circumstances of modern capitalism – anywhere – demanded hard, collective work. Just as one message of Monk’s jazz was the need to be constantly “ready for the marvellous,” so another was that “ensemble work is always collective work.”

Suzanne Cesaire

Conventional views of surrealism have often been reductive. Its playfulness is reduced to kookiness, its interest in unpredictability to the random insights of the idiot savant. Monk suffered from both these in the commentaries of philistine and sometimes racist critics. Certain US acolytes, such as white beat poet Jack Kerouac, also reduced the movement to something exclusively and toxically masculine. (There were precedents. Andre Breton was a notoriously vicious homophobe.) That, too, was never the case: black women such as Suzanne Cesaire – from whom Kelley quoted extensively – and Simone Yoyotte, as well as other women including Frida Kahlo and Claude Cahun were prominent among its early shapers and voices. They were not – horrible term! – ‘muses’, but makers. And to their ranks may be added the musician Alice Coltrane, the writers Zora Neale Hurston, Toni Morrison, Octavia Butler and many more.

N.K. Jemison
NK Jemisin

Another reductive trope about surrealism holds that its observations of the bizarre and the grotesque are ‘fantasy’. But for the peoples of Africa, America and Asia, alien invasion, subjugation, kidnap and experimentation are realities of history (they are called colonialism). If you want to know where that intellectual thread of black female surrealism is today, don’t tarry too long at the pop Afrofuturism of Janelle Monae (her sartorial style is not new, as any account of the Harlem Renaissance makes clear). The visual art of Kara Walker in America and Mary Sibanda here are already gathering attention. On the bookshelves labelled ‘fantasy and science fiction’ you’ll find genuinely radical imaginations at work; after Butler, award-winning writers Nnedi Okorafor and N.K Jemisin are very good places to start. Surrealism lives.


Geri Allen
Geri Allen

In jazz, there are too many radical imaginations to list, but tragically one is no longer with us. Pianist, composer, bandleader, educator and scholar Geri Allen died on June 27 following complications of cancer. She was 0nly 60. At the time of her death, Allen was Director of Jazz Studies at the University of Pittsburgh and, with drummer Terri-Lynne Carrington and saxophonist David Murray, was part of the MAC Power Trio (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=XltrW7tGNVk ), which had been scheduled to play the Johannesburg Joy of Jazz Festival in September. Detroit native Allen grew up with jazz through her father’s extensive record collection and began music lessons aged 7. Like many Detroit players, she was a mentee of trumpeter Marcus Belgrave. You can hear her discussing her life in music in a 2008 interview here: http://jazzmuseuminharlem.org/remembering-geri-allen/ . Her first degree, in jazz studies, came from Howard University, and she later completed a Masters in ethnomusicology at Pittsburgh. Her distinguished stage and scholarly career included more than two dozen recordings as both accompanist and leader – including the highly-praised 1992 Maroons (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ieyBjoVd70w ),

and the 2010 solo outing Flying Towards the Sound (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=g4LHMeXwA1U ), as well as work with Betty Carter, Jason Moran, Ornette Coleman (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=JG2FeoqQtdk ), and McCoy Tyner. Allen’s style was often labelled ‘avant-garde’, but she resisted that and other labels, preferring that listeners should relate to her music as they heard it, without preconceptions. Indeed, she often stressed the historic roots of her adventurous style, and its relation to African-American dance, as on the 2010 Timeline project (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=fnO8pUKhooM ) with tap percussionist Maurice Chestnut. She was co-producer of the re-mastered Erroll Garner Complete Concert By The Sea, for which she earned a Grammy nomination. A Guggenheim Fellow, Allen was the first recipient of the Lady of Soul Award for jazz, and the youngest-ever recipient of the Danish JazzPar Award. Allen also participated in and pioneered projects asserting the role and right to performance space of female musicians (as in Carrington’s Mosaic project: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=FKQRms3bUS0 ), including time as programme director for the NJPAC’s all-female jazz residency scheme. She will be buried on July 8 in Bethany, New Jersey. Hamba Kahle.