OBITUARY OF DR JOHN “BRA JOHNNY” RAMAKHOBOTLA MEKOA11 APRIL 1945 – 3 JULY 2017
BY SAM MATHE Veteran jazz trumpeter, band leader and jazz educator, Johnny Mekoa (72)’s passing closes an interesting chapter in the colourful history of South African jazz. The founding director of Music Academy of Gauteng dedicated his life to the unearthing and nurturing of young musical talent. Dr Mekoa was born to Steven and Lobisa Mekoa in an Etwatwa, Benoni family of brass musicians – the last born in a family of seven. At eighteen he was refused entry at a music institution because of his skin colour. The rejection left a lasting imprint on his psyche and would later define the course of his musical journey.
The responsibility to teach him the basics fell on the shoulders of his brothers. At the time he played with local semi-professional jazz ensembles like Shadow Raphiri’s No-Name Swingsters. By 1967 he was already a professional musician, playing trumpet and flugelhorn with leading jazz musicians like drummer and bandleader, Early Mabuza. In 1968 he formed his own band, the Jazz Ministers. They immediately made an impact on the national jazz scene. The original line-up included Aubrey Simani (alto), Furnace Goduka (tenor), Duncan Madondo (tenor), bassist Fanyana Sehloho, drummer Shepstone Sothoane and pianist Boy Ngwenya.
The Jazz Ministers became one of the country’s leading festival bands after Victor Ndlazilwane joined them in 1970 as principal composer and musical director. Ndlazilwane was a remarkably multi-talented artist who led the Woody Woodpeckers, an influential vocal quartet that earned a place in the groundbreaking King Kong jazz opera in 1959. He brought to his new ensemble a wealth of musical talent, notably prolific compositional skills and an inventive touch that combined Xhosa folk rhythms and township jazz elements to produce some of the country’s popular radio staples and standards in the discography of African jazz. The Jazz Ministers released their first album, Nomvula’s Jazz Dance with Gallo in 1972. It was well received by the critics and the jazz community. At the height of their act in 1975 when the Jazz Ministers released their second album Zandile with producer Ray Nkwe, the line-up featured Mekoa on flugelhorn, Sothoane on drums and cow bells as well as Ndlazilwane on tenor sax and vocals. Boy Ngwenya had switched from the ivories to bass in order to make way for 15-year-old piano sensation and the bandleader’s daughter, Nomvula Ndlazilwane.
A regular headline item during many festivals in the seventies, the Jazz Ministers’ finest hour was during their historic participation at the Newport Jazz Festival, US – an achievement which made them the first African jazz band to play at the prestigious music event. When the Soweto student riots erupted on June 16, the Jazz Ministers were entertaining the jazz world in Newport during the country’s bicentennial independence celebrations. Playing here was a big deal and definitely a rarity for a South African outfit. The story goes that they were first invited in 1972, but the apartheid government refused them passports. However, it is not clear why in 1976 the South African authorities agreed to grant them passports. But it is evident that the government was unhappy with them when they returned home in July. The trouble started when the Jazz Ministers were invited to perform on the deck of a South African warship, the Paul Kruger which was invited by President Ford to participate in the celebrations.
They snubbed the gesture and upon return home Mekoa was detained and interrogated by the security police about the incident and his political views. He was eventually released on a warning. The political persecution was a common occurrence for jazz musicians and the Jazz Ministers’ newly-found international acclaim came with no official recognition or financial rewards. It was common for band members to hold day jobs to support their families. After working in a laboratory as an optical dispenser for twenty years, Mekoa eventually quit his well-paying day job in 1986 to pursue his childhood dream of being a music educator. He was determined to nurture young talent and in 1987, at 41, he became the oldest first-year student at Natal University’s school of music. He was also the first recipient of the Ronnie Madonsela scholarship and its first graduate. He joined The Jazzanians, a student band founded at the behest of department head, Professor Darius Brubeck. Fellow students in the band were Zim Ngqawana (sax), Lulu Gontsana (drums), Kevin Gibson (drums), Sibusiso Masondo (bass), Melvin Peters (piano), Nic Paton (sax), Rick van Heerden (sax) and guitarist Andrew Eagle. The Jazzanians’ first and only album, We Have Waited Too Long (1988) was produced by Brubeck and released under the independent label, Umkhonto Records.
It was warmly greeted by the jazz community and received rave reviews in the mainstream press. The ensemble’s performances took them to the United States in 1988 where they also attended seminars. In Detroit, Michigan they attended a conference of jazz educators with the theme, “Jazz – An International Language with Particular Emphasis on the Third World.” In New York they performed at the Philip Randolph Foundation – organised by legendary jazz vibraphonist and humanitarian, Lionel Hampton. In 1990 Mekoa obtained a Bachelor of Music in jazz studies and since then has added a string of other qualifications, including a Master of Music degree from Indiana University, US where he was a Fulbright scholar. He also holds honorary doctorates in music from Unisa and University of Pretoria. In 1991 he taught at FUBA in Johannesburg. One of his students was young pianist Moses Molelekwa. In 1994 he realised his life-long dream of running a centre of jazz excellence when the Music Academy of Gauteng opened doors to twenty students in a small, township house in Daveyton, Benoni.
Since the day when he was denied enrolment at a music school because of his race, he had harboured a burning ambition to one day establish his own school that would admit all children regardless of their colour. From that day he vowed that he would open his own school where doors would never be slammed in the face of any child. “Apartheid was a terrible evil which shattered young dreams and robbed thousands of kids of their potential. But where there is music, there is no evil,” he used to say. Most of his students were homeless children that he had plucked from the evils of street life. In him they discovered a father, role model and teacher. The academy didn’t have musical instruments or proper living facilities for its new recruits. But Mekoa was determined to overcome whatever financial hurdles to realise his ambition of running a world-class music institution without the benefit of tuition fees.
In 2004 the institute celebrated its 10th anniversary in style when it relocated to a new building with state-of-the-arts facilities that include a 350-seater auditorium, library and staff offices. The complex was funded by the late mining magnate Clive Menell, who was well known for his love of jazz and philanthropy. In 2012 the academy added to its facilities a professional recording studio complete with cutting-edge sound technology. The Youth Jazz Orchestra became the jewel in the crown of the academy whose founder was proud of the high professional standards he has set for everyone involved. These high standards earned the centre the prestigious International Jazz Education Network Award for five consecutive years. According to Dr Mekoa, the aim of the school was not only to teach students to become excellent players, but to arm them with all the necessary expertise that relates to the business of music. Individually or collectively, the members of the orchestra have shown their mettle as exceptionally talented jazz players. They have featured prominently at the Standard Bank Youth Jazz Festival at the annual National Arts Festival in Grahamstown.
Notable names include Malcolm Jiyane, Mthunzi Mvubu and Nthabiseng Mokoena. They have impressed on big international stages such as the Standard Bank Joy of Jazz Festival and have travelled the world – performing in cities such as Moscow, Russia and Manchester, UK. One of the highlights of their appearances at the Joy of Jazz was in 2004 when they received a minute-long standing ovation after a five-star performance with American jazz, blues and gospel vocalist, Everett Greene. During the 2005 Standard Bank Joy of Jazz festival the youthful orchestra impressed when they performed as American jazz vocalist, Kevin Mahogany’s instrumental backers. Over the years the academy has played host to an impressive number of internationally acclaimed jazz luminaries such as Americans TS Monk, Branford Marsalis, Wynton Marsalis, Ravi Coltrane and EJ Strickland. The orchestra’s debut album, Song for Ekurhuleni (2002) is a modern classic in the big band idiom. Mekoa’s efforts in improving the lives of underprivileged children through music didn’t go unnoticed. In 2005, the Swedish Jazz Federation honoured him with a Lifetime Achievement Award for his dedication to teaching music to disadvantaged children and his life-long contributions to jazz music.
In 2015 the Arts and Culture Trust bestowed him with another Lifetime Achievement Award for a life devoted to music and sharing it with others. He also received the Order of Ikhamanga (silver) for excellent contribution to the arts. Jazz writer Don Albert summed up his illustrious legacy when he wrote, “If there’s a Pied Piper of music in South Africa, it is Johnny Mekoa. He has led the children out of the townships to the stages of the world.” Dr Mekoa is survived by his wife Busisiwe Mekoa (nee Hlatshwayo), six children and nine grandchildren. May his dear soul rest in peace!