Tuesday 21 August 2012

The bellowing horn is stilled – farewell Mankunku

An article I posted elsewhere on the Web on the day Mankunku died. I have moved it here as I think it more appropriate.

A colossus on the South African jazz scene is no more

The mighty bellowing horn is stilled, and we shall not hear its like again. Winston “Mankunku” Ngozi died in the early hours of this morning, 13 October 2009, and one of the greatest of South African jazzmen is no more.
Mankunku, as he was known to generations of jazz fans, was a colossus on the jazz scene, a relatively small, unassuming, even shy, man. But when he picked up and blew that tenor he was enormous!
He was born in 1943 in Retreat, Cape Town, the first born of a musical family, he started to play the piano at age seven, later taking up trumpet and clarinet.
Mankunku took up the tenor in his teens, under the influence of a renowned older generation Cape Town tenorman, “Bra Cups” (or “Cup-and-Saucers”) Nkanuka.
He went on to play with almost all the greats of South African jazz, along the way making some splendid albums, though none achieved the success of his deservedly famous Yakhal' inKomo, recorded in 1968. This album has remained one of the top-selling jazz albums in South Africa ever since.

The band of stalwarts

Mankunku was one of the band of stalwart musicians who did not go into exile during the lean apartheid years. He preferred to stay with his people and make music as best as he could, which sometimes meant performing behind a curtain with an assumed name so as to circumvent the apartheid laws which prohibited blacks from sharing the stage with white performers.
A major, and acknowledged, influence on Mankunku was John Coltrane. One of his songs is called “Dedication – to Daddy Trane and Brother Silver” - a beautiful tribute to the musical influences.
Mankunku told, in an interview with Gwen Ansell, how important the spiritual aspect of the Coltrane influence was (this is recounted in Gwen Ansell's great book Soweto Blues, Continuum, 2004): “I know you think I'm a naughty old man, but most of the time, when I'm playing, I'm really praying. I used to dream of Coltrane. And one time in the '60s he came to me, did I tell you that? I was practicing, and I felt something funny in the room. My senses were prickling. I knew he was there. I got scared and put the instrument away. Maybe I shouldn't have told other people – they were nervous around me for some time after that! But he never came again.”
I think that passage has several important aspects. Firstly the spiritual nature of African music generally, though this is being threatened by commercialisation. All African musicians see music as a deeply spiritual activity and experience. And secondly the aspect of respect for the forefathers. For Mankunku Coltrane was an ancestor, a forefather, and was therefore in a position to guide Mankunku, and also was deserving of the deepest respect As Mankunku said in the same interview, acknowledging Coltrane's position as spiritual guide, “Even today, when I want to play, I take him (Trane) and I put him inside of me.”
My earliest recollection of Mankunku is in the late '60s in Cape Town, when the Cape Town Art Centre, at which I was studying painting part time, had a regular Sunday evening jazz gig. My then girl-friend and I used to go every Sunday to listen to the great jazz being played there, and Mankunku, in his trademark cloth cap, was a regular. He was backed by other great musicians like Midge Pike on bass and Monty Weber on drums.
Mankunku at the Cape Town Art Centre. Photo by Tony McGregor
The 1970s were hard times for jazz musicians in South Africa, what with music styles changing and the heavy hand of apartheid hanging over all. The music scene was not conducive to musicians who were serious about their art, especially black jazz musicians. Mankunku, like the others, had it tough in those years. “If you had just got through the day and nothing too terrible had happened, that was the time to joke, to celebrate, and that was what the music was for...But we never stopped playing. Never! Never went far away from the music. We'd be at home. Some work, practising, listening. It's just that we weren't seen.”
The next time I saw Mankunku was a gig at the Market Theatre in Johannesburg in the 1980s. That was when I heard him play "Yakhal' inKomo", and it nearly brought the house down with its energy and emotional power. Hearing that song live was just incredible – no recording I have heard, not even Mankunku's own, has managed to capture the raw power of that song adequately. The recording is just a pale reflection.
Mankunku at the Greenmarket Square gig. Photo by Tony McGregor
Mankunku recorded outside of South Africa for the first time in 1986, an album called Crossroads, after the informal settlement outside Cape Town. This album was made in London with a number of exiled South African musicians in the studio, like the late multi-instrumentalist Bheki Mseleku, percussionist Russell Herman, guitarist Lucky Ranku and trumpeter Claude Deppa.
I saw him again in 1987 when he played with Chris McGregor in the Carling Circle of Jazz concert on Greenmarket Square in Cape Town.
An album made with old South African jazz stalwart Tete Mbambisa was laid down in 1997 and 1998 called Molo Africa. One of the tracks is entitled “A Song For Bra Des Tutu” which, of course I love!
I never saw Mankunku again. So I was greatly saddened when I got the phone call from my musician friend Ernest Mothle this morning telling me that “Winston has left us.”
In isiXhosa we say, when someone has left us, “Hamba Kahle (Go well)” and so that is my wish for Mankunku - “Hamba kahle, mfo' wethu (my brother)”, your bellowing horn will be sorely missed back home.

Copyright Notice

The text and all images on this page, unless otherwise indicated, are by Tony McGregor who hereby asserts his copyright on the material. Should you wish to use any of the text or images feel free to do so with proper attribution and, if possible, a link back to this page. Thank you.
© Tony McGregor 2009


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