Composer and trombonist Jonas Gwangwa. Picture: SOWETAN
Composer and trombonist Jonas Gwangwa. Picture: SOWETAN

LONG overdue, the internationally recognised achievements of teacher, composer and trombonist Jonas Gwangwa are beginning to received recognition at home.

Last weekend, Gwangwa received the Arts and Culture Trust Lifetime Achievement Award for Music 2012. Gwangwa can also boast an inscription on the Newtown “walk of fame” pavement, a National Order of Ikhamanga (Gold) and a retrospective exhibition about his life and work, Kukude Lapho Sivelakhona, in August this year.

This sounds like a significant set of accolades, but set against a lifetime of struggle for both South African music and South African freedom, and against his international fame, including an Oscar nomination, it remains relatively modest.

Gwangwa began his playing career in the 1950s, and (as did many Johannesburg musicians of his generation) he received his first instrument in the Father Huddleston Band. This was the period when a diverse set of popular music styles — traditional song and dance; imported swing, pop and jazz; local contemporary compositions, and more — were coming together to shape a modern commercial music industry. It was a highly creative time, just before the full force of apartheid’s ideological objections to racial, musical and social mixing clamped down.

Today, that early musical melting pot (when it is considered at all) is often seen as transparent and natural: that was just the way things happened. In fact, the forces that shaped it were complex. The end result from that specific set of ingredients was never neatly predictable. Only one book ever studied the prequel in detail — that is the musical evolution of South African cities from the 1920s, and it had been out of print since the mid-1990s.

So it is welcome that the book, Christopher Ballantine’s Marabi Nights has just been re-published by the University of KwaZulu-Natal Press in a substantially expanded second edition. Ballantyne mingles academic rigour with a very warm and human approach to his subjects: their memories, impressions and opinions are as important to the text as critical theory is.

This makes the work highly accessible for any reader interested in how South African modern popular music came to be — and serves as an object lesson for aspiring musicologists tempted to mummify great stories in impenetrable jargon.

In addition, the book is accompanied by a comprehensive CD of 25 early and otherwise impossible-to-find tracks dating from 1930-48. These are far more than curios; they illuminate musical roots whose legacy is still audible.

The earliest track illustrates vaudevillian supreme Griffiths Motsieloa marrying elements from the American country and western sound with a lyric about very South African poverty and migrancy.

Seven years on, and there are examples of the polished work of Peter Rezant and his Merry Blackbirds: music to which any ballroom dancing enthusiast today could still trip the light fantastic. For anyone dismissing praise of early South African jazz as a view through the rose-tinted glasses of nostalgia, this music will be a revelation.

Marabi Nights is just one of a number of publications about South African music arriving in bookshops in time for the gift season.

Marie Jorritsma’s Sonic Spaces of the Karoo (WitsUP) examines the church music of close-knit, Afrikaans-speaking communities, and the way this sound and liturgy reflects their history and identity. Adam Haupt’s Static (HSRC Press) is a set of thematically-linked essays about race and power in South African culture, particularly illuminating about hip-hop in the Western Cape and the power games played around the music for the 2010 World Cup. And Roger Lucey, the campaigning troubadour of the 1970s whose career was deliberately destroyed by the apartheid security services, tells all about that and more in his memoir, Back in from the Anger (Jacana).


LUCEY can be heard launching his story at the Bioscope at Arts on Main at 8pm on Friday, and in a more extended performance at the Radium Beer Hall on Saturday at 8.30pm, both in Johannesburg.

On Sunday, the Market Theatre music and comedy season presents another rarely heard jazz artist, pianist Paul Hanmer, in a concert beginning at 3pm.