The JONAS GWANGWA story

Created by Readiris, Copyright IRIS 2005One night 23 years ago, the black musicians of Johannesburg had a big party. They all met at Dorkay House in Eloff Street to say good bye to the members of King Kong – the famous stage show about life in Sophiatown. King Kong was going to London.

The night was long and wild. Ntemi Piliso was the leader of the band. And the famous Sol Klaaste was also there – playing the piano like never before. Everyone sang, drank and danced until the sun came up.

In the morning the whole party drove to the airport. They all sang Nkosi Sikelela and waved good-bye to the members of King Kong. King Kong was off to London in an aeroplane full of babalas and sore heads.

Jonas on the day he left for England

Jonas on the day he left for England

Some of the men and women from King Kong never came home. When the show in London ended many of them stayed overseas. They wanted to study music or to make records.

One of these people was a young man called Jonas Gwangwa – the trombone player in the King Kong show. After the show he went to America. He studied at famous music schools in New York. He played jazz with big time American jazz men. He made many records and lots of money.

Jonas Gwangwa became famous – a homeboy who made good. He lived in America for 15 years. And those years were not wasted. He met a lot of people, he played a lot of music and he learned a lot. Jonas was doing well – but he was not really happy.

He began to feel alone – like a man floating at sea, cut off from his people.

Jonas in England

Jonas in England

But Jonas couldn’t come home. He couldn’t come home because of his politics. He spent a lot of time in America fighting apartheid. He knew the government in South Africa was not his best friend.

So he did the next best thing. He flew to Gaborone in Botswana to be close by. And that’s where he lives and works today – still making the music that people love so much.

Learn and Teach went to Gaborone to talk to Jonas Gwangwa. We wanted to ask him some questions – like why does a man leave an easy life in America for a not so easy life in Botswana?

He spoke in a quiet way. And his words were full of deep feeling for his country, his people, their history and their music.

“Life in the U.S.A, was good,” says Jonas. “I played trombone with some of the best jazz musicians in the world. I also made a lot of music with South Africans like Hugh Masekela and Miriam Makeba.

“One time I made a record with Miriam and Harry Belafonte – the great American blues singer. Most of the songs were in Zulu. So I had to teach Harry the words.

“It was great”, says Jonas. “Every time I went to Harry’s place he was sleeping. But I didn’t mind. He was paying me 15 dollars an hour. So I let him sleep. But soon he learnt some Zulu and we made the record. I learned a lot from that man.”

He learned a lot in America. But he never forgot his first lessons – the lessons he learned in the dusty streets of Sophiatown.

He remembered his days at Madibane High. He thought of his family and hard times. Jonas’ father was not so rich – like most black people in Sophiatown. The family could only pay for his sister to go to music lessons. So Jonas had to wait for a long time before he could play the music that was in his blood.

“I grabbed the first chance I got,” says Jonas. “From Madibane I went to St. Peters College in Rosettenville. Father Huddleston was the priest there. He got some old instruments and told us to play.

“I went to the first meeting. wanted to play the clarinet. But I didn’t know the name of the damn thing. So I asked for the first instrument I could think of – a trombone! I was shocked to see how big it was. But I was too shy to say anything. So that’s how I came to play the trombone.”

The boys at St. Peters started their own band and . called it the “Huddleston Jazz Band”. That’s where Jonas met people like Gwigwi Mrebi and Hugh Masekela – also great South African musicians.

Then Jonas joined the famous’ Union of South African Artists. This was a group of musicians who met on the top floor of Dorkay House in Eloff Street. Some of our best musicians played music there – people like Miriam Makeba, Hugh Masekela, Sol Klaaste, Kippie Moeketsi and Dollar Brand.

And Jonas never forgot the band called the Jazz Epistles. He played in this band with men like Kippie Moeketsi and Dollar Brand. He also remembered playing in big bands like the Jazz Maniacs. And Jonas remembered the last night in Johannesburg when Ntemi Piliso played all night and everyone got sore heads.

“I knew then that I didn’t make it on my own,” says Jonas. “I needed the help of my friends at home ­ people like Kippie Moeketsi, Mackay Davashe, Ntemi Piliso and so many others.”

Jonas also believes that people can’t make music out of thin air. “Music comes from the history of people and from the places they live in,” says Jonas. He believes music comes from the way people suffer and from the way they fight to stay alive.

And in the U.S.A. Jonas was six thousand miles away from his people – the people that helped him make his music. So he had no choice. He had to be nearer home.

Today Jonas still makes music. He plays. with a young group of musicians in Gaborone. They call their band Shakawe — the name of a small village in the north of Botswana. He also works with a group called “Amandla” – musicians from South Africa who sing about their fight for freedom.

Created by Readiris, Copyright IRIS 2005Jonas will never forget the old days and h is old friends. He is very sad that he did not meet his friend Kippie Moeketsi before he died.

His biggest wish is for Ntemi Piliso to come to Botswana. He dreams about drinking a cold beer and sharing memories with his old friend.

And one day Jonas Gwangwa hopes to come home to meet everyone else. Until then he waits with his best friend – the trombone. And until then, he will carry on making music about his people and for his people.

The jazz man from third avenue

Created by Readiris, Copyright IRIS 2005Everybody in Alexandra township knows Edmund ‘Ntemi’ Piliso. He is the tall, quiet jazz man from Third Avenue.

Ntemi has been around for a long time. He has made music with the best of them. He has played with big music groups like Zonk and the Harlem Swingsters. And for many years the township jived to Ntemi’s own band, the Alex All Stars.

Today Ntemi plays with the Jazz Pioneers – a group of the old greats who have got together. They are still blowing the old township tunes.

Ntemi Piliso does not talk much. He saves his breath for his saxophone. But Learn and Teach went anyway. And we were in luck. Nterni did not have his saxophone with him.

We asked Ntemi about his life and his music. He sat down. “Okay!” he said. He began to talk in a quiet and gentle voice.

NTEMEKWANA’S DREAM

“I was born in Alexandra on the 16th December 1925. My full name is Mthuthuzeli Edmund Piliso. My mother called me Ntemekwana or “Ntemi” for short. People still call me Ntemi today. Not that I mind – I like the name.

“Alex has always been my home. The place has also been my school. I learned music there. Like most kids, I began playing the pennywhistle in the streets.

“After school we loved to watch the movies from America. One day I saw a film that changed my life. The big Glen Miller band from the U.S.A. was in that film. That film made me dream the same dream for weeks. In the dream I saw myself playing a big trombone.

“I forgot about school. I forgot about those little pennywhistles. I longed to playa long, gold trombone. I can say that is how my music began – in my dreams.

Ntemi blowing in the old days

Ntemi blowing in the old days

A GUY CALLED CASABLANCA

“Years later I was sitting at home. I was all alone and bored. I heard someone knocking loudly on the door. I opened the door and a guy called Casablanca walked in. He was very excited. He said I must come over to his place. He said now was the time to start our own band.

“And he wasn’t just talking. He had three saxophones, two trumpets and a trombone. Said he bought them in Cape Town. I couldn’t believe my ears.

“I wasted no time. But when I got to his place another guy had the trombone already. So I picked up a saxophone. I’ve never let it go since then.

“Casablanca knew a music teacher at the Catholic School. This guy taught us to read and write music. Soon we were ready to start a band. We called ourselves the Casablanca Ochestra.

“I loved playing in a real band. We had great tunes. But some of the guys were not so serious. So my friend David Sello and I left the band. We wanted to move into the world of real jazz.

THE BIG TIME

“We met a guy called Sam Maile. He was a great writer of jazz music. People called him South Africa’s Duke Ellington. He wrote the music for the famous film ‘Jim Comes to Jo’burg’.

“During the great war, some of our people fought in the army against Hitler. After the war Sam asked some of the soldiers to join a big band. He called the band Zonk.

“Sam Maile was a great guy. He taught me a lot about jazz. I played with Zonk for a short while. But I wanted to move on. The Harlem Swingsters and the Jazz Maniacs were the hottest bands in town. I wanted to join one of them.

“The Harlem Swingsters needed a sax man. They asked me to come and show my skills. I’ll never forget that day man! The great Kippie Moeketsi was there. He just said ‘Play’. And he listened very carefully. I was very scared.

“They asked me to play with them at a concert. The concert was at the Inchcape Hall in Sophiatown. I knew this was my chance. And I played for my life. The great piano player Todd Matshikiza and Kippie said I was okay. And that’s not all. I didn’t have my own sax then. So they went out and bought me one. I knew then that I was in the band – full time.

“I had great times with the Harlem Swingsters. The band was good. We mixed American swing and our own township tunes. We made African Jazz.

Ntemi (left) with two members of the Jazz Pioneers at Kippie's funeral

Ntemi (left) with two members of the Jazz Pioneers at Kippie’s funeral

“We played allover the country. Once we even went to Lourenco Marques in Mozambique. The best shows happened when we played with the Jazz Maniacs. We played from 8 o’clock at night to four in the morning. We took turns to play. We wanted to show who was best. We never beat the Maniacs. But they knew we were not a small group.

“The gangsters were always at our shows. Sometimes they loved us and sometimes they hated us. They arrived at some of the shows at four in the morning – just when we were ready for some sleep. And they said: ‘Play until the sun comes up.’

“No one could do anything. They took our women and danced with them. And we played on sadly. I remember a concert at Moroka. This gang started fighting. Then they took their knives out. I grabbed my sax and ran for my life. I hid in the toilet. When I came back I found a body lying on my saxophone case – full of blood. Our shows were like this all the time. Today’s shows are like Sunday picnics.

The young Ntemi Piliso

The young Ntemi Piliso

ALEX AND THE ALL STARS

“In the early fifties all the big bands began to split up. I left the Swingsters and started my own band – the Alexandra All Stars. We were champions in the township. Even the gangs in Alex didn’t touch us.

“I made many records with the All Stars. My wife Constance had a beautiful voice. She made a record with me. The song was called “Baby come Duze”. That record made thousands of bucks. The record company gave me a paper and told me to sign. And they gave me five pounds. They bought my song for five pounds. That is how it was in those days.

“In 1962 King Kong started. This show went from South Africa to London. I very much wanted to go overseas and study music. But I wasn’t chosen to go with the show.

“I was broken. I felt so down that I didn’t play for a long time. But the Alex All Stars stayed alive. We made a record now and then. But the wish to play with the great jazzmen was gone.

TWENTY YEARS LATER

“Now us old timers have got together again. We want to bring back the big sounds from those days. We call ourselves the Jazz Pioneers.

“But we’ve got lots of problems, big and small. For example: we need a trombone player. We know a good trombone player who lives in Springs. And he wants to play with us. But he can’t blow until he gets his false teeth.

“And when Kippie died, we all lost a good friend. He was a giant in jazz. I fought hard to keep him in the Pioneers. I felt proud to play with a man like him – even though many people did not understand him. And now he’s gone and we’ll never get another one like him. But we know that we must go on. Us old timers have a job to do. We can’t let the old music die.”.

“Guga mzimba sala ntliziyo”

(The body is old, but the heart is still young)

img12William “King Force” Silgee is 74 years old. He lives in a small house in Dube, Soweto. He lives a quiet life with his wife Irene. But life was not always quiet for “King Force”. In the 1940’s, the townships jumped and jived to his music. He was the leader of the Jazz Maniacs after “Zulu Boy” Cele died.

The Jazz Maniacs were a big band. Sixteen people played in the band. The people in the townships loved the Jazz Maniacs. The Jazz Maniacs played music that touched the hearts of the people.

Last month, “King Force” and his saxophone came alive again. He played in Gaborone, Botswana. He played with Dollar Brand, Hugh Masekela and lots of other musicians.

“I really enjoyed myself” says “King Force”. “Hugh Masekela, Dollar Brand and the other guys were young when the Jazz Maniacs played. But they have learnt a lot. Now they are better than we were. They are better because they live in America. Many bands play in America. So the competition is tough. Musicians need competition.”

“King Force” says people like Masekela, Gwangwa and Dollar Brand still play South African music. “They live overseas but they still play our kind of music. South African music is in their hearts. They keep it there”.

“King Force” has played music for most of his life. He was born in Vrededorp in 1918. When “King Force” was still a baby, his family moved to City and Suburban. They lived in a small house in Anderson Street. In those days black people still lived in Johannesburg.

His father was a preacher. His mother was a teacher. His mother and father loved music. They both sang in the church choir. They sent “King Force” to piano lessons when he was 10 years old.

“My parents told me to go to piano lessons,” says “King Force”. “I did not enjoy piano lessons. But today I’m glad I went to lessons. These lessons taught me a lot about music.”

“King Force” went to the Albert Street School. When he was twelve years old, his father died. His mother had no money for the rent. The family moved to Doorn­fontein. His mother did piece-work. She washed clothes for white people in Yeoville and Kensington.

The Silgee family had little money. But “King Force” did not leave school. He helped his mother with the washing. “King Force” and his friends made carts out of old boxes. They fetched and delivered washing in these carts. Sometimes young “King Force” and his friends raced their carts. They raced down Harrow Road.

“King Force” finished standard 6 at Albert Street School. Then he went to Adams Training College in Natal. He stayed there for 3 years.

“King Force” finished standard 9. Then he came back to Doornfontein. Johannes­burg was alive with music at that time. Piano players and jazz bands played allover the place. The saxophone was popular.

“King Force” got a job. He was a clerk in a warehouse. The work was boring. He began to learn the saxophone. He soon played the saxophone very well.

"King Force" (left) playing in Port Elizabeth in 1956

“King Force” (left) playing in Port Elizabeth in 1956

One day in 1935 the municipality came in trucks to Doornfontein. They moved the people to Orlando. “King Force” and his family went to live in Orlando.

There were many halls in Orlando. The people went to the halls for concerts and dances. “King Force” loved the music and dancing at the halls.

“My favourite band was the Jazz Maniacs,” says” King Force”. “They played hot music. “Zulu Boy” Cele was the leader then. When they rested at concerts, I some­ times jumped on the stage and played the saxophone. The band soon knew me well. In 1936 the band asked me to join them.”

In 1939 “King Force” married his first wife. The band got more popular. In the Second World War, the band played for soldiers. Young Wilson Silgee became “King of the Forces”. People began to call him “King Force”.

In 1944 “Zulu Boy” Cele died. The Jazz Maniacs asked “King Force” to be the new leader. “King Force” was still a clerk in the day. At night he played music until 4 o’clock in the morning.

"King Force" (left) with 2 other members of the Jazz Maniacs

“King Force” (left) with 2 other members of the Jazz Maniacs

“We didn’t sleep much in those days” says “King Force”. “Life was fast, man. Sometimes we played two concerts on one night. Then we went to work the next day. We rushed all the time. But we were young then. We enjoyed life.”

The band traveled allover the country. People from allover South Africa loved them. In 1945 they went to Port Elizabeth. In Port Elizabeth “King Force” met a woman called Irene. When the band went home, Irene followed him. She lived in Johannesburg with her sister. A few years later “King Force” left his first wife. He married Irene and they moved to Dube.

In the 1950s, the people in the band started fighting with each other. The Jazz Maniacs split up. But “King Force” did not stop playing music. He started a smaller band. He called the band “King Force and his Forces”. They played mbaqanga music. People liked them. They sold many records. “King Force” made records until the late 1960s.

img16“King Force” does not play his saxophone much these days. He is getting old. His lungs are weak. But he does not forget. “1 often think about the old days” says “King Force”. “Sometimes I cry when I look at the photographs. I say to myself “Guga mzimba, sala ntliziyo” (The body is old, but the heart is still young.)”

In Gaborone last month the great old “King Force” was young again. And the people still loved him. They will always love him. They will never forget the man who played music that touched their hearts