“In the past 10 days, two towering figures in the history of South African music have died. Both were in their seventh decade: trumpet and flugelhorn player Johnny Mekoa was 72; guitarist Ray Chikapa Phiri, 70. Reflecting on their lives and work tells us a great deal about the intersection of black politics and culture under apartheid, and also about the ways South Africans see the music the world calls jazz.
Mekoa was born on the East Rand, where gold had been discovered in 1887. By the 1940s, his birthplace of Benoni was a bustling, relatively prosperous mining town pitted by reservoirs where whites sailed and picnicked while black citizens were confined to the neighbouring townships of Daveyton and Wattville.
In the townships, jazz bands abounded; Mekoa’s brother Fred was already a trumpeter, and from him, in gigs, and at the central Johannesburg rehearsal and education space of Dorkay House, the young Johnny honed his chops.
Phiri was born in Nelspruit, an agricultural town near the Mozambican border. Phiri’s father had come from Malawi: he was both a wage worker and the organiser of puppet shows that toured the area, and at which the young Raymond learned dancing and music.
The metropolitan pull of Johannesburg and Soweto drew both musicians to the city.
Around Dorkay House, Mekoa met up with the players with whom he founded the Jazz Ministers in 1967. The Ministers built a reputation in township clubs and at the jazz festivals launched by liquor companies after prohibition for black drinkers was ended in 1961.
On a parallel track, Phiri had hooked up with drummer Isaac Mtshali and others to form The Cannibals, a Soweto Soul outfit which, with many others, was melding the feel of the US soul styles of Motown and Staxwith South African roots idioms. They developed their skills playing backing for female smanje-manje groups such as the Mahotella Queens(smanje-manje was a fast-tempo, neo-traditional women’s performance style).
By the 1970s, the Jazz Ministers with albums “Zandile” and “Nomvula’s Jazz Dance”, were making sufficient waves for them to be invited to play Newport: something they finally achieved in 1976, stalled three times previously by the refusal of the authorities to grant Mekoa a visa.
Meanwhile, Phiri with outfit The Cannibals was making hits and waves. Their track “Highland Drifter” stayed on the Zimbabwe charts for 18 weeks, but was banned in South Africa.
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