It was a cold winters morning in Johannesburg and remnants of the dying winter still hung in the air. The promise of the coming spring put me in a good mood, enough to roll down my car window despite the chill. With the music at full blast, I pulled up to the petrol station to fill up.
As the petrol attendant approached my car and the music made contact with his ears, his hasty approach suddenly became a leisurely stride. His tired face changed into a broad smile that contrasted his fatigued state. For the two minutes that it took to fill up my tank, Lungile* waltzed with his eyes half closed. His face serene, he seemed to be at a faraway place, with just his special someone. Their dance gracefully slow, their hips moving yet almost still, an indiscernible movement inspired by the music.
“Haiybo umngane wami, who is that” was the outburst from his mouth after he opened his eyes. Who is that indeed? Not many things can prompt a man to reveal in public such vulnerability but a saxophone on the lips of Winston “Mankunku” Ngozi can. The song is Lakushon’ Ilanga and the album is Abantwana Be Afrika, I told him to go find it. Unfortunately, Ngozi passed away in October 2009 with not many outside the close knit jazz community knowing his music.
One of the blessings of being in South Africa is the ability to be in such close proximity to so many music legends and so much great music. But lately, I have been saddened at seeing these legends dying in such obscurity. Their legendary lives documented by a few lines tucked between the celebrity news on page three. With their music mostly unknown, they die as paupers needing friends and tribute concerts to pay their medical bills.
A case in point is Robbie Jansen. I had the pleasure of seeing Jansen in February this year. Ill with Emphysema, he came on stage as a guest artist alongside Feya Faku at the Baxter Theatre in Cape Town. He walked on stage for his solos with his alto-saxophone in one hand and an oxygen tank in the other hand. He could hardly breathe when he spoke but when he blew on the saxophone, it was almost like the music filled him with new life. Between solos he took long breathes on his oxygen tank before getting back on to the sax. The thought of a man at the end of his life playing music that is infused with his last breathe warmed the heart of many in the audience. Jansen was a legend on the Cape Town jazz scene. He is famous for playing on Abdullah Ibrahim’s 1974 album, Mannenburg, which became a sound track highlighting the lives of the township people of Cape Town during apartheid.
Despite his legendary status, Jansen needed several tribute concerts to raise money to pay for his medical bills. Jansen died on the 7th July 2010.
Dubbed the queen of Mbaqanga, Busi Mhlongo was a keen proponent of traditional music in South Africa. Masauko Chipembere of Blk Sonshine has described her stage performances as so powerful, it felt like the ancestors were on stage with her. Busi Mhlongo died on the 15th June 2010 with her music not getting the popularity it deserves.
There are many legends waiting to be discovered by people like Lungile*. Let’s hope it happens before they are dead.
May their souls rest in peace.
*Not their real names