The trombone took Jonas Gwangwa to the world and made his name known way beyond the borders of his community and country.

It earned him the respect and adulation of millions of people from diverse cultures, nationalities and different generations. Not only that, he used it to blow the winds of resistance from home to the world.

Lucas Ledwaba wonders if the brass instrument that catapulted Gwangwa into legendary status still carries such meaning for today’s youth

This 2018 image of a young trombonist blowing his horn before a football match in Polokwane made me reflect on the legendary late composer and musician who passed away on 23 January at the age of 83.

It made me appreciate how a mere musical instrument could impact one’s life so significantly. When he started playing the trombone Gwangwa was a student in Johannesburg in the 1950s.

It is perhaps correct to argue that had it probably not been for this instrument that landed in his hands courtesy of Father Trevor Huddleston, his life may have turned out differently.

We may never know for sure what he would have become and if we would perhaps know and respect his name based on something else?

Could he maybe have been swallowed by the roaring big city of Johannesburg and captured by the vices that ate so many young men of his generation, gangs, knives, guns, gaol, drowning in illicit booze or wasting his lungs down the gold mines for a pittance?

We don’t know and probably never will. What we know now though is that the trombone put him on a path to contribute to the rich history of Africa and the world, a citizen of the world and great son of the soil.

Through it, he touched the lives of millions, blowing the message of peace and love and struggle and hope into the hearts and minds of millions. His songs about the waterfalls of tears shed by parents whose children had disappeared into exile soothed hearts broken and devoured by worry.

Wedding parties danced to the swinging notes of his arrangements, kgomo di tlile di tshelelaaaa, celebrating sweet unions between partners united by love.

Those eager to quench their thirst for freedom, sitting in lonely rooms far away from home listened to his mournful ulibambe lingashoni, imagining the day the rays of freedom would finally dawn on their motherland…

And when those who finally came home to witness the birth of the freedom that so many had given their lives and died along the long, wearisome march and never got to see, he reminded them through the horn to have love and exercise patience.

Through song, he celebrated his own home coming telling the world in his powerful voice, le joaleeee re fihlile haeeee. He reminded them also that the freedom fighters had not brought back home bags of gold and cash, that they had been away fighting, serving and suffering, saying re thabetse ho ba hae le ha re sena letho tjeeeee.

From a relatively unknown student to a world icon who graced the stages of prestigious festivals across the globe; he shunned the bright lights of the States and Europe and opted instead for the bushes of Angola. Even as he battled the debilitating effects of a road accident that violently welcomed him back to the motherland, he never wavered.

There in the military camps, he painstakingly worked to turn youth preparing to fight for freedom through the gun into an army that would carry on the struggle for freedom through song and dance, setting up the Amandla Ensemble, making musicians out of soldiers.

Together with these young people they took the message of South Africa’s struggle to the world. Later he wrote the score for Cry Freedom, an international film that further brought the reality of the crime that was apartheid to the rest of the world.

Dr Jonas Gwangwa who died on 23 January 2021 is seen here watching a rehearsal of the Amandla Ensemble at the South African State Theatre in 2015. Photo: Lucas Ledwaba

He has blown his last. As preparations to lay his bones in the soil of mother of Africa, I’m reminded of a vibrant scene of young and old breaking sweat and raising clouds of dust dancing to his tune Just Bones, a racy, 50s style piece bordering between mbaqanga, blues and good ol’ jazz.

It was 1999 and the master and his band were in their element – sending charges of electricity through the thousands packed into the Moretele Park in Mamelodi through their music. They were just having fun on that stage – and so were the people down below, intoxicated and possessed by the music.

He will blow the trombone no more – but forever the notes from the magical instrument will continue to soothe, touch, move, inspire, teach, intoxicate and possess.

I look at the intense expression on the face of the young man blowing the trombone in this image. I don’t know his name. There must have also been a time when Jonas Gwangwa was not known too.

But maybe one day this young man in the photograph could become well known and respected like Jonas Gwangwa – it’s just a thought.

I also wonder whether a young Jonas Gwangwa ever imagined, when he first held the trombone those decades ago that it would change his life in the way it has, that one day in the future, he would be Dr Jonas Gwangwa and his name would be mentioned alongside those of the greatest composers in history?

Does this young man and many of his generation, I wonder, know the story of Jonas Gwangwa and the trombone? Do they know how these seemingly insignificant pieces of brass have catapulted unknown men and women into iconic figures and helped them influence and change the course of history and touch lives?

If this instrument doesn’t help this young man scale the same heights as Gwangwa, then hopefully, it keeps him sane and sober and free from the vices and substances that are eating away the lives of many of today’s youth.

If his music and that of many from his generation doesn’t touch the world as much as Gwangwa’s, then, I hope it touches this young man and his mates and help them become better and stronger men and women – for these are not the easiest of times.

Let the music play on – ulibambe lingashoni!

Fare thee well Dr Gwangwa. Thank you for the wealth of music and the lessons taught through song. – Mukurukuru Media

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