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Johnny Mekoa: ACT Lifetime Achievement Award for Arts Advocacy

A life devoted to music and sharing it with others makes Dr Johnny Mekoa the richly deserving recipient of an ACT Lifetime Achievement Award for Arts Advocacy, sponsored by Creative Feel.

‘In 1962, I nearly went into exile,’ Dr Johnny Mekoa tells Chats Devroop in an interview from Devroop’s book Unsung: Jazz Musicians under Apartheid. ‘But just in the nick of time [musician and composer] Caiphus Semenya from Benoni took me to Dorkay House, and I got that musical link with Barney Rachabane and Pat Matshikiza.’

With these and other noted jazz musicians of the era, Mekoa established some heavyweight musical credentials despite an increasingly difficult environment. Black musicians were banned from playing at white clubs, while forced removals and the shutting down of events and venues all worked against a vibrant cultural scene. Mekoa’s renowned band, the Jazz Ministers, was repeatedly invited to perform at the Newport Jazz Festival in New York: each year, Mekoa was denied a passport, until 1976, when the Jazz Ministers played during the Bicentennial Celebrations of the United States.

In 1986, the desire to pursue music full time impelled Mekoa to quit his optical dispensing job of 20 years. He spent the rest of the year teaching at FUBA, before heading to the University of Natal in 1987, where, along with Zim Ngqawane, Victor Masondo, Melvin Peters, Andrew Eagle, Rick van Heerden, Nick Paton and Lulu Gontsana, he formed the Jazzanians, under the leadership of Darius Brubeck. In 1988, the university-based band was invited to attend the Jazz Education Conference in New York, going on to a tour of the US.

At Mekoa’s graduation, Abdullah Ibrahim caught Mekoa’s performance with the University of Natal’s Jazz Orchestra, and invited the musician to the Baxter Theatre to play on the award-winning recording of Mantra Mode, and then on to a tour of Europe. Around that time (1991), Mekoa applied for a Fulbright Scholarship. (‘They wanted to know who is this old geyser that wants us to give him thousands of dollars to go and study music,’ he told Devroop). Armed with the scholarship, Mekoa went on to study jazz pedagogy at the Indiana University School of Music. After completing his masters, he returned to South Africa, where Sipho Sepamla urged him to establish a music programme on the East Rand. ‘The school was founded out of a great need,’ Mekoa told a journalist during a recent interview. ‘During the time of apartheid, the only school was FUBA (Federated Union of Black Artists). There were no other schools for young talented musicians.’

And so in 1994, the Music Academy of Gauteng (MAG) was founded in an old rundown building. Support from the National Lottery enabled the school to move to a better facility in 2000, and as Mekoa says, the rest is history. Over  the last two decades, the school has hosted the likes of the Count Basie Jazz Orchestra, Dr Winton Marsalis, Terence Blanchard, Branford Marsalis, the Duke Ellington orchestra, and local greats such as Prince Lengoasa, Barney Rachabane and Mekoa’s own mentor, Dr Jonas Gwangwa.

“The ACT Award is like putting a big cherry on top of the pie and saying to me, ’Keep nurturing and developing young musical talent‘”

With more than 45 full time students, and many more children attending after school (‘Saturday is like a madhouse, you have all these young ones learning strings,’ says Mekoa), the Music Academy of Gauteng has provided plenty of up and coming talent to tertiary institutions such as the University of Kwazulu-Natal, with several MAG alumni having established themselves as key players on the jazz scene of today – including Malcolm Jiyane, Mthunzi Mvubu, Mpho Mabogoane, Nthabiseng Mokoena and Linda Tshabalala. The MAG youth orchestra has performed across South Africa, Britain, Sweden, Germany, Netherlands, and the USA. For its excellent work, MAG has received the International Jazz Education Network Award over five consecutive years.

Mekoa’s extensive and invaluable contribution to the South African music scene has earned him honorary doctorates from the University of Pretoria and UNISA, and he is the first South African ever to be recognised by the Swedish Jazz Federation for his lifelong contribution to jazz. He has also been awarded several Mayoral Awards by the Ekurhuleni Metropolitan Municipality. To this roll call of honours, he now adds the ACT Lifetime Achievement Award for Arts Advocacy, awarded at the ACT Awards ceremony, hosted by Sun International.

‘To be awarded a Lifetime Achievement Award in your own home-country is really great and deeply humbling’, says Dr Mekoa. ‘The ACT Award is like putting a big cherry on top of the pie and saying to me, “Keep nurturing and developing young musical talent.” The award has also strengthened my motto that “where there is music, you find no evil.”’

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