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Obituary: Jonas Gwangwa (1937-2021)

The Creative Feel team is deeply saddened to hear of the passing of Jonas Gwangwa. The world-renowned jazz trombonist, who was a recipient of the order of Inkamanga, will be remembered for his exceptional contribution to both music and the struggle for freedom.

jazz trombonist Jonas Gwangwa obituary
Legendary jazz trombonist Jonas Gwangwa will be remembered for his contributions to music and the struggle for freedom

Gwangwa, who died on 23 January at the age of 83, had been said to be struggling with his health for the past two years. He died weeks after the passing of his wife, Violet Molebatsi Gwangwa. Many have noted that 23 January is the same date that two of South Africa’s fellow jazz giants, Hugh Masekela (1939-2018) and Oliver Mtukudzi (1952-2019) died on.
     Born in Orlando East, Soweto, Gwangwa started his jazz journey playing with the Father Huddleston Band at St Peter’s College in Johannesburg. He would then gain some prominence with the Jazz Epistles, a short-lived bebop band with members including Abdullah Ibrahim (then Dollar Brand), Kippie Moeketsi, and Masekela.
     In later years, a place at the Manhattan School of Music in New York saw Gwangwa sharing a flat with Masekela and the two gigged frequently, immersing themselves in the American jazz scene and becoming increasingly involved in politics. His fame grew in the US and he spent the next few years touring, recording, and collaborating on a number of significant projects, including the Grammy-winning album An Evening with Harry Belafonte and Miriam Makeba, on which he worked as arranger and conductor.
     The 80s then saw Gwangwa moving between Angola, where he led the Amandla Cultural Ensemble, and Botswana, where he moved with his family and also collaborated with a number of struggle musicians and artists. He returned to South Africa in 1991, after 30 years in political exile, and his contributions to music, the arts, and South Africa’s struggle for freedom were celebrated and rewarded for years to come.
     Speaking on his passing, South African president Cyril Ramaphosa said:

‘A giant of our revolutionary cultural movement and our democratic creative industries has been called to rest; the trombone that boomed with boldness and bravery, and equally warmed our hearts with mellow melody has lost its life force.

Cyril Ramaphosa

     ‘Jonas Gwanga ascends to our great orchestra of musical ancestors whose creative genius and dedication to the freedom of all South Africans inspired millions in our country and mobilised the international community against the apartheid system. As we mourn the loss of many precious lives around us, we pray also that the soul of Jonas Gwangwa will rest in peace.’
     The Creative Feel team joins countless others in expressing its condolences to Gwangwa’s friends and family. His death is a profound loss for South Africa and for the arts, globally. 

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