Jonas Mosa Somobunu Gwangwa was born in Johannesburg, South Africa into a musical family. He himself was a musical enthusiast and began to play trombone in what was the first and only African high school band in South Africa. Self taught as he was, he managed to become the best, if not one of the only, jazz trombonists in all of South Africa.
In 1956, he recorded with another up and coming South African superstar, young Hugh Masekela, as part of Father Huddleston’s band and went on to record and tour South Africa in 1959 with American pianist John Mehegan’s band. Gwangwa later formed his own group, the Jazz Epistles, which featured later lights Hugh Masekela, Dollar Brand (Abdullah Ibrahim) and Kippie Moeketsi, before leaving for London in 1961 to perform with the renowned King Kong jazz opera.
Like so many of his country’s musicians, once Jonas Gwangwa left South Africa, he found it difficult to go back. He left King Kong to travel to the United States on a music scholarship given by the African Music and Drama Trust. This enabled him to enroll at the Manhattan School of Music through the influence of famed violinist Yehudi Menuhin, who was impressed by one of Gwangwa’s performances heard months earlier in Africa.
Jonas studied for four years at the Manhattan School of Music and obtained a bachelor’s degree. Meanwhile, he had reacquainted himself with Hugh Masekela, who was also now in the United States and a student at the Manhattan School of Music and had married the world famous South African singing sensation, Miriam Makeba.
Jonas Gwangwa’s first U.S. recordings were in the company of Miriam Makeba and included The World of Miriam Makeba (RCA, 1963) and Makeba Sings (RCA, 1964). In early 1965 Gwangwa appeared on Hugh Masekela’s first definitive solo album Grrr (Mercury), which also featured the trombonist/arranger’s own “Kwa-Blaney” and arranged, adapted and conducted the program for the Grammy Award-winning album An Evening With Harry Belafonte and Miriam Makeba (RCA).
Later that year, Jonas Gwangwa participated with Makeba, Masekela, Caiphus Semenya and Letta Mbulu in “The Sound of Africa ’65” concert, produced by Harry Belafonte Enterprises for the African American Institute at New York City’s Carnegie Hall on December 15, 1965.
In 1966, Gwangwa and his wife of time, Mamsie, who had a somewhat successful group of her own, Mamsie and the Velvettes, partnered with Caiphus Semenya and his wife, Letta Mbulu, to form the group Letta and the Safaris and produced one very little-known single on the Columbia Records label called “Walkin’ Around,” which was co-written by Jonas Gwangwa and Hugh Masekela’s business partner, producer Stewart Levine.
Gwangwa went onto to serve as musical director and trombonist for Miriam Makeba’s vaunted performance at New York’s Philharmonic Hall at Lincoln Center for the Performing Arts in New York City, which yielded the album Miriam Makeba In Concert! (Warner Bros., 1967) and contributed trombone to Marc Levin’s little-known free-jazz album The Dragon Suite (Savoy, 1967), an obscure record featuring bassist Cecil McBee that’s unlike anything else Gwangwa ever participated in.
Nineteen sixty eight saw Gwangwa issue the first single under his own name, “Goin’ Home (Bum DiDi Sunshine)” b/w the awesome instrumental “Afradelic” (Decca, 1968) as Jonas Gwangwa/African Explosion. It’s hard to say whether a whole album was planned to support the single, but unfortunately, the song got no notice (until DJs discovered “Afradelic” many years later) and this was the only thing Decca ever issued under Gwangwa’s name. Gwangwa also contributed horns, vocals and the great “Noyana” to Hugh Masekela’s legendary Africa ‘68 (Uni, 1968) and provided arrangements to the Howard Roberts Chorale album Let My People Go: Black Spirituals, African Drums (Columbia, 1968).
Finally in 1969, Jonas Gwangwa and African Explosion issued its first full-length album, Who (Ngubani)?, on pianist Ahmad Jamal’s short-lived independent Jamal label. Featuring a full program of Gwangwa originals, including the exceptional “Dark City” and the single release, “African Sausage” (b/w this album’s festive “Szaba Szaba”), the program features Mamsie on vocals and bountiful contributions from the great South African saxophonist Dudu Pukwana (1930-98), who adds an edge that makes much of this music utterly timeless.
Predictably, Who (Ngubani)? didn’t become the hit it deserved to be nor did Gwangwa’s brand of African jazz storm America like Hugh Masekela’s surprise hit “Grazing in the Grass” did just a year before.
In 1971, Gwangwa reteamed with Masekela to complete the wonderful Hugh Masekela and the Union of South Africa (Chisa, 1971), a marvelous return to form for the South African trumpeter/vocalist and a reasonably decent feature for Gwangwa’s trombone. The album features Gwangwa’s memorable “Shebeen” and the definitive “Johannesburg Hi-Lite Jive,” co-written with Eric Songxaka and recorded again by Masekela as “Johannesburg” on his 1982 album Home.
During Gwangwa’s last years in the United States, he seems to have waxed very little work other than some overdubs to Robin Kenyatta’s Terra Nova (Atlantic, 1973), which also featured Masekela’s former girlfriend, Betty Davis, and as the main arbiter of Herb Alpert and Hugh Masekela’s terrific and little-known Main Event – Live (A&M, 1978), which featured Gwangwa’s “She-Been” (again), “Kalahari Nights,” “Foreign Natives” and the exceptional “Shame The Devil.”
He toured Botswana with Letta Mbulu in 1976, Nigeria in 1977 and the United States with Herb Alpert and Hugh Masekela in 1978 before departing the U.S. for Britain (?) and truly global work including serving as composer, arranger and musical director of "Amandla", the much heralded worldwide ANC cultural ensemble tour to which he devoted ten years of his life, contributing to Johnny Dyani’s Born Under The Heat (Dragon, 1983), featuring on the spectacular “Free Nelson Mandela” by The Special AKA, collaborating with composer George Fenton on the score to the Richard Attenborough film Cry Freedom (MCA, 1987) and performing at Nelson Mandela’s 70th Birthday Tribute at Wembley Stadium in 1988.
Jonas Gwangwa finally returned home to South Africa in 1991 and has actively played a part in his country’s musical heritage, maintaining a relentless touring schedule as well as becoming known as one of his country’s foremost composers, having composed the theme music to South Africa’s Olympic Bid (1997), the score to his own biographical performance piece, Jonas (1998) and the anthem to the African American Summit (1998). He has also contributed many scores to such South African films and TV programs as Night Moves (1994), Soweto Green (1995), Generations (1995) and E.TV News (1998).
Fortunately, Jonas Gwangwa resumed his recording career in South Africa, releasing such notable discs as A Temporary Inconvenience (Sony, 1999), the superb Flowers of a Nation (Sony, 2001) featuring the excellent “Barungwa,” “Ledimo,” “Time Up” and a new take on “Shebeen” and Sounds From Exile (Sony, 2002), featuring the great “Hamba Ngiyeza,” “Emaxhoseni,” “Morwa,” “Back to Orlando East” and a new take on “Foreign Natives.”
Gwangwa has also since released Live At The Standard Bank International Jazz Festival (Sony, 2006) on CD and DVD and Kukude (Lapho Si Vela Khona) (Sony, 2008), but unfortunately I have not heard either one of these.
There is something ethereal and earthy about all of Jonas Gwangwa’s music, like it’s all part of the air that we breathe or the sounds that make us move. It defies labels and genres. It just is. There is an unmistakable joy of life and love or people in all of Gwangwa’s music. Like a signature, it’s recognizable throughout a career that stretches over a half a century of music. The music doesn’t sound the same. But it feels the same. It’s soulful, joyful, peaceful and full of everything that makes life good.