When I creep into the Amandla Cultural Ensemble: The Production rehearsal on a warm Pretoria day, the legendary trombonist, Jonas Gwangwa has his director hat on. Some of the 50 cast members are seated on the floor and they laugh as Gwangwa chastises one of them for calling another “dinges” instead of his name.

In order to prepare for the first time ever that this iconic production will be staged on South African soil at The State Theatre in Pretoria on December 4 and 5, the jokes are few and far between. Gwangwa, along with his daughter, Keitu, who is the assistant director of the production, is very strict about his vision.

The musical takes audiences on a journey from pre-colonial times through to jazz in apartheid South Africa and beyond. It’s the story of a nation, told through song and dance. “As a musician himself, OR Tambo gave an order that there should be a group of individuals who are invited to Cuba in 1978,” remembers Gwangwa, “so he put together a group from MK [the ANC’s armed wing, Umkhonto we Sizwe] and others.”

Having been inspired by attending Festival Of Arts and Culture (FESTAC) in Nigeria in 1977, the exiled Gwangwa was enamoured by the proud display of various African cultures that ANC and PAC invitees were treated to. And that’s what the respected muso had in mind when the idea of a production came along and then-chief representative of SA, Thabo Mbeki, backed him up.

“[Mbeki] said ‘I think Gwangwa is right’ and then I worked with Willie Kgositsile and Lindiwe Mabuze,” Gwangwa says, “I went to Angola in 1980 and worked with the MK and the guerrillas there. They had talented young people and that’s who I started with. I wrote some songs and got some of them to write songs too. I collected everything and we went on a world tour.”

From 1980 to 1990, the tour hit areas like Brazil, Mozambique, the United Kingdom, Russian, Canada, Libya, Denmark, Japan and more. The aim was to use the arts to educate the world about the injustices of apartheid while raising funds and resources for those fighting against that oppression.

But it has never been staged here at home. Gwangwa has tried for years to get the production in theatres but “it failed so many times. But minister Nathi Mthethwa said he’d like to have the show,” and so here it is. “I’m so very excited,” Gwangwa beams.

“For the first time, people will know the role of the artist in the revolution,” he shares, “we were not paid for this work back then. Everything went back to the ANC. We mobilised support from the international community and we were depicting life under apartheid so it was edutainment.”

Although Gwangwa and his team now have “the luxury of having the right costumes and music because we had to improvise a lot back in those days,” the role of the artist has remained unchanged in his opinion.

“It wasn’t all roses for us in the struggle,” he gets serious, “artists are important. Here at home, especially with musicians, it’s like as you get older, you get thrown away. Like there’s no history. Whenever the economy gets bad, artists are the first to catch the cold. Artists aren’t given the respect they deserve. I’m an Oscar-nominated, BAFTA-nominated and Grammy-nominated artist outside but here, it’s different.” With Amandla Cultural Ensemble: The Production, Gwangwa hopes the arts will be taken more seriously.