It’s been almost 60 years since Abdullah Ibrahim, Jonas Gwangwa and Hugh Masekela shared a stage. Helen Herimbi spoke to two of the legends ahead of the momentous occasion.

During the week of the 40th anniversary of the 1976 uprisings, Abdullah Ibrahim, Jonas Gwangwa and Hugh Masekela will stage a three-night concert commemorating their beloved jazz band, The Jazz Epistles, in Joburg on June 15, 16 and 17.

Consisting of Ibrahim (piano), Masekela (trumpet), Gwangwa (trombone), Kippie Moeketsi (alto saxophone), Johnny Gertze (bass) and drummers Makaya Ntshoko and Early Mabuza, The Jazz Epistles became the first black band in South Africa to release an LP.

Called The Jazz Epistles: Verse 1, the album was the only body of work released by the collective. Most of them then went into exile and carved their own paths as activists and icons. But how did it all start?

THE BEGINNING

“I had met Kippie Moeketsi in Cape Town when they were on tour with a show called the Manhattan Brothers,” Ibrahim tells me on the phone from Germany. “They came to Cape Town and asked me to tour with them and we went to the Eastern Cape. When the tour ended, most of the people went back to Johannesburg and I went to Cape Town.

“But at that time, we had become good friends and had musical compassion with Kippie Moeketsi, an incredible musician. I wanted to meet him again but didn’t have any money so I walked from Cape Town to Johannesburg. I went to live with Kippie in George Gogh. Both of us were pursuing this dream of perfecting our art.

“We decided we needed to get a group together but we didn’t have a bass player and a drummer. So I found these two young people in Cape Town: Makaya Ntshoko on drums and Johnny Gertze on bass. For Makaya, this was the first time he’d ever played drums – he was an amateur boxer,” Ibrahim laughs.

“We were all working towards this driving quest to validate our music, ourselves, our culture politically and culturally.”

Masekela, the animated storyteller, colours inside the lines that Ibrahim has drawn about their history. Sitting down with him in Joburg, Masekela tells me: “Abdullah replaced Todd Matshikiza and toured with us, the Manhattan Brothers, for five months… That was at the end of 1958. Christopher Ncukana knew the musicians and led us to Abdullah – or Dollar Brand (as Ibrahim was known back then) – and he was playing cocktail piano at one of those fancy places.”

Once Gertze, Ntshoko and Ibrahim had been rehearsing as a trio, Masekela, Gwangwa and Moeketsi headed to Cape Town to play with them. “We spent the first week sleeping on mattresses in the back of the club,” Masekela says. “Some friends we’d met before got me, Kippie and Jonas a place in Camps Bay and we had to wear overalls like painters to say we’re sleeping here overnight to start painting early in the morning if they (the police) came.

“We really broke Cape Town apart and decided to come up to Joburg. That we really took to the cleaners so we decided to do a record. We did that record in two hours!”

VERSE 1

The record Masekela refers to is the now-classic, The Jazz Epistles: Verse 1, which was released in 1959. Masekela thinks back to the period in which the album was recorded and says: “Stanley ‘Spike’ Glasser, the orchestrator for King Kong, was hanging out with us a lot. He came to hear us in a club in Johannesburg and just said ‘this shit needs to be recorded’.

“So he went to Gallo [Records] to Dan Hill, a musician, and brought him to one of our gigs. The next afternoon we were in the studio. For two hours, we played our songs and were paid £76. We got about £12 each. It wasn’t much. By the weekend, we’d spent the money. There was no contract or anything.”

The album came while The Jazz Epistles were at their pinnacle. But their success as a band was short-lived. Masekela says: “We were a band that rehearsed every day and played every night. It was an amazing band. We were at Selbourne Hall, on the side of City Hall, for three weeks and you couldn’t get in. And we were finally going to tour the country and then Sharpeville (massacre) happened and gatherings of more than 10 people were outlawed. We had to cancel the tour. My passport arrived during that time and I got quickly out of town.”

ALL OF THE EPISTLES

To Ibrahim, acknowledging and honouring The Jazz Epistles is close to his heart. “This has been a project we’ve been wanting to do,” Ibrahim emphasises. “We understood in the late ’50s that we were breaking barriers. Audiences in South Africa understood it too because we were very popular. When I went to America and met musicians, it was then that I realised the impact that we’d had not just in South Africa but internationally. So we celebrate this cross-cultural, cross-continental thing that happened.”

Although some of them have since passed on, I ask if the remaining members of The Jazz Epistles will be included in the two nights in concert – the first of which is already sold out.

Although Ibrahim and Masekela both expressed their desire to have the remaining Epistles together again, Ntshoko, who lives in Switzerland, won’t make it but Gwangwa has confirmed he will be on stage.

At the concerts, The Jazz Epistles will perform with Ibrahim’s band, Ekaya, and will include Sydney Mavundla (trumpet) and Siya Makuzeni (trombone).

“I warned Abdullah that there’s going to be people screaming for their songs from the audience and I could just see his face saying…” Masekela starts laughing and then impersonates Ibrahim, “‘you don’t want to confuse the audience, we’re doing The Jazz Epistles!’”

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