Monday, June 21, 2021

Commemoration of the life of Jonas Musa Gwangwa

Founding Members of “Friends of Jonas Gwangwa-“ Michael Lesolle Moroka Moreri, Kgosi Osca Misielele, Shima Monageng

The commemoration of the illustrious life of one of the most iconic artists to come out of South Africa reminded us that every century is identified with a convergence of several manifestations which collectively represent its “footprint.”  Invariably,  each landmark or footprint as such,  has its enduring hallmarks.

The twentieth century is no exception in this respect as the world unquestionably witnessed momentous signatures of the time, some more colourful and consequential than others. The Southern Africa of the sixties into the eighties and nineties was characterised by the most brutal racial dominance of the colonial era, and the savage brutality inflicted by the minority apartheid regime in the Region. Botswana was not spared. It also led to the emergence of a generation of individuals who relocated to different parts of the world in search of refuge. A good number of them semi-settled in Gaborone including Jonas Gwangwa.

The oppression of one racial group by the other, and the resultant deprivation of their freedoms, wiping out their liberty, was overbearingly encountered across the Southern Africa region. It gave birth to one the most formidable resistance movements ever witnessed. The liberation wars which ravaged the entire region including Botswana still have the remnants of their brutality to this day. As a “Front Line State”, Botswana had a seat at the high table for purposes of finding a lasting solution.

Paradoxically, even in the middle of the apartheid ‘perfect storm’,   the enormous  power and influence of the arts and cultural dynamic was a tipping point.  The Arts were embedded   as a significant component of the resistance movement itself, and a weapon of choice. It was the phenomenon of heightened resistance which brought out the best in the community of artists and creatives in which Gaborone community of artists benefitted exponentially from the birth The “MEDU Arts Ensemble” .

The Medu Arts Ensemble was the brainchild of some of the most decorated artists to emerge out of the Southern Africa region including Jonas Gwangwa along with his contemporaries and peers, specifically, Hugh Masekela, Caiphus Semenya, Letta Mbulu, Ibrahim Abdulla (previously known as Dollar Brand) Miriam Makeba and others. These are names of musical icons widely known in Botswana.

Jonas Gwangwa’s artistry however, was pivotal in the founding and evolution of MEDU in Gaborone from the Art Ensemble’s inception and rollout subsequently.  The Medu Art Ensemble landed on the lap of the Gaborone of the time, wherein 1977 ushered in a cohort of “Cultural workers” as they referred to themselves. They were in fact the South African exiles who sought refuge in Botswana. Among them were some prolific artists who created a ‘hot platform’ of the intra-arts and cultural collaboratives. They came from the South African townships, and brought with them a profound culture of the arts.

It was through the MEDU gravitas that Jonas created opportunities for the Botswana Art & Culture community to collaborate and network. They were highly experienced and culturally diverse, even much more anchored from artistic environments in Southern Africa to come out of the South African Arts ecosystem – arguably a relatively sophisticated pallet. It enabled Batswana to learn “virtually” on site – virtually because the learning experience was for the most part on site, meaning  outside South Africa itself.

The arts culture diversity in question was in essence a mosaic of different disciplines including music, theatre, stage production, graphics and visual arts, photography; and “research and production” literary works (the writers). The most notable names were Jonas Gwangwa who was the lead in the music content of the experiment.  Thami Mnyele, Dr. Wally Serote founder of Medu (Medu happens to be a Sepedi word which means “Roots”). It was Thami Mnyele who took this leverage to another level. Baleka Mbethe who was appointed Deputy President decades later  after that country’s dispensation, Professor Kgosietsile, Barry Gilder, Judith Seidman, Albio Gonzales and others.

This background is essential as it partly positions the context in which Jonas Gwangwa’s contribution in Botswana was commemorated recently at Cresta Lodge here in Gaborone. It was a colourful event which was handsomely embraced by all the key stakeholders and the audience in attendance within the confines imposed by the COVID protocols.

With Shima Monageng on hand to welcome everyone, and Kgosi Osca Mosielele coordinating the technology for the RB2 air waves, the event was well and truly in flight. To set the scene, Moroka Moreri did what he does best on the day as he rolled his voice pounding upon his words of praise in acknowledgment. The presence of Her Excellency Rosemary Mbatha the High Commissioner of South Africa to Botswana, and her colleagues from the South African High Commission inspired him even more. He had only the most implacable words of glitter to welcome Honourable Minister Peggy Serame MP  whose ascendance to the “high table” was her endorsement of the event.

No doubt questions do get asked rightly “Why Jonas Gwangwa?”. It is not too difficult to explain given the enormous contribution he made towards the development of music and the arts in Botswana vis-a-vis his pedigree and recognition across the world as a jazz music icon.  On the other hand,  Gwangwa occupies a special place in the hearts and minds of many Batswana – no less because he is regarded as a brother and “one of us” . 

Jonas was most intrigued in his own way, by Batswana as a people. He was subsequently immersed in Botswana culture and in our way of life. The years he spent in Botswana had a profound influence in the decades of his life which followed. He travelled widely across the world and traversed different continents on the planet. He had the presence of mind to see the cultural manifest of Batswana as a people, and through the prism of our simplicity and humility, which had an overlay of generous hospitality in abundance – he looked in the mirror and saw the attributes and traits he could seamlessly relate with. And yet he was fully aware of the complexity and subtlety of the Setswana culture which has embedded in it, unparalleled sophistication. This was rich fodder for the Creative in Jonas Gwangwa.

He later described Botswana as his home away from home. Inevitably it would not be outrageous to project him as one of the “Cultural Ambassadors” to Botswana. It would not come as a surprise either, that he would speak with the ultimate sense of fondness for our country and that Botswana left an everlasting in-print in his life, one he was bound to share as a reference point in his life with whoever he met in different parts of the world, both as an artist and as a human being.

The emergence of the Medu Cultural Ensemble, itself gave birth to a brand new (made in Botswana) music band “Shakawe” consisting of some of the most prodigious young musicians of the time, under Jonas Gwangwa’s  leadership, direction, mentoring and tutelage. Among them were Rampholo Molefhe , famously known as “Chumsa” a prolific pianist and keyboard player, Mothokhumo Giddie who became the most talented drummer. They have both since passed on.

Bonjo Keipidile, one of the surviving members of “Shakawe” plays the bass guitar with the utmost dexterity, prowess and innermost feeling. When he gave his most impassioned reflection and acknowledgment of his life-changing experiences with Gwangwa during the Cresta Lodge Commemoration, it reverberated across the ‘virtual’ room. The three,  and other members of the youthful band from the region were Gwangwa’s proteges. Bonjo’s rendition of Batsumi, with the backing of the band consisting largely of the music veterans in Gaborone was exceptional and impeccable.

Everyone was ‘touched’ by Mme Elizabeth Ralosetlha’s version of Gwangwa’s humanity which she expressed at the podium; his kindness and humility. She was home-help in Gwangwa’s family homestead , undertaking the usual domestic chores. In her words, she was the recipient of the most humane exposures imaginable. She ‘let everyone in’ on Gwangwa’s efforts to assist her acquire and secure a piece of land which was meant to be a ‘kick-start’ for her towards  a home for herself and her family in future.  One can’t help thinking that images of the plight of ‘domestic servants’  in white South Africa in those days kept flashing in the mind of Jonas, possibly in a  haunting sort of way.

Batswana are endeared to Gwangwa’s music including wedding compositions which in a way have become wedding celebration ‘anthems’ in their own right. A wedding is probably incomplete without Gwangwa’s  mush celebrated “Dikgomo” (tse di ka boelang morago ha di se mmogo).  It is a song composed by him which strikes at the very core of our Batswana culture. It has also earned him their respect.

Similarly, and in many Batswana’s living rooms, whether in urban or in our village settings, his musicality, and the composer in him, endeared him to the citizenry in this country when he expressed his allegiance through the medium of his much celebrated compositions which strike right at the core of our Botswana culture

The artistic and musical foundations left behind by Jonas Gwangwa, upon which a significant part of our Botswana Music & Arts landscape is built,  are enduring, and  are there for everyone to see. There are other aspects upon which Gwangwa’s gift to Botswana are evidenced. His inputs in aspects to do with the airwaves and radio broadcasting are plentiful.

The inspiration behind the commemoration event is embodied in its founders’ intrinsic conviction as regards Gwangwa’s profound contribution, not only to Botswana, but to the rest of the world.  Much as the commemoration spotlight was on the life of Jonas and the quality time he spent in Botswana,  it rather shines upon the impact of his influence in the Arts and Creative which in turn influenced the manner in which he shared his eventful life with us.

Almost on cue, the ‘impromptu’ band huddled together to deliver some of Gwangwa’s compositions and did so with an aura of intense emotion which left everyone spellbound. Both John Selolwane and Bonjo took the lead in painting the canvas to express Gwangwa’s most popular music which serenaded far beyond the grounds of Fairground into the open skies digitally, landing beyond the shores on the laps of other Batswana in different parts of the world.

For her part, Honourable Peggy Serame was most enchanted in her expression of Gwangwa’s Pan Africanist legacy and influences. In an amicable sort of way, referenced Gwangwa’s memory as that of a great man who will be remembered for his musical genius; “The genius whose music transcended cultures, boundaries and religions. Through his creative genius, Jonas Gwangwa implored us to return to the singular, traditional African concepts about culture, society, and values.”

Even as she reminisced over Jonas Gwangwa, “this larger than life character who despite his stage performance and presence lived a quiet life”, the Minister lamented that it was by a stroke of divine intervention that Gwangwa’s life was spared when the apartheid forces raided his house in Gaborone on that fateful day in 1985. At this time, he was elsewhere with  his family and friends.

She felt dutybound, as did all the music fraternity and Batswana at large,  to pay tribute to our own homegrown  cohort of musicians who have since passed – Duncan Senyatso, Rampholo Molefhe, Tsilo Baitsile, Mothokhumo Giddie, Malombo, Stampore and several others.

In her mind, key to commemorating the life of Jonas is that he was regarded as the maestro whose sacrifices and  contributions were at a point of intersection with the Botswana code of values. In this context, the aspirations they had for a better Africa, for empowered societies and resilient cultures were fundamental, almost existential. These are values which are consistent with our way of life in Botswana.

The Minister’s parting shot was in the notion that the richness of any society is if it transcends the freedoms of expression, and morphs into the art and cultural landscapes  which demonstrate the true nature and extent of the society’s state of mind.  It is for this reason and other reasons that she challenged all to consider that even as we commemorate the departed, our priority should lie in celebrating the living.

Even more important is to tap into the commemoration of a legend to treasure those moments and carry on his legacy. “ For all the goodness and life lessons he imparted upon us during his lifetime, we have a responsibility to pass them on to those that remain today and generations to come”, she advised.

Enter her Excellency Rosemary Mbatha who unequivocally stated with impassioned assurance, forcefully engaging with the audience as she informed everyone listening that artists and musicians played a pivotal role in securing g the freedom and liberty of the South African people. She recalled with fond memories the mobilisation of the greats such as Gwangwa, Masekela, Ray Phiri, Semenya, Makeba and others.  She singled out both John Selolwane and his tremendous influence and artistic contribution to the effort. Rhoda Sekgororwane was acknowledged by the High Commissioner as one of the impresarios  and youth activists who were instrumental in galvanising the community of South African exiles in Gaborone.

The voice of The Botswana Musicians Union (BOMU) and Botswana Entertainers and Promoters Association (BEPA)  reverberated with approval from Fresh Lesokwane (BOMU president) and Phillip Makgalemele  (former cabinet minister and member of Parliament, BEPA Patron) respectively. For them, then commemoration of the life of Gwangwa was a stepping stone towards deepening the effectiveness of future collaboration amongst the collage within the entertainment industry.

In the end, it was left to Kate Maphage (nee Gwangwa) to sound the bugle trill contemporaneously beating the African drum as she brought the business of the day to a close. The Gwangwa family was overwhelmed by emotion and tears of joy in full appreciation of the gesture which wound the clock back, re-living the moments of times gone by with the great Gwangwa, their patriarch.

As for the future, the Concept Designers of the commemorative event are adamant, and pronounce upon the imperative to envisage the future in which value must be extracted from gains made in the past, in all aspects which arguably currently remain dormant. This view must in of itself constitute a re-awakening – a launch pad, upon which all well meaning interested parties, and persons of interest must convert into key stakeholders.

As they see it, futuristically, the question must be asked: Where are the platforms for the re-birth of the Arts and Cultural Creative spaces; what more could the coalition of writers- script writers, poets and art directors do to project our heritage through the fuselage of the creative space; disciplines of contemporary visual art (painting, drawing, photography, sculpture, video, film, audio and multi media). A case must therefore be made for the resurgence of a re-imagined arts and cultural ecosystem in Botswana.

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