Growing up in his hometown of Queenstown, in South Africa’s Eastern Cape, Mlungisi Gegana played the tin guitar at the age of eleven years.Here, according to his biography, during the year of 1972, there was only one real guitar to share in the small town. Mlungisi struggled hard to get a chance to play the guitar once in a while. He eventually bought himself a bass guitar, which he taught himself to play.
Prior to realising a new passion for jazz in 1986, Mlungisi played in a pop band called the Black Slaves that performed cover material for money. Then aged 25 years, he packed his belongings and headed to Cape Town, the city that nurtured his jazz passion. There, he performed as a bass guitarist, the deep jazz grooves he composed with a small band.
A later move to Johannesburg finally brought him a record contract, and he released his debut album through Gallo Jazz, titled One Step Forward in 2004. The album features big named jazz players, amongst whom are (guitarist) Louis Mhlanga, (percussionist) Godfrey Mgcina, (drummer) Vusi Khumalo and (trombonist) Jasper Cook.
The fusion jazz album was recorded at Downtown Studios in Jo’burg. Mlungisi, who today plays an upright/electric bass, not only composed all the tracks on the album, he arranged and produced them himself. It is classified as a mixture of Latino, African and contemporary jazz, also fusing traditional elements with mainstream sounds.
Pianist Andile Yenana, who will perform alongside Gegana at the Pavilion Restaurant, is acclaimed for his two albums We Used to Dance (2002) and Who’s Got the Map (2005) both recorded under Sheer Sound. He has collaborated widely, and says he has deliberately tried to work with anyone interesting who approaches him: “It helps broaden my scope.”
He has acted as arranger for vocalists Sibongile Khumalo, Gloria Bosman and Suthukazi Arosi, among others, and produced albums for other instrumentalists. Andile won a SAMA as Best Producer for his work with the legendary Winston Mankunku Ngozi on “Abantwana be Afrika”. He has also played in the Afro-pop band of guitarist Louis Mhlanga. In mid 2005, he opened for Dianne Reeves at the Johannesburg Joy of Jazz Festival.
Andile has also done other work, too, contributing to the score of the Aids documentary “Shouting Silent”, and even acting as music director for a South African TV game show, Lilizela Mlilizeli.
“My dad, Felix Thamsanqa Yenana, had a huge collection of music, ranging from jazz to Motown, all the forms of urban black music. My brother also had discs, and I grew up listening to their records and singing along,” Says Andile.
His father’s memories, as well as his music, helped inspire Andile’s career. Yenana senior had been a student at St Peters College in Rosettenville, a school with a strong church-music tradition, where fellow students had included trumpeter Hugh Masekela. (Andile, too, sang in a choir during his schooldays.)
“Already, around nine, my old man had opened my eyes to the world of the arts. Because of that heritage, there’s no way I could be older in this genre of jazz.”
When Andile began learning piano, it was with a mission. “When I picked up that instrument in Zwelitsha Township, it was to play jazz.”
Andile secured his teaching diploma from Fort Hare University before taking up B. Mus studies under Darius Brubeck at the University of Natal, Durban’s pioneering School of Jazz and Popular Music. There, he discovered the professional music scene around Durban’s clubs, and struck up a firm friendship with two other highly focused music students, saxophonist Zim Ngqawana and trumpeter Feya Faku. “They paid attention to their varsity work, and I admired that.”
The friendship with Ngqawana turned into an eleven-year gig, when Andile moved to Johannesburg and joined the reedman’s quartet. Though the personnel around them has changed over the years, the tough teamwork between sax and piano has endured through all five of Ngqawana’s albums, starting with San Song, recorded during an exchange visit to Norway in 1996.
As for his own future, he’s working with colleagues from band Voice, collaboration with Sydney Mnisi, Marcus Wyatt, Herbie Tsoaeli and drummers Lulu Gontsana and Morabo Morajele, on ways to introduce young players to South Africa’s jazz heritage.
“I don’t want a spaza shop (a little corner stall). I’d like to see a supermarket run by musicians for musicians: a place where, before they go to university, young players can learn about South African jazz before they learn about jazz from overseas.”
Jazz lovers will get a chance to experience musicians Mlungisi Gegana and Andile Yenana, in concert with a quartet in late April at the Pavilion Restaurant at Fairgounds Mall. Fans of are advised to watch the press for concert details.