South Africa: President Zuma Pays Tribute To Jazz Legend Johnny Mekoa


South Africa’s President Jacob Zuma has extended his condolences to the family of world renowned trumpeter and head of the Gauteng Music Academy, Johnny Mekoa, who passed away on Monday.

Mekoa established the Gauteng Music Academy in 1994, which focused on teaching communities jazz, especially the youth.

In 2015, President Zuma conferred Mekoa the Order of Ikhamanga in Silver, an award for South African citizens who have excelled in arts, culture, literature, music, journalism and sport.

“We have lost a remarkable musician and teacher, who contributed immensely to the music sector and selflessly imparted his musical knowledge and skills to aspirant musicians, especially children from poor backgrounds.

“May his legacy be an inspiration to others to be selfless teachers in different fields in order to build a better and prosperous South Africa. We wish to convey our sincere condolences to the Mekoa family and the music industry at large. May his soul rest in peace,” said President Zuma.

Arts and Culture Minister Nathi Mthethwa has also paid tribute to Mekoa.

“The nation has lost one of its most talented and selfless musical sons,” said Minister Mthethwa.

The life and times of Johnny Mekoa

Mekoa was born Ramakgobotla John Mekoa in Benoni in 1945. He wanted to pursue a musical education and career, but circumstances at the time in apartheid South Africa did not allow him to do so.

However, together with other musicians, he continued to play in bands and groups and inspired new generations and new sounds. Many times he was prevented from travelling abroad by the apartheid government by refusing to give him a passport. But his consolation was, as he has said, that: “The bands we played in kept the hopes and dreams of the masses alive.”

After 20 years of working as an optical dispenser, Mekoa finally, at the age of 41, commenced with formal tertiary studies in music and earned a Bachelor Degree in music from the then University of Natal.

He later took up a Fulbright Scholarship and studied for a Master’s Degree in Music at the University of Indiana in the United States.

Mekoa received numerous awards over the years and two honorary doctorates.

His important contribution to arts education was through the establishment of the Music Academy of Gauteng in 1994. This initiative has grown over the years and has nurtured many new talents. It has been a breeding ground for youth who went on to become acclaimed jazz musicians.

The academy received an International Jazz Education Network Award for five years in a row. The Department of Arts and Culture recently funded the building of student accommodation residences at the Gauteng Music Academy through the community art centres’ capital works budget.

Minister Mthethwa said Mekoa has been a life-affirming force in musical education.

“He was not only content to play an instrument and to bask in the light of his own creativity and glory, but in the spirit of ubuntu, he needed to share that light with others. He lived his life to the full, with conviction and true to the dictum: ‘Let a hundred flowers bloom, let a hundred schools of thought contend!

“Over the years, Johnny Mekoa has done so much to provide musical skills to talented youth and he has pursued this calling to teach and impart knowledge with both passion and perseverance. His own contribution to South African music has been immense. From optical dispenser to heading a music academy, he certainly had the vision for looking ahead and addressing the needs of new times,” said Minister Mthethwa.

In an interview for the book Unsung Jazz Musicians Under Apartheid, Mekoa explained that: “You know, one had to go back to school. We knew that Mandela was going to be released. I knew it, so I said to myself: go back to school Johnny, get yourself ready, so that when we take over, we can be qualified. We have to take our destiny into our own hands. You had to prepare yourself educationally, spiritually and otherwise. To position yourself in such a way to shape the direction of young musical talent in our country.”

Minister Mthethwa said Mekoa will be remembered for his life’s work and his love for people, for encouraging youth and sustaining African music.

“Our condolences go to his family, his friends, his fellow musicians and teachers and to his students.”

Chairperson of the Living Legends Legacy Programme, Welcome Msomi, said Mekoa was committed to raising the status of young musicians to achieve excellence.

“This is a testament to his tireless work in establishing and maintaining the Gauteng Music Academy and against all the odds, he made it happen. So many of our people are going to miss him dearly. His amiable spirit translated into his enthusiastic disposition at the living legends project by bringing together many others in transferring their skills to next generation of jazz musicians.

“He successfully organised and hosted three living legends masterclasses during the course of 2016 and 2017 at his music academy where saxophonists Stompie Manana, Barney Rachabane and one of the last living Manhattan Brothers vocalists, Sanza Loate, participated,” said Msomi.

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