The requiem of South African exile story


jonas ngwangwa

In New York City, the Golden City cannot be complete

without a page on Jonas Gwagwa and his music,

that pierced through his dungeon like apartment on 7th Ave

in Manhattan not too far from Columbia University.

Here Jonas Gwagwa like the pied piper of hermelin

lived with his trombone that was played muted

not to disturb the skirmishes of life in the neighborhood.


Jonas Gwagwa ‘s place was a bee hive to South African exiles

they came from many corners and crevices of the USA.

Jonas’s place was indeed like a refuge for all South Africans

who were overwhelmed by the skirmishes of NYC.

Whenever you paid Jonas a visit you would

find a mosaic collectivity of   South Africans

young at heart and defiant of apartheid rule of law,

they came under many pretext, some to be consoled

for their loved ones who just passed away back home,

some came out of severe boredom of NYC,

others to satisfy the spell of hunger with pap and vleis

and morogo a special palatable dish

that only Gwagwa was capable of preparing.

While  Jonas an ectomorphic character, whose left eye

remained slightly close only to open mysteriously like

the sun flower when intellectual discourse on apartheid,

in his place often took a shape and form

of  bringing a solution to problems of apartheid

that were multitudinous as the autumn leaves

and only the mind could  translate into a deferred dream of liberation.


Jonas Gwagwa a person who made music

the main orchestration of his life,

always played a role as a participant observer

in many debates that took place at his place

especially when people like myself had one too many

He was expertly qualified to facilitate

in any conversation that ranged from music, arts and politics.

It was easy for him to do so because

when you listen to the lyrics of his music,

you will find a wide range of his musical rendition

ranging from coming home with the evening breeze

to how lovers dream in the midnight rain

and even rise up with the morning star


When I graduated from the University of Rochester

I decided to move to Atlanta Georgia,

little did I know that Jonas Gwagwa was also

gradually packing his little belonging in New York City

to come and live in Atlanta Georgia,

the home of the civil rights movement.

Here we’re Martin Luther King based vicariously his

famous “I Have A dream” speech that said:

It is obvious today that America has defaulted

on the promissory note, insofar as

her citizens of color are concerned.

Instead of honoring this sacred obligation,

America has given the Negro people a bad check,

a check which has come back marked ” Bad check”

But we refused to believe that the bank

of justice is bankrupt. Jonas Gwagwa and I probably hoped

that by being in Atlanta the home of the civil rights

the USA might consider paying us also

about their sins they committed in supporting the evil system of apartheid.


When Jonas Gwagwa finally left New York for Atlanta,

he made sure to bring his talking drum, the tam- tam

and the rumba, the thumb piano and the xylophone,

and last but not least his trombone that shielded him,

when the crowds in Soweto felt their music appetite,

was not fully quenched so the show must go on for

the love of life from sunrise to sunset.

Music in Jonas Gwagwa runs in his veins and arteries

and it keeps his spirits in rhythmic beauty.

When the spirit moves try and expose yourself

to his classical albums entitled:

Flowers of the nation and Cry freedom.


Barely two weeks after Jonas arrival in Atlanta

the late Rev. Gladstone Nhlabati took us for

a libation at a place popularly known as the

Bird Cage.  This place was the most famous

for hosting such great artist as Cannonball Aderly,

Jazz  Messengers to mention a few. It is in these jam sessions that

Jonas trombone began to explode to many jazz lovers.

Tammy Mattison fell in love with Jonas’ unique sound

and consequently Jonas formed a group of young musicians

better known as the African Explosion that began to make waves in Atlanta.


The sound that African Explosion infused in their repertoire

was a combination of USA soul music and little bit

of Caribbean flavor and a whole pot of Soweto rhythm.

The first big appearance of the African Explosion

was at Gainsville Florida. The first performance took place

at Gainsville Florida University campus. Students had fun jiving

and dancing to Jonas music. The following day the band

went and gave a performance in some club in the middle

of nowhere in Gainsville. The place was packed to the

brim, their music made me feel nostalgic. It was as if

I am back home in Soweto drinking home brewed beer,

in a sheeben like Falling Leaves were I used to get roaring drunk.


After such a night of ecstasy

I was told there is no place for me to sleep,

so I had to spend a night in a dungeon

that had no toilet facility in America the beautiful.

Jonas brief stay in Atlanta added a lot of value

in promoting the plight of the liberation struggle

of South Africans at that crucial time in the USA.


I hope and pray that one rainy day New York City

and Atlanta will one day consider people

Like Jonas Gwagwa’s contribution in music,

the late Rev Gladstone Nhlabati a clergyman

who contributed a lot in liberation theology

that highlighted South African injustice in Atlanta,

even before Arch Bishop Desmond Tutu could do so

and Kaizer Motaung a soccer legend who introduced

the game of soccer to many in the early days of the game in Atlanta.


When all is said and done about the enormous contribution

South African musicians have made to dramatize

the plight of our people especially in the USA

around the sixties was quite remarkable.

Jonas Gwagwa will certainly loom as a shining star,

even though he may continue to sing the weary blues

once sang by Ray Charles, when he said musicians create

and industry mass produce their music for other intensive purposes.

In other words Jonas has the right to say as the old saying goes,

“I have sawn besides all waters in my day.

I planted deep, within my heart the fear

that wind or fowl would take the grain away.”

(Ana Botemp)