"I loved jazz before I knew what jazz was."
--Winston "Mankunku" Ngozi, 2006
Winston "Mankunku" Ngozi, one of South Africa's finest musicians, died last Monday, in Cape Town. As a composer and as a saxophonist, he forever changed the shape of South African jazz. "Yakhal' Inkomo," his best known composition, has become a South African standard. Every serious musician knows it; you'll hear it everywhere the music is played. The song is deeply embedded in at least two musical traditions: the progressive African-American jazz of John Coltrane that Mankunku loved so much, and the music of his own Xhosa people.
Winston "Mankunku" Ngozi, "Yakhal' Inkomo," recorded in 1968. Performed by Mankunku, tenor sax; Lionel Pillay, piano; Agrippa Mogwaza, bass; and Early Mabuza, drums.
When he created "Yakal' Inkomo," Mankunku reached back into the South African past, beyond the marabi and mbaqanga [types of South African jazz] that he played as a young man, into the music and spirituality of the pre-colonial era. The very words "Yakal' Inkomo" refer to the bellow of a bull, when it's sacrificed in honor of the ancestors.
Winston "Mankunku" Ngozi, "Dedication (To Daddy Trane and Brother Silver)." Also performed by Mankunku, tenor sax; Lionel Pillay, piano; Agrippa Mogwaza, bass; and Early Mabuza, drums.
It's no surprise, really, that Mankunku wrote "Dedication" for Coltrane and Horace Silver. Even though he was an ocean away from them (and never met either), they inspired him to push his music far beyond the conventional and to blaze his own musical path. (It's no accident that Coltrane, a deeply spiritual musician, affected Mankunku, another spiritual soul, so greatly.
I got to know Mankunku only in the latter stages of his life. He was already weakened by the heart condition that eventually killed him, when my friend Temba Nolutshungu introduced us several years ago. Temba knew that I was working on a book about jazz in Cape Town and was eager to speak with him.
A formal interview never really happened, in part, because of Mankunku's humility--his inability to see himself as the giant that he truly was--and, in part, because of his health. Instead, we had a series of informal conversations, usually in his home in Gugulethu, an African "township" within the Cape Town municipality, a relic of apartheid, the old system of racial segregation.
It was during one of those chats that he told me that he "loved jazz before he knew what jazz was." He was thinking back to his youth, when an uncle started him in music. This uncle played marabi and mbaqanga on the piano, and the young Mankunku, singing, would improvise along with him.
All of his life, Mankunku communicated more easily--and more profoundly--in music than with words. I remember once driving him, his brother, and my friend, Temba, to visit Gus Ntlokwana, who runs Duma’s Falling Leaves Jazz Rendezvous, Gugulethu's hippest shebeen. Mankunku was sitting in the back and had been very quiet all day. Out of nowhere, he started playing his sax--a soft, haunting tune--a lament, perhaps--that seemed to have no beginning and no end. Suddenly, we were no longer in my hired Toyota and far away from the dust and heat of Gugulethu. He had taken all of us to a place where, for a moment, only music mattered.
I have many other memories of Mankunku. This one is by far my favorite.