Vincent Kolbe passed away late Friday night, in Cape Town, South Africa, finally losing a long and frankly heroic battle with cancer. He touched many people during his 77 years on earth -- as a jazz pianist, librarian, political activist, grassroots historian, wise man, wise guy, and, of course, as a husband, father, and friend. Not just in South Africa, but in the Americas and Europe, too, people will be mourning his passing. Soon, we'll also remember to celebrate his remarkable life.
John Edwin Mason: Vincent Kolbe at his 75th birthday celebration, Plumstead, Cape Town, 2008.
Vincent was a quintessential product of Cape Town, the old port city on the far southern tip of Africa. The culture of the city and the people in it -- especially those who, like Vincent, grew up in District Six -- was and is a gumbo, a bouillabaisse, and, since we're talking about South Africa, a bredie concocted out of ingredients from Africa, Europe, Asia, and the Americas. As a musician, he was perfectly at home playing American jazz and South African marabi or singing the ghoemaliedjies of the Cape Town carnival. During the 1950s and into the '60s, he was a vital part of Cape Town's multi-racial jazz scene, which flourished brightly and briefly, bringing together musicians and fans who happily ignored South Africa's culture of segregation and white supremacy.
John Edwin Mason: Vincent and his wife, Patty, at Vincent's 75th birthday celebration, Plumstead, Cape Town, 2008.
Sadly, music couldn't pay the bills -- especially not for someone who, under the laws of apartheid, was classified as coloured. As the racial oppression of apartheid tightened its grip and playing opportunities dried up, in the early to mid-'60s, coloured and African musicians found themselves faced with difficult choices. Some gave up music altogether; other left the country in search of work (and freedom). Many stayed and took day jobs, while continuing to make music whenever they could.
Vincent was one who stayed and made music. As he often said, he and the others who didn't leave and never stopped playing were the unsung heroes who kept the culture alive. To support his family, however, he became a librarian, working in a number of different poor and working-class townships and neighborhoods. During the '70s and '80s, his work as a librarian allowed him to become a conduit for passing banned books and other political publications to young activists who were hungry for intellectual nourishment. He was also a cultural activist, working with MAPP, an organization that brought musical education (and political awareness) to township youth.
John Edwin Mason: Vincent, at home, doing what he most loved to do -- making music with friends and being the life of the party. Plumstead, Cape Town, January 2010.
A final aspect of Vincent's life is perhaps the most elusive. He powerfully shaped the way that we understand the history of Cape Town and its people, yet he had no degrees in history, never taught the subject formally, and never published an article or book. He was, however, a walking encyclopedia and, more than anyone I've ever known, had a gift for talking. And talking. And talking. Brilliantly.
I'm one of an endless stream of writers, historians, journalists, filmmakers, musicologists, aspiring musicians, and countless others who arrived on his doorstep eager to learn from the master. Almost invariably, he welcomed us, sat us down, made us a cup of tea, and taught us more than we could have imagined we wanted to know. His generosity was astonishing.
My debt to him -- for opening doors, introducing me to people, pointing me in innumerable right directions, and offering singular insights into the culture and history of Cape Town -- can never be repaid. The text of my book One Love, Ghoema Beat: Inside the Cape Town Carnival shows his influence from beginning to end. My forthcoming book on jazz and popular music and the struggle for democracy in South Africa will, as well.
Vincent's last lesson to me was about how to die with dignity and grace. He was ill -- sometimes desperately ill -- almost from the time that I met him, five or six years ago. Initially, he took it hard. But along the way, he returned to the Roman Catholicism of his youth. In his relationship with God, he found peace. It eased his suffering, even though it didn't end the pain. The relationship couldn't have been easy, but Vincent worked hard on it. Many times, over the last few years, I'd show up at his house or at the hospice where he might be staying, and he'd ask me to drive him to his church, so that he could light some candles and pray. I was smart enough to learn some history from him. I hope that I'm smart enough to learn this lesson, too.
My words and photos can give you, at best, a partial view of this extraordinary man. Here's another view, in a fine short film by Rio Allen.
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Eric Alan, one of the most knowledgeable guys on the Cape Town jazz scene, just left a comment in which he describes Vincent as "an incredible, passionate, man who touched the lives of many, a man whose generosity of spirit knew no bounds." Yes, indeed. Thanks, Eric.
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Fadeela Davids' beautiful comment shows us Vincent in his prime as a librarian, storyteller, teacher, and activist:
Mr. Kolbe's spirit will be kept alive in our hearts as we continue his legacy of being a natural storyteller and historian. He was a walking encyclopeadia who had the skill to call up any piece of info long before there was Google. I was a child of 10 when I started using Bonteheuwel Library ,and a young lady of about 18 when I worked there in 1975. He was our mentor, teacher and father figure. He opened our eyes to the evils of apartheid and sang Freedom songs with us as we drove to the different areas to follow the action. Who can forget how he could go off on a tangent about you are what you eat, and yet could not resist eating koeksisters for Africa." Mr. Kolbe wherever you may find yourself...LET THE WILD RUMPUS BEGIN"
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Hamba kahle, Vincent. Go well.