Jonas Mosa Gwangwa was born in 1941 in Orlando East, Soweto. He gained popularity while playing the trombone for the Jazz Epistles together with other Jazz icons such as Bra Hugh (Masekela) on trumpet, Kippie Moeketsi on alto saxophone, Dollar Brand (later known as Abdullah Ibrahim) on piano, Johnny Gertse on bass and Early Mabuza or Makhaya Ntshoko on drums. The short-lived group became famous after performing in the jam sessions called Jazz at the Odin in the Odin Theatre in Sophiatown.
In 1959, just before breaking up, the band recorded an LP (Long Playing record) titled ‘Jazz Epistle, Verse 1’, the first album by a black South African band. In the same year, Todd Matshikiza’s musical King Kong became a hit in Johannesburg. King Kong was based on the tragic, real life story of SA heavyweight boxer Ezekiel ‘King Kong’ Dhlamini, a Zulu boy from Vryheid, and became a jazz opera of some note. Africa’s queen of song, Miriam Makeba, members of the Manhattan Brothers and the Jazz Epistles were involved in the production. When the cast of King Kong received an invitation to perform in Europe, shortly after the Sharpeville Massacre, some of the musicians, Jonas Gwangwa and Hugh Masekela included, chose not to return to South Africa. After the tour ended, Jonas joined the prestigious Manhattan School of Music in New York, in the United States, an institution that also housed Bra Hugh.
Jonas was the musical director of the African National Congress (ANC) ensemble tour, ‘Amandla’, for ten years. In 1987, he produced the musical score for Richard Attenborough’s film, ‘Cry Freedom’. The film was nominated for multiple awards, including an Oscar, Golden Globe, BAFTA Film and a Grammy. It received the Peace Film Award at the Berlin International Film Festival in 1988; NBR (National Board of Review), PFS (Political Film Society), BAFTA and NAACP just to mention a few.
The prolific composer and trombone player returned home in 1991, after the release of Nelson Mandela from prison.
Gwangwa has produced countless soundtracks and theme songs over the years. These include the soundtrack for the SA soap ‘Generations’ and the movie Othello. He has to date won many awards.
Some of Gwangwa’s albums include the soundtrack to Cry Freedom with George Fenton (1990). The album carries songs such as Shebeen Queen , Crossroads – A Dawn Raid, Gumboots, Black Township, Detention etc; His other albums are, A Temporary Inconvenience (1999) and Flowers of the Nation (2006). Vaal Jazz lovers will remember the title track as it is the signature song for The Fountain of Jazz on Vaal’s Lekoa FM, with DJ Bona Sera, also known as The Mastermind and the Jazz Collector.
A Collection (2007) which has songs Mhlobo Mdala, Just Bones, Diphororo, Kgomo, Ulibambe Lingashoni, Morwa, Hamba Ngiyeza, Barungwa, Batsumi and Sello Sa Mase Tlapelo. There is also Best Of Jonas Gwangwa (2012). Just to mention a few. Is it possible to have a favourite Jonas song? Nah…