By Novell Zwange (JOHANNESBURG) — Last night I went to Niki’s Oasis in Newtown to attend the memorial service for the late South African saxophonist, Ezra Nyaniso Ngcukana, born in Port Elizabeth on August 25 1954 who died on Sunday night of 9 August this year. Up till now the cause of Mgcukana’s cause death is not yet known.
The event was a highly remarkable one as scores of top south African artists, politicians, and trade-unionists descended on Niki.s Oasis to pay their homage to one of the great musicians of our time. The line-up of artists and notable performers include Ike Phaahla (as the MC), Rev. Makhosonke Mrubata who did some recital, Mlungisi Gegana & friends, Lefifi Tladi who did some spoken word, Feya Faku & friends, PAC representative Lehlohonolo Shale, Lex Futshane & Friends, as well as word of encouragement from Rev Dr. Mangezi Guma.
Ngcukana was one of the five sons of Christopher Columbus Ngcukana, baritone saxophonist, band leader and one of the fathers of modern jazz in the Cape. Columbus, like many musicians of his era, led an itinerant life. Ngcukana, raised by his mother and grandmother, saw his father intermittently.
Music was central to the household. Ngcukana began playing the trumpet when he was eight. Saxophone, he said, “was not intended for me, as I was not aggressive: I was a very delicate kid, always at home.”
So when he became interested in the saxophone, he picked up a damaged instrument his father was going to recondition for his elder brother and fixed it with rubber bands to get some notes out of it.
Abdullah Ibrahim dubbed him “the Cape Town John Coltrane”. In 1972, he entered Fort Hare University, following an interest in maths and science,but was hardly in the lecture room as he went running all over the country playing, raising funds for Saso (the South African Students’ Organisation)”.
Ngcukana the political activist was expelled from University of Fort Hare in 1973. He did not despair and went on to attain BSc degree with UNISA majoring in Mathematics. A member of the Pan africa Congress, he honoured the late Robert M Sobukwe in song in his debut album You Think You Know Me.
During that period, Ngcukana was working with poet and artist Lefifi Tladi in the group Dashiki, which combined free improvisation and spoken word. Yet though resistance gigs such as these interrupted his studies, he eventually gained both BSc and BCom degrees. He worked as a manager, and, for a time, lectured in jazz studies at the University of Natal. The tensions between his professional and musical lives were stressful, and on a couple of occasions Ngcukana declared he was retiring from jazz — but he always returned.
He will also be remembered as a caring mentor and teacher. One of those he taught was McCoy Mrubata, at informal music schools convened during the mid-1970s in the upstairs rooms of Langa.
In 1999 he was teaching again. Ngcukana and pianist George Werner founded the Little Giants: a music project for township children whose graduates have gone on to study jazz at the University of Cape Town and star as soloists in the National Youth Jazz Orchestra and many other bands. The Little Giants have released one album: Ungalibali.
Although Ngcukana featured briefly on that album and as a sideman for many other artists, his various responsibilities left him little space to record as leader. He has one album under his name, the 1989 You Think You Know Me. And one, at least, of his compositions, Sobukwe, has established its place in the canon of South African standards. Ngcukana’s last national concert was in July, in Grahamstown, alongside Robbie Jansen, who died shortly afterwards. His passion for music remains forever with us. May his soul rest in peace!