a tribute to Nomzamo Mkhuzo, diva of New Brighton jazz.September 19, 2015
It seemed someone had performed a rain dance as the rains came pouring down merciless last sunday. No wonder we were soaking wet when we arrived at the Douglas Ngange Mboba Memorial Hall in New Brighton, a township near Port Elizabeth, thanks to an invite from Diane Thram, who has been researching jazz in New Brighton since 2009.
We had come for an event in honour of singer Nomzamo Mkhuzo (b. 1938), one of South Africa’s grand divas of jazz. And we were among the first to arrive. In two’s and three’s several musicians arrived with their instruments, the soundchecking had begun. Local musicians and singers were expected to come and play for free that afternoon, as a fundraiser for Nomzamo Mkhuzo.
The benefit concert was organized by Vulyewa Luzipho, a vocalist who is a longstanding member of The Jazz Divas aka Metro Jazz Queens, residing in Port Elizabeth. This vocal group started performing in 2004 and is the moniker for the united talents of Shirley Lebakeng, Vulyewa Luzipho, Welakazi (Webro) Mosia and Nomzamo Mkhuzo who was a member until she became too frail. All of these vocalists were present and performed acappella that day – showing of their immense talent as jazz singers.
After a long wait, the concert was opened by keyboard player Jury Ntshinga, who sang a wonderful version of the jazz standard ‘Moody’s Mood’. Vocalist Thandeka Marwanqa joined him to make the rendition even richer.
Then veteran saxophone player Patrick Pasha came on stage and introduced Nomzamo.He remembered some great moments of his dear friend, how they grew up in houses where church hymns were sung every Sunday. Local songs in Xhosa were popular with the whole family, and records by Ella Fitzgerald were played. ‘She was my biggest influence, I adored her music.’ says Nomzamo Mkhuzo who grew up listening to Ella’s records. Despite the fact that her father thought she was too young, she started her career as a vocalist with the Barnacle Bills Big Band when only 16 years old. Her talent was already apparent, she was born to sing. Nomzamo went on to tour extensively with the Junior Jazzmen throughout the late 50’s. Later she teamed up with her husband, guitarist Jamani Skweyana. They recorded for SABC as the ‘J-J Quartet’. Nomzamo is known for her powerful voice and ability to capture a crowd with the energy she brings to her singing. She was very popular through the 70s and 80s especially for her jazz compositions sung in Xhosa addressing social issues in tunes that embody New Brighton jazz. Nomzamo was a founding member of the Metro Jazz Queens in 2004 and continues to perform occasionally, most recently at her 75th birthday (25 May 2013) hosted by her musician collegues and friends at the Red Location Museum.
Nomzamo is now 78 and although she is frail and confined to a wheelchair, she has lost none of her strenght of voice nor the willpower to perform.
Diane Thram, director of the International Library of African Music (ILAM) researched the history of jazz vocalists, big bands and what followed on the jazz scene in New Brighton from the 1940s-90s. This project was initiated as part of the ILAM-Red Location oral history project that culminated with curation of the ‘Generations of Jazz’ permanent exhibition at the Red Location Museum in 2013. Nomzamo Mkhuzo was one of the first musicians interviewed. Diane Thram discovered that Nomzamo Mkhuzo was still alive and lived in a rundown small cement house, in poor conditions. That was back in 2009. Nomzamo’s singing is documented on 2 concert DVDS created by ILAM from their documentation of two concerts produced as part of the oral history project, the first in March 2010 entitled ‘Jazz Heritage Concert’ and the second for the opening of the ‘Generations of Jazz’ exhibition in June 2013. Nomzamo sings solo and with the Jazz Divas on both DVDs. Locals know Nomzamo – those of her generation have never forgotten her and her powerful voice. For younger musicians involved in the concerts, it was a discovery of one of the great voices of jazz for which Port Elizabeth is famous. After all, after Cape Town and Johannesburg, Port Elizabeth is famous around the world for its jazz.
Amasiko sang by Nomzamo Mkhuzo at the ILAM/Red Location Museum concert in New Brighton, Port Elizabeth.
And rightly so. Nomzamo’s performance during the concert that day was a gem in the rough the way she can still sing and hit those high notes. When Brown Sugar, a young male vocalist backed by the band Take Note, sang Nomzamo’s composition, ‘Into Zangoku’, Nomzamo joined him to create a duet in which she did a impressive scat – their performance made clear that New Brighton Jazz is still alive and kickin’. Proof of a living jazz heritage. Three generations of jazz musicians and singers were on stage last sunday afternoon. I witnessed three generations of love.
parts of this content is based on Generations of Jazz exhibit catalogue (ILAM 2013)
to obtain copies of the DVD and/or the Generations of Jazz exhibit catalogue contact firstname.lastname@example.org or go to www.ru.ac.za/ilam