I was stunned when I learned that Zim Ngqawana, South African jazz musician extraordinaire, passed away a few days ago, on May 10, 2011. Sometimes with musicians, a death can be especially jolting, because somehow we expect the music to always be there, continually evolving into something that will grow even better with age, like a fine Cabernet. Judging by news reports in the South African media, many South Africans are also deeply saddened to lose their beloved 52 year-old jazz “genius.” Perhaps now people will truly appreciate Zim Ngqawana as a national treasure, a standard bearer of South Africa’s fabulous jazz tradition. To experience Zim Ngqawana live on stage was to witness dazzling talent and exuberance, delivered in a captivating spectrum of arrangements and compositions. Zim would masterfully jump between the flute, saxophone, harmonica, piano and vocals, always with a great ensemble of musicians blending seamlessly with his unique stage presence.
I remember Zim telling me that his musical journey was touched off by a small harmonica his father gave him in a Christmas stocking when he was 4. Zim said he had a very strong relationship with his father, who taught him through the best of African oral tradition; on his album sleeves and bios Zim would simply say that he was taught the age-old wisdom of Ubuntu. Zim found it very perplexing and distressing that some people were earning masters’ degrees and PhDs by doing dissertations on Ubuntu; he felt that making Ubuntu into an academic subject was an aberration, a misrepresentation of the intuitive understanding that comes from centuries of African tradition.
Zim was a great composer and performer; but through all the year’s I’d known him Zim’s passion was to teach and expound upon South African music to as many earnest students as he could find. He envisioned a new generation of artists that would be multi-instrumentalists like himself, each with their own musical proclivities, but all being taught music theory and piano as a foundation. He wanted to create a musical pedagogy, instead of expecting young people to pick up individual instruments and learn music on their own. Building his audience and touring throughout Africa, Europe and the United States, Zim realized his dream by eventually buying a farm outside of Johannesburg and establishing his Zimology Institute where he trained talented artists. But criminals broke into his farm in December of last year, and besides stealing personal possessions, they vandalized Zim’s studio equipment and broke the piano legs to his two prize grand pianos.
“This was an attempt to break us. I was demoralized to see the grand pianos worth half a million lying flat on the ground,” Zim said. “The souls of the people have been vandalized. What kind of criminal doesn’t know the value of a piano?”
The spiteful thieves who broke Zim’s pianos, broke his heart and his dream. Beyond anything material, the grand pianos and the Zimology Institute were part of Zim’s passion to transmit and preserve the beauty of South African jazz for future generations. Zim may never have fully recovered from this transgression, this deep wound – it was like an attack on his soul and the goodness he was trying to create in the world.
With Zim gone, we have to find more fundis and griots to purvey the oral wisdom and human imagination that our world so desperately needs. Zim always believed that his music was medicine, his music was a kind of healing balm. Zim’s 1999 album, was called Ingoma. The Zulu and Xhosa word for song is “ingoma,” which also means “medicine;” a “sangoma” is a traditional healer or medicine man. African languages have many words like this, with multiple integrated, intuitive meanings that become emotionally layered into the way people greet each other, speak and convey ideas. Zim understood that he was a shaman, and his intention was to teach and share in a broad vision for the future. His music will always be with us, but it seems his dream has been mortally denigrated by the banality of jealousy, envy and greed. Hamba kakuhle, my dear bra Zim! Sizabonana kwakhona, umhlobo wam. Kwahkhona.
Tribute to Zim Nqawana in The Sowetan
Jazz giant Ngqawana is no more
SOUTH African jazz giant Zim Ngqawana died yesterday morning and was buried last night.
The country has lost a musical genius
Ngqawana, real name Zimasile, died at Charlotte Maxeke Academic Hospital in Johannesburg after suffering a major stroke.
He was 51 years old and is survived by his wife and six children.
Ngqawana was billed to perform at the Wits Great Hall on Saturday but suffered a stroke and collapsed during rehearsals at his home in Troyeville, Johannesburg.
Prominent South African jazz musicians will now perform at Wits on Saturday to commemorate “The Life and Times of Zim Ngqawana”.
The jazz giant, known for his uncompromising attitude, was admitted to the hospital on Monday according to a statement released yesterday by his family.
“While rehearsing for his upcoming concert at the Wits Great Hall scheduled for Saturday, he succumbed to a major stroke.
“He was buried according to Muslim tradition last night at the West Park Cemetery in Johannesburg.”
Ngqawana, who took his career seriously, created some of the most-valued and sophisticated pieces of music which was embraced by serious jazz lovers.
Mixing African folklore and complex jazz arrangements, Ngqawana was both a pioneer and originator of a deep-rooted sound that came to be known as Zimology.
Ngqawana is especially respected for his first album called Zimology. The album created raised the bar in South African jazz.
Ngqawana graduated in jazz studies from the University of KwaZulu-Natal.
He later organised a group of local musicians who received formal training in jazz studies from universities in the country.
Ngqawana performed in Europe, the US and other countries.
Promoter Peter Tladi told Sowetan that the country has lost more than just a musician.
“Zim was a friend who subsequently became a godfather to my son.
“Just two weeks ago we were together in Cape Town where he performed at the funeral of another prominent musician. He told me that he was working on a proposal for the Joy of Jazz and we were both excited by the proposal, and now this.
“This makes one wonder why our musicians are dying like this,” an emotional Tladi said.
Tladi’s company, T-Musicman, promotes the popular Joy of Jazz Concert that normally takes place in August. Ngqawana would have performed at the festival.
Gauteng MEC for sport, arts, culture and recreation Lebogang Maile said, “The country has lost a musical genius and the music industry is poorer.
“Zim’s passing must serve as a reminder to everyone, especially the youth about the rich heritage we have.
“His music, including masterpieces such as Qhula Kwedini will continue to inspire many in the performing arts. Condolences to his family.”