South African jazz musician and activist Jonas Gwangwa has died at the age of 83. Tributes have poured in from around the globe, including one by South African President Cyril Ramaphosa.
“A giant of our revolutionary cultural movement and our democratic creative industries has been called to rest; the trombone that boomed with boldness and bravery, and equally warmed our hearts with mellow melody has lost its life force,” Ramaphosa wrote in a statement on the presidential website. “Jonas Gwangwa ascends to our great orchestra of musical ancestors whose creative genius and dedication to the freedom of all South Africans inspired millions in our country and mobilised the international community against the apartheid system.”
Born in the Soweto township, Gwangwa first found success playing trombone in South Africa’s breakthrough bebop band, the Jazz Epistles. Under political pressure due to his international success, Gwangwa was exiled to the United States in the ’70s. Music in South Africa, including jazz performances and Black congregrations, was being systematically suppressed by the apartheid government. It gave Gwangwa little choice but to escape the oppressive regime.
Using his newfound global platform, Gwangwa worked hard to abolish the apartheid system in South Africa, forming the music ensemble Amandla. The group was built out of exiled South Africans and performed in more than 40 countries with their show Amandla the Musical, shining a light on South African apartheid.
Gwangwa also wrote music for the 1987 film Cry Freedom depicting the anti-apartheid activist Steve Biko, gathering two Oscar nominations for his efforts. His contribution to the abolishment of the apartheid was recognised in 2010 when Gwangwa received the Order of Ikhamanga, South Africa’s highest honor for contributions in arts and culture.
RIP, Jonas Gwangwa. Listen to his album Flowers of the Nation below: