“Where there is music, you find no evil” – Dr Ramakgobotla Johnny Mekoa

SAMRO and the Arts and Culture Trust join the South African music industry in celebrating the extraordinary life and legacy of jazz musician and arts educator Dr Johnny Mekoa, who died this week aged 72.

The formidable jazz trumpeter served on the Board of the SAMRO Foundation (then known as the SAMRO Endowment for the National Arts), from 1996 to 2011, making a vital contribution to developing young jazz musicians.

Two years ago, Dr Ramakgobotla Johnny Mekoa received the 2015 Arts and Culture Trust (ACT) Lifetime Achievement Award for Arts Advocacy, and presented the second ACT|SAMRO Icon’s Talk. The award was “for a life devoted to music and sharing it with others”. Mekoa said at the time, when accepting the accolade: “The award has strengthened my motto that ‘where there is music, you find no evil’.”

He also served on the UNISA Music Examination Board, and helped establish the Standard Bank Youth Jazz Festival, an annual event during the National Arts Festival in Grahamstown – amongst a whole range of initiatives and organisations he cultivated.

“The SAMRO Foundation has a guiding philosophy of nurturing ‘roots to fruits’ in the music industry, and Johnny was instrumental in planting many of those seedlings that have become robust trees in our jazz music landscape today. He was the kind of person who always had a warm smile and a word of advice in some of the gatherings we attended” noted André le Roux, Managing Director of the SAMRO Foundation. Johnny understood and practiced what was said by Ralph Nader that ‘…the function of leadership is to produce more leaders, not more followers’. I wish more of our political leaders understood and practiced this philosophy”.

“He was highly influential in identifying and developing the musical talent of children, especially those from disadvantaged backgrounds. As such he has left an indelible mark on our cultural landscape for which we are immensely grateful” said Pieter Jacobs, CEO of ACT.

Born in Etwatwa in Benoni in 1945, the young Johnny was denied the opportunity to study music because he was black. But he persisted, playing his horn in nightclubs and building a reputation for excellence despite the difficult and restrictive conditions under which black musicians were forced to operate.

He told fellow music educator Chats Devroop (in an interview from Devroop’s book Unsung: Jazz Musicians under Apartheid) that he nearly went into exile in 1962, but was persuaded to stay by Caiphus Semenya and became involved in the seminal Dorkay House arts hub.

In the late 1980s he quit his job as an optical dispenser to study, and finally realised his dream of obtaining a formal music qualification in his 40s. In 1991 he graduated from the then University of Natal with a Bachelor’s degree in music. This led to Mekoa obtaining a Fulbright Scholarship to study towards his master’s in music at the University of Indiana in the United States.

This was to open the doors of education for many a budding young South African jazz musician. He returned from the US to establish the Music Academy of Gauteng in 1994 in his hometown of Benoni, in Ekurhuleni.

This nonprofit music school has since become regarded a Centre of Excellence for Jazz Education, enabling scores of promising young musicians – including many from poor backgrounds – to realise their potential and flourish on the professional stage.

This community-based music academy was awarded the prestigious International Jazz Education Network Award for five consecutive years, and Mekoa went on to receive a string of accolades for his contribution to music education and jazz, including honorary doctorates. He was the first South African to be recognised by the Swedish Jazz Federation for his life-long contribution to jazz.

Johnny’s larger than life persona will be sorely missed on our cultural landscape.

Image provided by Arts & Culture Trust