The Black Sheepby Nobhongo Gxolo / Images by Luke Daniel / 26.04.2012
When we met it was a different city – the National Youth Jazz Festival in Grahamstown. Back then neither of us had even been to this Cape Town, where we now live. It was a different time, 2002. My writing portfolio consisted of scrawls on a lined soft cover book a friend had given me as a birthday gift. Lwanda Gogwana had no dreads to speak of then because high school uniform regulation forbade it. He didn’t command a stage back then either. He stood overshadowed by the music stand. Like fingers on brail – he felt his way through the bars.
The trumpet was never intentional. “I grew up in a three-bedroom house eMdanstane. My dad’s old records mainly consisted of Contemporary Jazz. The household would rise and fall asleep to East London’s very own renowned guitarist Lulama Gaulana. To Ronny Jordan, Mankuku and Bra Hugh. It was that sound that initiated my interest in the shiny instruments. But at school someone was already playing the sax so they offered me the trumpet instead. Default destiny I guess.”
The universe, God, fate – it doesn’t matter. Whoever orchestrated that coincidence must have had a premonition of Lwanda Gogwana’s musical astuteness.
Fast forward to now.
His presence on stage is not so much cocky as assured. Even in his obvious vulnerability he remains self-assured. Certain of what he is feeling – what he is playing – what he wants you to hear.
The scenery changes. The music stays the same. The stage alternates between cracked tiles, polished wood and grass sometimes. The audience, from cheering parents to sold out theatres. When he plays nowadays he stoops his back, his spine must hate him for it by the time each night is over. The restaurant is dimly lit, non-descript.
The bar has remnants of sporadically placed beer glasses like bangles tossed in play and left to their scattered landing in a teenage girl’s room. The sweat from draught beers reacts with the varnished counter-top creating stains so ingrained it swells the wood. And still a little way from the cue stick-worn pool table and the pimple-faced darts board, is an unassuming stage. A small band plays over the din of old friends catching up and soon-to-be lovers going through their motions.
The melody resonates from a wailing trumpet that picks at you – pulls you apart only to leave you in a puddle, failing at bringing yourself back to yourself. East London-born Lwanda delicately coaxes a string of notes that fuse under the common denominator of D-Major out of a newly shone 8335. His tongue tip-toes around the score, pleads it into being. He laments the song. Guilty.
“I released my debut album last year under my independent record label. I didn’t sleep. The actual music was composed over many years, beginning circa high school. Experience and growth is why the songs vary in style. African, straight-ahead jazz, classical music, contemporary music – it’s all in there. So it’s all over the place, but I kinda like it. It’s my story in song; searching, identifying a me that works – one I like. It’s the arpeggios I climbed to become who I was meant to be.”
His nights are this, his days are industrious. He’s gotten some respite since he eased up on the rehearsals with his band and finally released the album. It consisted of an amalgamation of compositions; some he’s been working on since he was a teenager. He christened it The Lwanda Gogwana Songbook in accordance with a performance he did which he loosely termed the “Songbook gig”.
In reality his diary has no space to squeeze much else in between his studying (Honours in Ethnomusicology), teaching music (at a local high school), rehearsing, long-distance phone calls to the family down in the Eastern Cape and making time for loved ones.
It’s after midnight: “This is very taxing. This lifestyle is a shift from anything you’re used to – anything you call normal. The job starts at midnight or 1 am. But then add to that everything else and my eight hours of sleep becomes a long lost dream. I survive on afternoon naps now.”
His brother runs the family business. His sister works for a multi-national law firm. Convention would tag the middle-child musician a black sheep. But the three-time SAMA nominee is a contradiction in terms, well almost – he’s not quite famous, yet. But being recognised in the categories Best Newcomer of the Year, Male Artist of the Year, Best Jazz Album – qualifies as a bit more than a baby step in the preferred direction.
“I feel like a black sheep every single day. This career is a slippery slope. Sometimes I’m angry at music for choosing me. Sometimes I wish I’d never met it. The thing is that it takes you in. Once you admit to loving it it’s Game Over for you. You’re done.”
It’s a rough act being a musician. People are always asking you to play for free or offering you money that scoffs at the years most musicians have spent ripening their skill. Yet still he wakes up and mentally puts his ink to this dotted line – signs himself up for it once more.
“People do this for a lot of reasons. For me, it’s simple – it’s a drug. If I could get out tomorrow I would because it’s not working out financially. But it keeps me here; it calls at my subconscious.”
With trumpet in hand, absently toying with the valves he adds, “Listen, don’t get me wrong, I’m grateful I chose music. But it’s tough bra. You reach a point where… I get that life isn’t supposed to be easy but you work so hard as a musician and you receive a raw deal for it, you know? And that’s not even factoring in the fact that we spend years cultivating our skill, we start long before any other profession does. Basically, it’s not worth the investment most of the time. That’s when you’re doing it for the music and not the money, when you’re doing it truthfully.”
His truth is that music is a conversation, with sighs and pregnant pauses.
Fast-paced scores in double-time so you can’t keep up.
Major refrains run into minor ones; a cacophony.
He loses you only to come back and find you, then holds your hand until you’re satiated.
Sharps and flats and diminished sevenths – a foreign language we all understand. At least that’s what he thinks: “It’s a separate language but it’s not as complicated as people believe. Anyone can speak it just as fluently as they do their mother tongues. It’s a matter of practice – that’s how you learn. You need to know the grammar, syntax, how to pronounce and enunciate. That applies to any instrument.”
He plays with his eyes closed. The pallet-less colour behind his eyelids morphs into the polychromatic that semibreves, crotchets and quavers make. The picture of song.
Melody escapes when he massages pearl valves lined with gold. A memory ingrained in his phalanges that he can’t denounce. A split-second leap from a baritone rumble to a sonic scream octaves away – nails on a chalkboard. Music. Truth.
*All images © Luke Daniel.