Jonas Gwangwa, South African Jazz Musician and Activist, Dead at 83

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The Oscar-nominated trombonist used music as a rallying cry against apartheid and spent years in exile

Jonas Gwangwa in 2019
Jonas Gwangwa in 2019 (Gallo Images / Oupa Bopape)

Jonas Gwangwa—the South African anti-apartheid activist, composer, and jazz trombonist—has died, NPR reports. The news was confirmed by South African President Cyril Ramaphosa. “A giant of our revolutionary cultural movement and our democratic creative industries has been called to rest,” Ramaphosa wrote in a statement. “The trombone that boomed with boldness and bravery, and equally warmed our hearts with mellow melody has lost its life force.” Gwangwa was 83. 

Raised in the Johannesburg township of Soweto, Gwangwa was a member of the Jazz Epistles alongside Abdullah Ibrahim, Hugh Masekela, and Kippie Moeketsi. When South Africa’s apartheid regime censored jazz performances in 1960 and jailed Black people for congregating, Gwangwa chose to live in exile outside the country. 

Gwangwa performed internationally in the ensuing years and continued to use his music in service of activism. He was the musical director of the Amandla Cultural Ensemble—a group formed by African National Congress activists. His music for 1987’s Cry Freedom, a film about anti-apartheid activist Steve Biko starring Denzel Washington and Kevin Kline, earned Gwangwa two Oscar nominations. In 1985, he reportedly survived a bombing of his home by apartheid security forces. 

In 2010, Gwangwa was awarded the Order of Ikhamanga—South Africa’s highest honor. His death falls on the three-year anniversary of the death of his friend and collaborator Hugh Masekela.

 

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