“The music bug hit me when I was doing Standard 3. I couldn’t wait for school to finish in order to pick up a music instrument. Brass instruments were always my favourite from a very young age. At some stage I wanted to get myself a trumpet”
Multi award winning saxophonist, flautist, band leader and composer McCoy Mrubata believes he was born to be an artist. While still at school, he loved to draw sketches and was good at it. “Often I would draw cartoons of people which got me into trouble with the teachers. Drawing was my thing”, saying with a chuckle. He also developed love for boxing which gave him the assertiveness to defend himself from older boys.
The husband to wife Zodwa, father to sons Andile and Waki, daughters Nomahlubi and Nontuthuzelo was born in Langa township, Cape Town on the 1st of June 1959. “I am very fortunate to come from a warm and united family”, he told Jazz It Out. He recalls how life was very simple at his family home and the entire neighbourhood. After his father left the family, his mom Gladys was forced to take several jobs as a helper in the former white suburbs to provide for the children.
While the mother was working in the suburbs, McCoy and his siblings lived with their maternal grandparents William and Emily Adonis. “My grandmother used to love music especially choral. She would make outfits for choirs in the neighbourhood”, recalling those early childhood memories. “My neighbourhood was surrounded by music and boxing. There was always a great vibe and a sense of unity among us”, he added.
The family was surrounded by soulful hymns of the Zion Church, chants and rhythms of traditional healers and the brassy jive of the Merry Macs band that rehearsed opposite his home. Drummer Louis Moholo lived not very far from him. Also, some of the neighbours they had included boxers Sydney “Young Destroyer” Hoho, Bashew Sibaca and Nika Khumalo. McCoy absorbed all those sounds from a very young age.
He has very fond memories of his grandparents. “I adored them. I took genes of my grandfather. I am short like him. They believed in Christian values”, he said. In 1974 his mom got a house in Gugulethu, less than 10 kilometres from Langa. He and his siblings moved with their mom the following year. “My mom’s place which she also used to run a shebeen had a huge collection of vinly records. It was always full of people who were like extended members of the family”, he told Jazz It Out.
“Mom always believed that I could be a good musician. She was extremely supportive. In 1978 she bought me a flute and I was over the moon”, he added. By this time McCoy had already dropped out of school when it became impossible in the fiery aftermath of the 1976 uprising. His skill as a musician was nurtured by the Langa jazz greats such as Madoda Gxabeka, legenday Winston Mankunku Ngozi, Blackie Tempi, Robert Sithole as well as the Ngcukana brothers Ezra and Duke.
By the late 1980s he was playing in cover bands like Fever, Touch, Airborne and Vukani. From there he moved to crossover outfit Louis and the Jive. McCoy bought his first saxophone in 1986. He also recalls that his mom used to accommodate musicians from many parts of the country in her house since Black people were not allowed to sleep in the hotels those days as a result of apartheid policies. The Langa and Gugulethu communities were not surprised to see the direction Mrubata was taking because they witnessed his love of music from a very tender age.
In 1987 McCoy was spotted by bandleader and multi-instrumentalist Sipho “Hotstix” Mabuse who helped him make the move to Johannesburg. In 1989 he formed the band Brotherhood which was made up of Jimmy Dludlu, Nhlanhla Magagula, Mwezi Zazi, Gladwin “Chippa” Mashoko, and Lucas Khumalo. Moses Taiwa Molelekwa and Phakamisa Xangathi also joined the band at a later stage. The following year Brotherhood won the Gilbey’s Music for Africa competition in a tightly contested battle that included bands like Bayethe, Peto, Stax and Zanusi.
In 1992 he embarked on a tour with Hugh Masekela’s Lerapo, alongside Vusi and Bakithi Khumalo, Lawrence Matshiza, and Moses Molelekwa. “Working with Bra Hugh was fun and beautiful. The man was a legend”, he said. Mrubata recalls how officials in US airports would give them VIP treatment simply because they were part of Masekela’s band. He also witnessed how prominent jazz musicians loved, respected and adored the legendary trumpeter.
McCoy created his own bands Cape to Cairo as well as McCoy and Friends. Record label Sheer Sound signed Mrubata and released albums starting with “Tears of Joy”. He closely worked with artists like pianist Paul Hanmer, bassist Andre Abrahamse and trombonist Jabu Magubane enjoying great performances with them. More albums followed which included “Phosa Ngasemva”, “Hoelykit”, “Face the Music” and “Icamagu Livumile”.
His recordings earned him 4 South African Music Awards popularly known as the SAMAs. “Face the Music” won the SAMA award in the Best Traditional Jazz Category in 2004. “Icamagu Livumile” won the SAMA award in the similar category in 2008. This was not the end of awards for McCoy. “Brasskap Sessions Volume 1″ also won the same award in 2014. He also won the SAMA award in the Best Instrumental Category with “Sheer All Stars Indibano” in 2004.
Asked why he seems to enjoy a special relationship with pianist Paul Hanmer which is more brotherhood than professional, he said: “We clicked as musicians. We also understand that music is bigger than us as artists”. McCoy gave a brief description on the kind of person Winston Mankunku Ngozi was. “He was very humble, simple, unassuming man, and always accessible. Some of the stuff he taught me as a musician, I would understand it 20 years later”, recalling those moments.
He has worked with several other jazz artists including pianist Wessel van Rensburg with whom he recorded a duo album “Kulturation” where they explored new interpretations of tunes from the African and Afrikaans communities. The album won the SAMA award in the Best Instrumental Category in 2008. It blended together familiar tunes from the Xhosa and Zulu cultures with Afrikaans folk music. “Vivid Africa” is another collaboration with multi-instrumentalist Greg Georgiadis, using instruments like oudh and bouzouki alongside saxophones to explore “musical spices” of the East African Coast.
Sheer All Stars is a group that McCoy became one of its members. The rest of the personnel were Sipho Gumede, Errol Dyers, Paul Hanmer, Frank Paco, Wessel van Rensburg and Louis Mhlanga. They recorded three albums which are “Indibano”, “Live at Blues Room” and “Dance with Me”. In 2012 Mrubata and his long – time friend Paul Hanmer released a CD that was recorded live in 2009 at Alte Kirche Boswil, Switzerland during the Kulak Jazz Festival. He was also made ambassador for the Angola COCAN 2010 football competition and travelled to that country with his band to perform and promote the competition.
Mrubata also conducted the 2012 South African Youth Jazz Band that performed at the Grahamstown Arts Festival and also performed at the Standard Bank Joy of Jazz Festival which was still held in Newton those years. 2012 also saw McCoy chosen among top jazz educators who helped to launch the Jazz Faculty at University of South Africa and has subsequently conducted workshops and master classes commissioned by the institution.
In 2014 he went on a successful US tour with a collaborative band Uhadi which he directs. The band comprises of some of S A top jazz musicians Feya Faku, Paul Hanmer, Herbie Tsoaeli, Justin Badenhorst and guest Sibongile Khumalo. In June 2014 he released the album “Brasskap Sessions Volume 2″ and went on a national tour to promote it. The album won the SAMA award in the Best Jazz Album category in 2016.
Still in 2015, McCoy visited Switzerland from 26 August to 28 September. He performed at the renowned Bird’s Eye Jazz Club, Basel University and St Gallen playing with three different bands. The Bird’s Eye run was recorded in a double CD “McCoy Mrubata Live at The Bird’s Eye” and released in 2016. McCoy and Uhadi embarked on a second successful U S tour in March and April 2016. On 30 April 2016’s International Jazz Day Mrubata launched his DVD that coincided with one of the most important dates in the jazz calendar.
In 2017 he did a South African tour with fellow Swiss saxophonist Mark Hauser whom he met the previous year on a visit to Hauser’s home country. 2018 was a special year for McCoy and Paul Hanmer. The duo celebrated 30 years of friendship and collaborative work in music and had performances around South Africa. They also toured the US performing and conducting workshops at some of the tertiary institutions like Berklee and UCLA. McCoy was also one of the 2018 Kennedy Center Gold Award winners.
In January this year McCoy received an invitation from the South African Embassy in Kuwait to perform at the Al Quarian Festival with his band. His visit to Kuwait also took him to institutions where he interacted and shared ideas with Kuwait artists. In March he released a new CD “Brasskap Sessions Volume 3″ which he started recording around December 2017 in Johannesburg, Cape Town and Paris. This is not the only album he will be releasing this year. “Jazz lovers can expect another album towards the end of this year”, he told Jazz It Out.
How does McCoy feel about turning 60? “I feel young as ever. 60 is like 40. I take my daily walks which is something I learned from Bra Hugh. I brush the pool to keep healthy and fit. I also love ginger tea”, he said. For him spending time with the family is priceless. He manages himself as an artist and has a lot of administrative work to do. “I am also passionate about film editing. I edit my own videos”, he added.
Mrubata believes South African jazz is going far. Some of the overseas audiences over the years have learned that there are so many jazz musicians besides Abdullah Ibrahim. “Tertiary institutions like UKZN, Wits, UCT and many others are nurturing talent and producing great jazz artists”, feeling ecstatic. He believes jazz is receiving the support it deserves as a music genre.
Video of Somalia by McCoy Mrubata
But he also believes more could still be done. “Artists need to be uplifted. More jazz venues are required. And most importantly, jazz artists must be given the same respect as sports celebrities like soccer, cricket and rugby players”, with a stern voice. His advice to young musicians is that they must work very hard, practice a lot, must not take jazz audiences for granted and stay away from drugs.
With 13 solo albums, 12 collaborations, 4 awards and a hectic travel schedule, McCoy attributes his success to the support from his family and hard discipline. “One needs to carry himself like a professional to be taken seriously as a musician”, he added. He assured Jazz It Out that his is not going to slow down. He likes to surround himself with good and hard – working musicians. “I wake up with a song every day. My smart phone is full on my music ideas. I still have a lot to contribute”, he concluded.
Mrubata is also active on social media. His Facebook account is McCoy Mrubata. @mccoymrubata is his Instagram account and @McCoy Mrubata on Twitter