“Abdullah Ibrahim is his greatest inspiration.  He also appreciates the music of Bheki Mseleku, Andile Yenana, Oscar Peterson, Keith Jarrett, Moses Molelekwa, Themba Mkhize, Nduduzo Makhathini and Thelonius Monk. Yonela believes jazz artists don’t play the piano because they just love it. The instrument is vital when it comes to composing and representing other musical ideas”

Pianist, composer and teacher Yonela Mnana was born at eDutywa in the former homeland of Transkei, which is now part of the Eastern Cape 36 years ago.  When he said: “I was born in the south, schooled in the north and now closer to the centre”, we knew that this was a beginning of what was going to be an interesting conversation with the artist from Mamelodi, now residing in Johannesburg.  He finds it quite strange that at one stage Transkei was considered not part of South Africa.

He is the second born child to Keturah Gloria Mnana.  Nombulelo is the elder of the two sisters and Thembela is the younger.  His brother Viwe is the last born.  “I am told I used to pray for a younger brother hence he was named Viwe”, he told Jazz It Out.  Relatives told Yonela “Imithandazo yakho iviwe” which means “your prayers have been answered”.  After having two sisters as siblings, he finally had a brother which brought him a lot of happiness. Yonela was born blind and his mother was advised by a blind switchboard operator who was her acquaintance to enroll him at school very early.

From his birth till the age of 5, Yonela was not aware that he was different from other children.  He recalls that his grandmother would send him to buy Coca Cola at a nearby shop from the age of 3 which gave him independence. His sister Thembela who is three years younger than him was always his playmate and the two would visit the park regularly. “I liked kicking the ball around”, he recalls.  He also loved radio.  “Skorokoro” by Condry Ziqubu was one of his favourite songs as a child.  The young Yonela was also very choosy and didn’t like cakes.

After his mother reached a decision about what was best for her son in preparing his future, Yonela was taken to Siloe School for the Blind at just 5 years where he would spend the next 12 years.  The school is located in Tsogwane village outside Polokwane, closer to Zebediela and Lebowakgomo.  Siloe was run by Roman Catholic missionaries and has boarding facilities. It offers classes from pre-school all the way to matric.  Steve Kekana, the legendary vocalist who recently qualified as an advocate also went to the same school.

Pianist Yonela Mnana

In addition to the tutelage he received in SePedi, he also got exposed to XiTsonga and TshiVenda, whose dialects are different to IsiXhosa, his home language.  This made Yonela appreciate how diverse South Africa is as a country.  “In fact, I wrote a lullaby about some of the experiences I had in Polokwane which will be in my second album”, he told Jazz It Out.  At boarding school, Yonela was shy yet he always occupied top position in class.  “I would only silence my fellow school mates through my excellent academic performance”, he added.

When his aunt Mandisa got married and settled in Lebowakgomo, this made Yonela less homesick.  He made regular visits to his aunt’s house whose husband had cassettes of Pat Shange, Lucky Dube, Miriam Makeba, and Blondie Makhene.  Yonela was impressed with the collection which was more of a library to him.  As soon as he was in Standard One (now Grade 3), boys started forming five-member Isicathamiya groups with interesting names such as Happy Boys and Holy Brothers.  Yonela also developed love for reading which saw him spending a lot of time at the library.

Some of the changes that came with starting high school saw Yonela witnessing the formation of the Student Representative Council (SRC).  High school also gave him an option to choose between History and Mathematics. Although his choice was History, his family felt Maths, a subject he also enjoyed was the better of the two. The SRC proposed the employment of a teacher who was going to teach music as an extramural activity.  “Our music teacher was Lawrence Seabi who was more of a father figure than just a teacher”, he remembers.  Seabi was a saxophone player who was at University of Venda and had a short spell in Johannesburg before coming to Siloe.

The school purchased a set of musical instruments.  “There was a drum kit, a keyboard, tambourine and all sorts of instruments”, he told Jazz It Out.  “There was also a piano which many of us were reluctant to play at first”, he added.  Solomon Ledwaba was one of his schoolmates who excelled in piano.  Seabi was made permanent teacher the following year because he “delivered the goods”.  Yonela’s sudden love for musical instruments made him less interested in soccer.  “I was a die-hard Sundowns supporter since I came from Pretoria”, he said.  By this time, he was in an acapella group that emulated Boys II Men.

The man and his instrument

Yonela also played his first instrument which was the melodica. He played the piano at a later stage.  “Piano is very good for composing.  Some refer to it as the mother instrument”, he said.  Yonela never imagined he would be a musician one day.  He always wanted to be a doctor and his family was concerned about such a possibility because of his blindness.  “Since music is healing, that would be doctoring on its own”, he said with a chuckle.  As he grew older, he told his family he wanted to be a musician.  They discouraged him and suggested he studied law instead.

When he applied to study music at Wits University, Yonela was not accepted at the music department and assumed the reason was because candidates that made the cut were more proficient than he was in playing the piano. For one, his family did not own the instrument and his lessons were also limited to the classroom. He also believes that the music department was surprised to have a blind applicant and may have not been ready to enroll him then.  The young applicant fresh from high school saw his dream of studying music vanish which left him disappointed.

His family must have breath a sigh of relief when he informed them he had enrolled for a Bachelor of Commerce degree which he did for a year.  “They were happy for me but deep inside I knew I wanted to study music and was not interested in the perks that came with a B Comm”, he told Jazz It Out.  A friend of his who was a student the music department told him there was still room for him to change his mind the following year.  He greeted the news with much excitement and made another application to the music department.

The institution designed a programme that served as a bridging course before enrolling for the degree.  “Many students would follow the same procedure”, he said.  Yonela studied classical piano while learning other genres such as blues.  When he moved to jazz piano, he realized he could relate more to the genre.  Being at varsity gave him the priviledge to think from a scholarly perspective and jazz studies came in very handy.  When he was doing his fourth-year music degree at Wits in 2007, Yonela conducted a research on pianist Bheki Mseleku.

Yonela’s research was on Mseleku’s music, the pianist, the composer and what he represented as a South African artist, having to go into exile and writing the compositions he did in his career.  He submitted the research and did a recital.  By this time, he had met accomplished pianist Andile Yenana who was a member of Voice, a group that included double bassist Herbie Tsoaeli.  Yonela participated in jam sessions and found a mentor in Yenana.  “There was a whole big jazz culture in that neighbourhood”, he recalls.

Yonela’s debut album titled Baba

“Lost and Found” by pianist Themba Mkhize is the very first CD that Yonela purchased.  The young music student started playing at Nicky Oasis regularly and would attend gigs by other artists when he was not performing.  He witnessed performances by Afrika Mkhize, Barney Rachabane, Oscar Rachabane, Ezra Ngcukana, Jimmy Mngwandi and Zim Ngqawana.  He also visited other clubs such as The Orbit and Freedom Station.  Some jazz artists would release their albums at the highly reputable jazz clubs. “Freedom Station would be patronized by writers, directors, actors, and sculptors. It was a multi-disciplinary place”, he said.

While Yonela is a recipient of university education, he makes a very interesting statement.  He says many students graduate with music degrees at universities but this does not result in having new artists in a massive scale.  Yonela attributes this to the fact that there are musicians who were members of cultural movements before enrolling for music qualifications.  Such artists include vocalist Judith Sephuma, guitarist Jimmy Dludlu, drummer Tumi Mogorosi and vocalist Gabi Motuba.  “These artists may have studied music academically but they mastered the talent through those cultural movements”, he emphasized.

When recording his album “Victims and Perpetrators”, double bassist Lex Futshane took Yonela to his house where he taught the pianist all 10 songs in one day.  When it was recorded, Yonela played in some songs while another fellow pianist Thandi Ntuli played in the others.  “I learned a lot in recording that project”, he said.  He is featured in the tune “Xai Xai” in saxophonist McCoy Mrubata’s album titled Brasskap Sessions Volume III.  Another musician that he rates very highly is trumpeter Mandla Mlangeni.  “Mandla is a composer of note and has his own specific sound.  He is unapologetic about his music and is extremely confident. He doesn’t want to walk the same path as everybody else”, he told Jazz It Out. Yonela has participated in Mlangeni’s various outfits such as Amandla Freedom Ensemble and Tune Recreation Committee.

Through working with bass player Ariel Zamonsky, Yonela learnt to play Argentinian folk songs and would often fuse them with some jazz standards.   Zamonsky further had Yonela playing the piano on his album “Between two Worlds”.  Some of the musicians and poets Yonela has played with include Sisonke Xonti, Keenan Ahrens, Thandi Ntuli, Lwanda Gogwana, Nhlanhla Mahlangu, Benjamin Jephta, Sphelelo Mazibuko, Zoë Modiga, Lindiwe Maxolo, Siya Makuzeni, Themba Mkhize, Nhlanhla Radebe, Louis Moholo, Lorraine Klassen, Abbey Cindi, Mlungisi Gegana, Bheki Khoza, Sydney Mnisi, Feya Faku, Pinise Saul, Siphiwe Shiburi, Barney Rachabane, Myesha Jenkins and Natalia Molebatsi

Yonela Mnana performing the tune Thathis’ Gubhu

Yonela recalls a conversation he had with Themba Mkhize in 2011 who told him that his son Afrika was interested in producing his debut album.  The recording featured saxophonist Mthunzi Mvubu, drummers Leegan Breda and Ayanda Sikade, Jimmy Mngwandi on electric and double bass.  Besides playing the piano, Yonela did all the vocals in the recording which took three days.  When he realized he was failing to secure the funding for the album release, he decided to fund the release of the project from his personal bank account in 2016 and titled it “Baba”.  It was quite a heavy experience.  “I lost a lot of money but learned a lot as a solo artist”, he said.  Some of the tracks from the album include “Umxhenso”, “Sthandwa”, Uzobuya”, “O teng fa” and “Xandinawe”.

The pianist works at Ezibeleni High School in Katlehong where he teaches music.  “That is the only lasting job I have heard.  I enjoy teaching those learners at Ezibeleni. It is such a heartwarming experience”, he said.  He has a wonderful working relationship with his colleagues and Head of Department Nomthandazo Solomon. “The school allows me to be myself”, he added. Grooming future musicians through intense practice is what they enjoy as music teachers at Ezibeleni. Yonela believes there is a correlation between being well schooled and an appreciation for arts.

His future plans include releasing more albums, composing more songs and doing a commemoration of Steve Kekans’s music while he is still alive.  He also wants to do a project that will make blind people access literature in South Africa.  Yonela completed his master’s degree with distinction in 2018 and is working on his PhD at Wits University.  “I want to unearth history”, he said.  The pianist believes South African jazz musicians do not always have to look to the United States for inspiration. “To know yourself and your roots is important”, he added.  He is on Facebook as Yonela Mnana.  Follow him on Instagram and Twitter @yonelamnana