“He is a very hard working composer, teacher, guitarist, poet who does not compromise when it comes to the music he plays.  This huge fan of Allen Kwela lost both his parents at a very young age and has worked as a gardener and cleaner to raise money for the purchase of his guitar and the payment of his university education”

In 2018, Ukhozi FM through its Sunday night jazz slot hosted a live performance by various artists who were paying tribute to legends of the music industry, artists who recorded music that was popular and inspired a lot of youngsters to follow in their footsteps.  The list of musicians that were honoured included Hugh Masekela, Bheki Mseleku and Busi Mhlongo.  One of the artists that Mandla Mdletshe the host of the show introduced was a young guitarist by the name of Cebo Ngema who was on stage ready to perform tunes by legendary jazz guitarist Allen Kwela.

Cebo was born from a polygamy family 28 years ago and raised in KwaMashu.  He was only 10 years old when his father Khohlwa Ngema, a maskandi, mbaqanga and African jazz guitarist passed away in 2002.  The following year, his mother Nonhlanhla also passed away.  At the time of losing both parents, the Ngemas’ had been staying at the village of KwaMaphumulo in the northern part of KwaZulu-Natal.  This was a life changing experience which compelled Cebo to move back to Durban where he worked as a gardener in Durban while teaching himself maskandi guitar.

Guitarist Cebo Ngema. Picture by Razo

Unfortunately, his favourite maskandi guitar was stolen a year after relocating to Durban.  “I was extremely devastated when my guitar was stolen because it was the only thing that kept me going”, he told Jazz It Out.  His focus shifted from the guitar to playing soccer.  “I played positions of central midfielder and striker at Kwesethu High School”, he added.  While playing football, he continued to excel in music and biology.  As much as his relocation to Durban resulted from unfortunate circumstances, he soon realized that KwaMashu had the art centre and Internet access which did not exist at KwaMaphumulo.

While at high school, his favourite musicians were George Benson, Mbongeni Ngema (not related), Allen Kwela and Jimmy Dludlu.  “I got exposed to jazz, maskandi, mbaqanga, and African jazz while still at school”, he said.  This was largely because of his classical guitar teacher Mr T Ntuli who had confidence in Cebo.  His liking of the learner went beyond teaching.  The teacher bought him school uniform and always reminding Cebo that “God is always with you”.  Ntuli would also pay the registration fee for Ngema when he enrolled for a diploma in Jazz and Popular Music at the University of KwaZulu-Natal (UKZN).

Despite Ntuli’s generosity in contributing Ngema’s university registration, there were still tuition fees to paid.  To raise the money, Cebo worked at the upmarket Gateway Mall in Umhlanga as a cleaner.  His enrolment only happened in 2013. The music theory he learnt at UKZN helped him a lot in understanding music and working with other fellow musicians.  What is his obsession with Allen Kwela’s music? “His music has so much influence in me and my guitar playing.  I have learned to play chords melody as a solo guitarist which has added to my unique style of playing”, he said.

Moved by the music he plays. Picture by Razo

His versatility is evident in the different types of musicians he has worked and recorded with.  They include Sam Zondi aka Makitaza, Sisanda Nelson, Bheki Nqoko, and Scelo Gowane.  Cebo has recorded two albums “Facebook” and “Mercedes” with well known maskandi artist 2 Bhobho.  In addition to that, he has performed at several festivals Ugu Jazz Festival, Jazz in July and Hazelmere Dam Jazz Festival.  Ngema has also worked with Fiso Fakude, Zululand Gospel Choir and Umkhumbane Jazz Ensemble.  He is a music facilitator at The Bat Centre where he teaches jazz guitar.

Working with Umkhumbane Jazz Ensemble as a lead guitarist is something he describes as one of his career highlights.  He said the more experienced members of the ensemble embraced and bestowed their confidence him. Performing at the festivals and sharing the stage with big names is always a dream come true.  Cebo has not forgotten Mr Ntuli’s influence to the musician he is today and has added Demi Fernandez to the list of people that have made a meaningful contribution to his career.  Ngema believes music should be introduced in schools starting at the junior primary level.

As an experienced guitarist already, he believes studio recording takes place in a chilled environment where mistakes can still be fixed but live performance is a completely different experience.  “In a live performance, there is so much pressure because the audience is right in front of you.  You can also determine if they give your performance a thumbs up or a thumbs down”, he told Jazz It Out.  He fails to understand why there is no jazz channel on TV like with other music genres.  Cebo also wants to see more jazz workshops.

Performing Allen Kwela’s music at Ukhozi FM. Picture by Zamindlela Zama

Before the country went to lockdown resulting from the Covid-19 pandemic, Cebo was working on his project called “Chapter One” which he wanted to rollout in September and feature a wide range of musicians and follow it up with “Chapter Two” and ultimately end up as a live recordingHe will never compromise the African jazz, maskandi, and mbaqanga which he has come to be associated with. Through poetry is where he shares his thoughts and feelings.  “The message I send through poetry is to be yourself”, he said.  Cebo has learned discipline and consistency over the years.  He makes time for all the things that require his attention.

As the years went by, his list of favourite musicians has included Themba Mkhize, Pat Metheny and Chuck Loeb.  One of his long term future plans include travelling all over the world sharing his heart through music and his goal as a teacher is to produce the next generation of musicians for the country.  His hobbies are watching movies and soccer with Orlando Pirates and Barcelona being his favourite soccer teams.  His Facebook Page is Cebo Ngema Jazz and Popular Music.  Follow him on Instagram @cebo.ngema