“He was spotted by the late Johnny Mekoa who saw a potential in him. This multi-instrumentalist picked up his first instrument at the tender age of 6. The list of artists he has performed with at his young age is impressive and indicates how ambitious he is.  His dream is to pursue music for the life granted to him, which is the only satisfaction his soul desires”

Coming from a family of siblings that include a violinist, flautist, guitarist, cellist, trumpeters and a father who was also a trumpeter paints a picture of how his career was nurtured quite early.  Simon Manana is a 22-year-old Tembisa born multi-instrumentalist whose first instrument was the recorder which he played when was just 6.  At the age of 9, his brother Lucky taught him how to play the clarinet.  Later he began to play the saxophone which has seen him performing with some of the best jazz musicians.

“My township of Tembisa was good in terms of learning survival skills.  At one stage it was extremely violent but has seen a reduction in those acts of crime”, he told Jazz It Out.  Despite coming from a very religious and musical family, he could not ignore what was going on in the township.  “At home, there were so many instruments to choose from”, he recalls.  When he realized that he was too tiny to play bigger instruments, he first picked up the recorder which was small and appropriate for his size.

It was in high school where Simon’s interest in music went deeper.  He went to East Rand School of the Arts (ERSA) where he spent time with artists and got to learn more about art in general.  “I began involved with school ensembles and it was a very exciting period where we also won several awards as a school”, with a smile on his face.  ERSA took his musical talent to another level which included lessons in classical music.  Besides music, he also loved drawing.  “Little did I know I was an artistic person”, with a chuckle.  He was way too young to predict what the future had in store for him.

Young saxophonist Simon Manana. Picture taken at Imagine Yourself Studios

In 2010 he started to take the saxophone a lot more seriously.  This was also the time when his cousin Kagiso Ramela decided to switch from clarinet to the saxophone.  “It was somewhat of a competition between Kagiso and I but later realized that the saxophone was actually my musical voice”.  His interest in the instrument grew deeper after watching a music video of a performance by Sonny Rollins.  “Before this experience, I was listening to smooth jazz and the saxophone sounded sexy and romantic.  But when I heard Sonny Rollins play, I immediately felt that it was deeper and bigger that sexy”, recalling that lifechanging moment.

From that authentic sound which felt so natural, he was introduced to a variety of jazz greats such as John Coltrane, Thelonious Monk, Cannonball Adderley as well as current jazz artists Robert Glasper, Terrence Martin, Jazzmeia Horn and Baptise Herbin while still at high school. “I found myself listening to a lot of jazz at that young age”, he said.  One of his best friends at ERSA was saxophonist Jabu Thamani.  Simon was still in high school when he began booked for professional gigs, featured by pianist Lindi Ngonelo, trumpeters Johnny Mekoa and Mandla Mlangeni, as well as saxophonist Khaya Mahlangu.

One day while performing in an art exhibition at ERSA, Simon was spotted by the late Jonnny Mekoa who said to him, “I have a school down the road, come when you are finished with the exhibition”.  This was music to his ears and did not hesitate to visit Mekoa’s Music Academy of Gauteng.  He was overwhelmed with what he saw at the institution that was popularly referred to as ‘The Academy’.  “They specialized in jazz and it was the first time for me to witness a big band”.  Mekoa further asked Manana to sit in the big band rehearsal and gave him his first alto charts, which he could not play.  Realizing this, the mentor told the mentee: “Everyday after school, come and see me”.

Playing the instrument which he describes as his musical voice. Picture taken at Imagine Yourself Studios

By the time Simon went to enroll at The Academy after matriculating at ERSA, Mekoa had passed away but continued with his studies at the institution he had regarded as his second home.  The friendships he made with pianist and bassist Samkelo Mboniswa, and drummer Mfundo Mathe are still strong.  “I didn’t really have much friends at The Academy but I knew everyone”, he told Jazz It Out.  The valuable lesson he learnt was to ‘use the time wisely and use it to sharpen your craft’.

The young saxophonist got his very professional gig at The Orbit through performing with pianist Lindi Ngonelo.  “She is such a beautiful pianist.  I learned how to improvise by listening more to her play”, he said.  Lindi’s music expressed goodness and love which added so much value to Simon’s musical composition skills.  He describes working with Mandla Mlangeni as spontaneously amazing.  “I learned to be independent and stand my ground on the band stand, because Mandla’s music is so beautiful but requires certain abilities on digestion”, he asserted.

From Khaya Mahlangu whom he refers to as his hero, he learned professional jazz improvisation.  Mahlangu still teaches Manana to this day.  “Working with him requires humility and determination because he gives you all the information you need”, showing admiration.  He rates Mahlangu very highly for the beautiful music he writes.  Simon has also performed with Afrika Mkhize, Themba Mkhize, Nduduzo Makhathini, Marcus Wyatt, Andre Peterson, Andile Yenana, Banda Banda, Yonela Mnana, Ken Peplowski, Tebogo Mokoena, Collins Maluleke, Salim Washington and Joyous Celebration.

Chicken Dust – Mandla Mlangeni & Friends

It was with Collins Maluleke that Manana appeared in the recording “Face to Face” which was released earlier this year.  At the tender of age of 22 and with possibilities of a good career, Simon has performed at Standard Bank Youth Jazz Festival in Makhanda and the Standard Bank Joy of Jazz Festival in Sandton. Those performances taught him to improve his playing to equip him to be a band leader one day.  In March this year, he was scheduled to perform with Bombshelter Beast led by trumpeter Marcus Wyatt at the Cape Town International Jazz Festival.  Unfortunately, the festival did not happen due to concerns over Covid-19.

The lockdown that was imposed to curb the spread of the pandemic had negative and positive effects on the young and ambitious artist.  Unfortunately, the pandemic began by negatively affecting his budget as he relies on performing to make an income.  But this period has also taught him there are multiple ways of generating income digitally to be financially independent.  “It gave me a lot of time to practice as well”, he added. Manana is producing music for synch-licensing (TV commercials), creating YouTube and giving online saxophone lessons. Simon frequently plays with the band 1520.  He is also working on a debut album he hopes to release next year with a band he formed as a trio but intends increasing its size for a bigger and better sound.

Like many artists, he is concerned about the lack of jazz airplay on the country’s radio stations.  Simon believes regular jazz airplay will increase the audience for the music genre.  He also challenges fellow musicians to record and perform more innovative sounds which will take jazz to the people.  His favourite artists are Khaya Mahlangu, Sisonke Xonti, Justin Mendez, Immanuel Wilkins, John Coltrane, Charlie Parker, Braxton Cook, Grace Kelly, Joshua Redman, Godwin Louis, Danny Janklow, Fabian Willmann, Nick Biello, Ted Nash, Mark Turner and Logan Richardson.  He loves running, reading, meditating and cooking.  His Facebook Account is Simon Manana.  Follow him on Instagram @simonmanana and subscribe to his YouTube channel Simon Manana.