“Singing and entertaining people is something he did from early childhood. He would conduct the school choir when the music teacher was not is sight since he knew how to play the melodica. Besides music, he also excelled in football and went for trials with a professional soccer team while at high school. Eventually he decided to study music which has made him a renowned figure in the field of jazz”
One of the stories he heard from his parents is how he nagged everybody at home saying he wanted to school when he was too young to be admitted in the classroom. A deal which he found suitable was reached. He would go to school with his elder siblings but sit in the principal’s office for the whole day. The principal liked him very much. At the end of every school day, his siblings would fetch from him from the office and go home. This happened for an entire year before age permitted him to be admitted in the classroom.
Pianist Andile Yenana was born is King William’s Town, Eastern Cape 52 years ago. His family of five siblings moved to Zwelitsha a few years after his birth. As a child, he was quite inquisitive and was drawn into music. “I liked to entertain people and sang a lot”, he told Jazz It Out. At primary school, he would pick up the melodica and make the choir practice when the conductor was not around since he knew the keys. “Imagine a child who was around 12 years old conducting a school choir at its rehearsal”, with a chuckle. But his mates in the choir did follow his instructions as a sign of confidence they had in him.
Marianhill Boarding School outside Pinetown in KwaZulu-Natal (KZN) is where he received high school education. Among the learners he attended this school with was Nhlanhla Mbambo who would tell them about his father who was the founding member of The Keynotes. There was quite a lot of music influences. “We had all these young people coming from different parts of South Africa who fitted well in that setup” recalling those younger days. He played a bit of the recorder at Marianhill but his primary focus was on soccer where earned himself a lot of nicknames. “They used to call me Juluka after Archie Radebe who played for AmaZulu and Moroka Swallows”, he said. Sandile Ngidi who is a great writer and poet was a friend of his.
After Marianhill he relocated back to the Eastern Cape and enrolled at another Catholic Boarding school in Mthatha where he did matric. He played the marimba which he thoroughly enjoyed and continued playing soccer which saw him going for trials with Thembu Royals. Andile also represented his school in the regional soccer tournaments. He tells a very interesting story about soccer and jazz which happened many years after finishing school one day while waiting to withdraw money at an ATM that was at the SABC. In front of him was football legend Zacharia Vusi “Computer” Lamola who was standing with a friend when somebody came from the studio side. Both Lamola and his friend looked at him and the midfielder said “this guy looks like Benny Golson”. He was amazed to hear a soccer player talking about a jazz artist. When he told Sipho “Hotstix” Mabuse about this incident, the multi-instrumentalist told Yenana that after playing games, Kaizer Chiefs players would hang around at Lamola’s place and listen to jazz.
Andile observed that most people in his township listened to the same thing and probably did the same thing. “Same behaviour of going to work, partying on Fridays, dust themselves off on a Monday and go back to work to start another working week”, he remembers. Radio Bop and Radio SR were his favourite radio stations because of the music content they played. He visited a lot of clubs around Klaarwater and Marianridge while at the KZN boarding school. Jazz is something that he would encounter at university many years later. By then, he was into Hank Crawford, Johnny “Hammond” Smith and Jimmy Smith. He would literally judge the album based on its cover which explains why he was reluctant to touch “Tutu” by Miles Davis and gravitated towards Hugh Masekela’s albums because of the way he dressed. Another album whose cover he really liked was “There’s No Place Like America Today” by Curtis Mayfield.
Although none of his family members are musicians, the only connection that is so deep into the music was his father who went to school with Hugh Masekela and Jonas Gwangwa at St Peters Priory in Rosettenville. “He would be talking about Masekela, Gwangwa, Father Trevor Huddleston and all the people he met and interacted with while at St Peters. I never used to believe some of it”, he recalls those stories his father would tell after a few drinks when he was happy. It was only after reading the book “Still Grazing” by Masekela that he realized his dad was right after all. Those characters including Father Rakale were mentioned constantly in the book. He realized his father wanted him to know about the history of music and his connection with these great South African musicians. Also, his elder brother Xola Yenana had something to with music at school and was passionate about the arts.
There was no argument at the Yenana family when Andile told his parents he wanted to study music. His eldest brother Mongezi who was already studying at Fort Hare supported the idea of his younger sibling doing a music diploma in Alice. “However, I realized that I was unhappy with the set up two years in that curriculum”, he told Jazz It Out. His other elder brother Xola who was already at the University of Natal (now University of KwaZulu-Natal) kept telling him about these gigs by Darius Brubeck and the people that were studying in the music department, the likes of Zim Ngqawana, Feya Faku, Lex Futshane and many others. He would tell Andile stories of what was going on in Durban and asked “why don’t you come over”.
Finally, he made the move to the Durban based university and enrolled through the programme that was sponsored by Ronnie Madonsela Scholarship for Jazz as one of its recipients. He found it quite easy to make the entrance and supported himself financially through the gigs he performed at in his first year. “The jazz fraternity embraced me when I joined it which gave me a sense of belonging. Jazz people are so full of love. Jazz has always been able to give voices to young musicians”, with a deep sense of appreciation. He was mentored by music students such as Feya Faku and Lex Futshane. Sazi Dlamini took him on a stroll and didn’t know he was taking him to see Susan Barry playing solo piano at The Wheel shopping centre.
Andile did his bridging course under the tutelage of Melvin Peters. Such great individuals including Neil Gonsalves were a big part of the “musical family” that went to influence and shape some parts of what is called South African Jazz today. He found it a good programme. “I started a band that included Concord Nkabinde, Sandile Shange and Mfana Mlambo”, he said. Darius Brubeck invited musicians Barney Rachabane, Victor Ntoni, Allen Kwela, Tete Mbambisa and many others to his programme and this is what Durban offered. “I was glad to be part of that”, he added. They were also fortunate to be hosted at venues such as Rainbow Restaurant in Pinetown which gave them an opportunity to showcase their talent.
While doing his first year at university, he met saxophonist Steve Dyer who was the founder and bandleader of Southern Freeway, a group he formed with artists from Zimbabwe. There was a very popular club in Melville called Sophtown Jazz Club which was patronized by many jazz enthusiasts and musicians including Jonas Gwangwa and Nhlanhla Magagula. The patrons also included some politicians. Andile joined South Freeway and met artists like Louis Mhlanga and Thandi Ngono who was from Vryburg. Thandi had been part of musicians that translated lyrics of the tune “Ngiculela” by Stevie Wonder. She had been living in the US for many years until she decided to return home via Botswana and Zimbabwe. The band did not only teach Andile African music, he also learnt about different parts of Zimbabwe. They visited Zimbabwe regularly where they performed in front of their adoring fans. Southern Freeway would drive from Johannesburg to Victoria Falls. From Victoria Falls they would drive to Harare.
He found the Durban environment very fertile for growing talent. Andile played with Winston Mankunku Ngozi when he was in his third year of studies and recalls Feya Faku giving him the responsibility of music director on a tour with Mankunku. “Bra Winston was a generous man. He would let me write the songs I was comfortable with and I became the guy that wrote the programme”, with vivid memories. He could not believe how lucky he was to perform with an artist that recorded an album at the age of 24 in 1968 (the year he was born). Yenana also joined Zim Ngqawana’s band during his second year at university. He worked with Ngqawana on his debut album “Zimology” which was recorded in Norway in 1998. He was featured in all of his five albums, including “San Song” recorded with Bjorn Ole Solburg and his Norwegian San Ensemble.
The pianist remembers Ngqawana as a friend and mentor. His spent a lot of years as a pianist for the saxophonist. One of the things that distinguished Zim from his peers is that he showed how brilliant he was as an individual artist unlike in the previous era of the 80’s which saw lots of jazz bands and not individual artists. Moses Molelekwa did the same. “Zim was a giving and loving man. He knew exactly what he was doing in imparting knowledge to younger musicians like myself”, Andile said. Ngqawana even started playing with musicians far younger than Yenana such as Nduduzo Makhathini and Ayanda Sikade. He instilled both confidence and discipline in younger musicians. “I have a long history with Zim”, he added.
Him and Steve Dyer found themselves working together again when he became part of Mahube. The precursor to Mahube was a group called ‘Our Voice Our Music’ which had artists like McCoy Mrubata, Bheki Khoza, Suthukazi Arosi, Prince Lengoasa, Herbie Tsoaeli and Tlale Makhene and performed regularly at the Windybrow Theatre. They were good composers in their own right. That band went on to become Mahube. Dyer used to attend their performances and was impressed with what he saw. “It was something that had been brewing long before it started and Steve was able to co-ordinate everything”, he told Jazz It Out. Yenana further describes Dyer as a believer in the power of African jazz and is always looking at ways to preserve it. They toured Germany and performed in Southern African Development Community (SADC) countries such as Malawi with George Phiri and Zimbabwe. Oliver Mtukudzi was introduced through the South African audience through Mahube. The band also had Scorpion Madondo, Feya Faku, Nkanyezi Cele, Sydney Mavundla and Jimmy Mngwadi.
Yenana was part of one of the best jazz outfits to ever come from South Africa called Voice. His excitement becomes so evident when talking about this band. The pianist together with bassist Herbie Tsoaeli were very instrumental in the formation of the band. “If I was asked for a bassist I would recommend him, and if he was asked for a pianist he would recommend me. We started forming a trio that played with Zim Ngqawana which included drummer Lulu Gontsana who basically became the mentor”, going down memory lane. When saxophonist Sydney Minisi came they became a quartet and later trumpeter Marcus Wyatt joined them making the band a quintet. Gontsana was later replaced by Morabo Morojele as drummer.
Voice was very popular in Johannesburg especially Yeoville when the area was still thriving right up to Melville where most people relocated to seek fun and entertainment at a later stage. “We kept a steady jazz scene happening because we performed at regular gigs. We also became a backing band for different musicians”, he said. Young musicians like Mandla Mlangeni and Yonela Mnana got to see their performances. This is not something that lasted for a year. It went on for about 4 years. Voice is a band that started a tradition of jam sessions introducing younger musicians into the jazz scene on Wednesday nights. That is how Nduduzo Makhathini was able to get into the Johannesburg scene through those jam sessions. The band recorded two brilliant albums “Quintet Legacy Volume 1” and “Quintet Legacy Volume 2 – Songs for our grandchildren”.
“Sydney is such a great songwriter. Herbie is also a phenomenal writer. Marcus is also amazing”, Yenana reminiscing on the glory days of Voice. The band performed at a festival in Sweden. They also did a couple of gigs at the Grahamstown Festival. But their home was the jam sessions, the regular gigs where everybody came. “That is where we were the happiest which also opened doors for other musicians to come in. It was a movement really, a significant movement in the arts in a form of those Wednesday gigs”, Yenana emphasized. That was the success of that group and the fact that every member of Voice went to pursue a solo career says a lot about the caliber of musicians they were, shaping the sound of South African jazz.
Andile elaborates on the wonderful friendship he struck with fellow pianist Yonela Mnana. “Yonela came over at a club I used to play in jam sessions and regularly visited my house. Sometimes I would spend the whole day with them, cook and let them play my piano and play some tunes for them as well”. It was a relaxed atmosphere where they didn’t just play the piano but talked about what was going on at Wits, their struggles as Black students coming from disadvantaged backgrounds. Yenana basically gave them an ear and a shoulder to cry on but urged them not to give up. He loves mentoring young musicians since he was also a beneficiary of mentoring when he was still a student. “I am happy with where he is with his music”, Yenana said. The legendary pianist is always willing to impart knowledge to the young ones creating another movement which is a wonderful thing.
His debut album titled “We used to dance” was released in 2002. “I consulted with Feya about what to include in the recording and he helped with suggestions”, recalling the amount of work that went into the project. The album had a few ballads and a couple of his own compositions that came like “No Lights” and “Wicked Whispers”. “Wicked Whispers” is a song he started but did not finish until he went on a gig in Libya where he played for Muammar Gaddafi and was able to complete it in that country. They spend a week doing nothing much which became an opportune time to work on the song. At first, he never paid too much attention to “Tembisa (The People)” until Sydney Mnisi who composed the tune convinced him that it was actually a good song which needed to be included in the album. The album received 5 South African Music Awards (SAMA) nominations but never won anything.
Yenana’s second album titled Who’s got the map?” came out in 2005. “The album was a precursor to the Polokwane Conference. There was a lot of tension and battle lines drawn leading to that conference”, he told Jazz It Out. The conference he is referring to is the African National Congress (ANC) elective conference which was held in December 2007 and probably one of the most tightly contested in the history of the party where Thabo Mbeki and Jacob Zuma were contesting the position for party president of the ANC. Mbeki was the incumbent leading to the conference. “I grew up dancing as a child and we danced in 1994 when the new dispensation came and all of a sudden there was this tension”, he added. He had to ask the question “what’s going on” hence the album was titled “Who’s got he map”. The pianist was clearly seeking answers which was portrayed in the music.
In 2005, Andile was named Standard Bank Young Artist for Jazz. By this time, he had done so many things as an individual, with other bands and artists. He had recorded, toured and performed with so many artists. The year of him being named the Young Artist for Jazz coincided with the release of his second album. Even though he was happy but he was not particularly excited about the award. He recalls that not everybody rejoiced about it with some even questioning if he was really that young to be getting the award. “It really didn’t shake the ground for me, I was really not very chuffed about it”, he said. Even though his albums with Voice, his solo projects received several nominations, he never received those actual awards.
He received his first and only SAMA award so far as a producer of the album by Winston Mankunku Ngozi titled “Abantwana be Africa”. By the time he won this award, he was kind of numb about the awards. “I was not even at Sun City. I deliberately chose not to go”, he said. At the time, him and Herbie were busy recording a choir of employees for a company that manufactured a popular toothpaste which was celebrating 75 years of existence in South Africa, a very exciting and fulfilling assignment for him. He does not even know who collected the award on his behalf because he is yet to lay his hands on it and the cheque that came with it. Yenana believes jazz is music that liberates those who perform and consume this music genre. “It’s music of the warriors, African warriors, Black warriors”, he asserted.
Rwanda – Andile Yenana Quartet
The pianist has had several performances at the Cape Town International Jazz Festival and the Standard Bank Joy of Jazz. He also performed at My Jazz Festival in Norway and at several clubs in that country. “I toured England with Zim Ngqawana and played at a festival in Sweden with Voice. Too many performances to mention really”, he said. Yenana admits if feels good to hear young musicians say they see him as a mentor and role model. “The fact that you are healthy enough, you are of sound mind to be able to respond to these is a very humbling experience indeed” he added. Yenana believes South Africa needs to develop a platform where old voices and wisdom is captured by both young and old. Mentorship will always play a critical role in nurturing future jazz artists.
One of the things that always fascinate Yenana is to see young people performing at jazz gigs which are attended by other young people who also buy their music. “Each generation should define its own path. It’s so cool for the older generation to be enticed by the younger generation. Let it be a big cultural milieu of ideas, grow the music beyond their age, race and cultural confines” spoken like a legend who has been there and done that. He believes this requires serious innovators both in government on the part of Arts and Culture, arts bodies and venues. “Everybody needs to think out of the box in order to have a thriving cultural experience that is driven by the arts”, he suggested. Yenana points out that there are many events celebrated in a country and jazz can be incorporated in some of them.
During the week, Andile teaches music at Gamalakhe College in Port Shepstone on the South Coast of KZN which gives him a lot of fulfilment. “I am happy to introduce young people to the arts” he said. He is happy that more tertiary institutions are opening up to teaching music. Education is occupying its space in nurturing talent. Young musicians must be allowed to do their own and write their own chapters in the history of music including jazz. When he is not teaching, producing, recording, performing and travelling as an artist, Yenana likes to do drawing but confesses he is yet to perfect it. He also likes reading fiction. “I like to transport my mind into places that I have never been”, he concluded.
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