He is undoubtedly one of the hardest working musicians who is extremely proud of his roots. Soweto born and raised percussionist Gontse Makhene is the son of Rebecca and the late actor Ramolao Makhene. “I am the last born of seven siblings, three sisters, three brothers and lots of cousins”, he told Jazz It Out. He is the youngest brother to SAMA award winning percussionist Tlale Makhene while Blondie and Letoya Makhene are extended members of his family.
The love of music has always been pulpable at his home. “My father used to collect vinyl records from an early age and music brought the entire family together as both my parents sang in the church choir”, remembers. His father would have his artist friends over to entertain them while his mother would be cooking with the assistance of his sisters. The Makhene household would always be filled with joy, laughter, dancing and stories of his father’s travels across Europe with the different plays he was involved in.
Percussionist Gontse Makhene. Picture by @Coffee_bae
Like most teenagers, his childhood years were rebellious. This is also the time he started listening to the music he really wanted. He listened to the music collection of his brother Tlale’s travels and his father’s library. “My ears were filled with Tito Puente, Bessie Smith, The Crusaders, Dollar Brand, Sakhile, The White Stripes, Steel Pulse, Black Star, Wu-Tang, Babatunde Olatunji, Doudou N’Diaye Rose and Les Tambours De Brazza to mention a few”, reminiscing of those years that had a strong influence on his musical preferences.
Between 1989 and 1992, Gontse studied African Music at the Funda Community Collenge in Soweto with focus on Marimba, Akadinda and Contemporary Afro Dance. “I had such a great time at Funda and have fond memories of some of the people that nurtured and piqued my interest for music and the arts in all its different yet connected facets”, he said. His dance teachers were led by Nomsa Manaka with Mhlanganisi Masoga as the principal. In their final year, students did productions from dance, drums, marimba, akadinda to fine arts exhibitions and drama performances. “The three years I spent at Funda made me understand that teamwork and collaboration make music speak truth to the hearts and souls of people”, he told Jazz It Out.
In 2001 he enrolled for an N course in music at the National School of The Arts (NSA) where he majored in Drum-Kit completing in 2003. “My time at NSA contributed immensely to my growth and knowledge as a percussionist. I had the honour of playing drumkit with the school orchestra in a musical conducted by Rexleigh Bunyard written by Yevette Hardy I think”, going down memory lane. He also met some of his future band members while at NSA. Together with Frank Magongwa, Madite Moalusi and Mahlatse Riba, they formed Kwani Experience whose debut album was titled “The Birth Of The Mudaland Funk”. Kwani Experience was a pure sense of self-expression without judgement and truth, a spirit of togetherness through sound.
Kwani Experience’s debut album
Gontse was also founding member of L.A.P. together with Bafana Nhlapo and Zwelakhe Zwane in 2004. The group recorded an album titled “SIFF-PAP AND THE GANG”. In 2006 he was featured on Cameroonian artist Della Tamin’s album. This experience taught him that Africans irrespective of the countries they come from, have something that always connects them. Kwani Experience’s second album, “Live After Birth” was released in 2007. The group which is cited as the most unknown band that changed the local musical landscape toured Europe as part of promoting the album.
His career as a percussionist grew to another level when he joined Shabaka and the Ancestors, participating in the recording of “Wisdom Of The Elders”. Members of the group include tenor saxophonist Shabaka Hutchings, alto saxophonist Mthunzi Mvubu, trumpeter Mandla Mlangeni, vocalist Siyabanga Mthembu, pianist Nduduzo Makhathini, bassist Ariel Zamonsky and drummer Tumi Mogorosi. Gontse is also a member of Amandla Freedom Ensemble led by Mandla Mlangeni. His elder brother Tlale has taught him that every song has its own rhythm and groove and he plays what the music requires.
By the time they went to record the second album by Shabaka and the Ancestors titled “We are Sent Here By History” in 2019, they were not aware that the project was recorded with well-known Impulse Records. “We only found out after the recording that we were on Impulse Records. The reaction was delayed but very well received news”, he told Jazz It Out. This recording was a highlight and a milestone in the career of this percussionist. His other milestone was going to come in a recording with another renowned label which occurred in the same year making it an exciting year for the Sowetan.
We Are Sent Here By History. An album by Shabaka and the Ancestors recorded with Impulse Records
When multi-award-winning pianist Nduduzo Makhathini went to record his debut album “Modes of Communication: Letters From the Underworlds” with Blue Note Records, he invited Gontse to form part of the team of musicians he needed in the recording. “I felt so honoured to get a call from Nduduzo. He said…..man sidinga umthakathi in studio for this record please…..and don’t forget to bring uMkhulu….referring to the malombo drum”, a call he will not forget for a long time to come. He gathered his drums and toys, headed to the SABC to recorded and got to meet other personnel that were going to be part of the historical recording. The album won this year’s South African Music Award (SAMA) in the best jazz category.
Makhene also featured on saxophonist Linda Sikhakhane’s second album “An Open Dialogue”. He describes Sikhakhane as a graceful being that you just gravitate to the vibration of the energy he exudes when in studio, and to add more spice was that Makhathini was producing the recording, making it all delightfully pleasant and memorable indeed. The percussionist who has been a professional musician for two decades describes jazz as a sonic medium that expresses the experiences of joy, love, loss, pain, peace, hunger, the voices of the unheard and hopes for a better tomorrow.
As part of promoting venues in the township he is extremely proud to be its son, Gontse founded Peanut Butter & Jam Sessions (PB&J). These sessions are held in Central Jabavu at Native Rebels restaurant which is located near the Morris Isaacson Centre for Music, where the school provides PB&J with the much-needed rehearsal space. PB&J helps the school with their live concerts which integrate students of Morris Isaacson Centre for Music. “This gives students important real-life experiences of performing to different audiences. These experiences heighten student morale and confidence”, he emphasized.
Nutty – Shabaka and the Ancestors
Some of the festivals Gontse has performed at include Cape Town Jazz Fest, North Sea Jazz Fest (Netherlands, Montreux Jazz Festival, Standard Bank Jazz Fest, Pori Jazz Festival in Finland. Despite the frustration that has been brought by Covid and the lockdown, Gontse found himself having to liven skills that lied dormant while anticipating what is next to affect the industry he is part of. There are some lessons that came with the confusion caused by the pandemic. “Loving and cherishing each moment with loved ones and creating even stronger bonds with extended family, meaning brothers and sisters in the creative sectors collectively at home and across the seas, establishing new relationships based on trust and merit”, he told Jazz It Out.
His list of favourite musicians include Omar Sosa, Mulatu Astatke, Madala Kunene, Zoë Modiga, Thandi Ntuli, Tlale Makhene, Linda Sikhakhane, Ndabo Zulu, Theon Cross, Robert Glasper, Shabaka Hutchings, Nduduzo Makhathini, Mandla Mlangeni, Karim Ziad, Mabi Thobejane, Sun Ra Arkestra. Gontse loves programming ‘crazy’ electronic beats mixed with odd recordings he sometimes captures through his zoom recorder. He likes taking photos of his friends and skylines during his travels. “I also like to plant herbs and connect herbal brews and I like making little percussion instruments”, he said. His Facebook account is Gontse Jnsq Makhene. Follow him on Instagram @makhenegontse and @GontseMakhene on Twitter.