When his father bought a set of musical instruments to start a family band, little did he know that his third born child would be a professional musician.  At high school, his teacher who was also a pianist asked him to join a band which grew from unknown to enjoy fame in and around Durban.  Later he would work with accomplished musicians in South Africa.

Bassist Bongani Nkwanyana was born at Mkhumbane (now Cator Manor) 60 years ago.  He is the 3rd child of Elijah and Mamie Nkwanyane, has two elder brothers Thembinkosi and Khumbulani with Mbongi as the only sister and last born.  As a result of the notorious and draconian Group Areas Act, his family was forcefully removed to KwaMashu, North of Durban in 1965 when he was two years old.  “My parents told me it was painful to leave the place they called home but had to adapt and move on with their lives”, he told Jazz It Out.

His formal education began at Ndabezwe Lower Primary before moving to Phakama Higher Primary, Vuyiswa Mtolo Secondary and completing his years of schooling at Nhlakanipho High.  Colleagues in the music industry find him easily approachable, a hard worker who is not afraid of challenges.  “I am a very determined individual who does not like to give up until I get things right”, he said.  He approaches everything he does with a positive attitude and is passionate about creating and composing his own music.

Bongani Nkwanyana

He was 11 years old when his father bought a set of musical instruments and started a family band called Black Brothers and Sisters which included his siblings.  At that tender age, he never anticipated that he would be a professional musician one day.  “We were very young and enjoyed playing in my father’s band.  Many people seemed to enjoy our music”, with a chuckle.  Bongani also sang in the school choir and recalls the excitement of winning a competition as a chorister.  Music exploration saw him learning how to play a guitar.

The O’Jays, Marvin Gaye, Winston Mankunku Ngozi, Hugh Masekela, Phillip Tabane and Malombo were his favourite musicians.  There were some fun moments after school had closed.  “When school was finished, we would meet our secret lovers and give them melted chocolate we had been hiding in our school bags for the whole day”, he said.  Those were the days when young boys and girls had discretion when walking as couples in the township.

When actress Daphney Hlomuka found herself desperately looking for a band to back her at a gig in Pinetown, she reached out to Qunta Mbhele who was Bongani’s teacher at Nhlakanipho High School and a keyboard player.  Qunta immediately formed a band called Stax which included Pa Mcanyana on bass, Wake Mahlobo on drums, Bongani on guitar and Mandla Masuku on saxophone.  This was supposed to be a temporary ensemble whose members were chosen because they knew how to perform Afro Jazz and was never expected to last beyond Ms Hlomuka’s show.

Performing at the KZN International Jazz Festival. Picture by Sbonga Gatsheni

“After that gig, we never looked back”, Bongani recalls.  Stax started rehearsals at YMCA in KwaMashu to learn more songs in preparation for future gigs whenever they were needed as a band.  “We began composing our own music as well.  We became popular in the community and people loved us”, he added.  They performed at schools and Durban surroundings.  In September 1984, the band won the Lion Lager Talent Search, which marked the beginning of a great era for both the band and its individual members.

Stax also signed a six month contract with Umlazi Executive Hotel’s nightclub called Speak Easy to be the resident band and back visiting acts.  “We worked with Marah Louw, Abigail Kubheka, Eddie Harris, Ronnie Madonsela and many more”, going down memory lane.  When their bassist Pa Mcanyana left the band, Bongani decided to switch to the bass which was an easy transition.  Sometimes they shared the stage with Sakhile whose bassist was Sipho Gumede.  The band recorded two albums “Nothing for Mahalla” (1985) and “Smile” (1986).

Many teenagers were impressed by performances of Stax and asked Bongani to teach them how to play the bass.  “It indicated that they were inspired by my performance which is a gift from Umvelinqangi and my great – great grandfather Xhama from my parternal side”, he said.  He would teach them basic techniques and encouraged them to study music which some did.  Most of them took his advice and are well known bass players in the industry.  These include Philani Ngidi, Victor Sithole, Andile Ndlovu, Bernard Mndaweni, Mazwakhe Gumede, Bongani Sokhela and many more.

His debut album with Sheer Sound

In 1986, he moved to Johannesburg in search for greener pastures and joined Casino.  It became a resident band in many night clubs in and around the city of gold.  This became a very important period in his career where he became a sought after bassist, playing different styles of music which contributed to his versatility and grew in confidence.  “I learnt so many things such as working under pressure.  Those were very exciting moments in my career”, he said.  Casino recorded two albums “Sodom and Gomorrah” (1987) and “Gambling” (1988). He also recorded an album titled “Jika Joe” (2000) with Zakhele.

Bongani and Sipho Gumede had known each other from the days he was with Stax while Gumede was with Sakhile.  When Gumede went solo, he asked Bongani to be his backing bassist, an offer he grabbed with both hands.  He admired his bandleader for his knowledge of the music industry and life in general.  “He loved his band wholeheartedly.  He made us understand every music we played and how it should sound for the audience to enjoy”, he recalls.  In many instances, Gumede would ask him to stand next to him where they danced together in live performances.  Some people could not tell a difference because of the resemblance these two bassists had.

His live EP with Sagiya Foundation

Gumede became his mentor, and his music is heavily influenced by his former bandleader’s style of composition and playing.  What are some of the lessons he learnt from Gumede? “Punctuality, honesty, being confident on stage, commitment to what you do and treat everyone equal”, he said.  Bongani featured prominently in the majority of Gumede’s hit albums released under Sheer Sound, and his live shows.  Together with Gumede, he performed in many festivals including Cape Town Jazzathon, North Sea Jazz Festival, Standard Bank Joy of Jazz, Macufe Jazz Festival and Moretele Festival.

He remembers vividly the sadness upon receiving devastating news on Gumede’s passing in July 2004.  “I was so heartbroken and did not know what to say.  It felt like losing a family member”, he said.  The passing also made him unemployed.  Playing his bandleader’s songs at the memorial service was very emotional for Bongani but found comforting words from people who commended him for doing justice to the fallen hero.  He decided to play Gumede’s songs as a way of honouring him.  Audiences go on a frenzy every time they hear him play Gumede’s classics.

As a session musician, he has been featured in albums by Mandla Masuku, Madala Kunene, Mbongeni Ngema, Sifiso Ncwane, Avante and Afro-Soul.  He has performed with musicians such as Busi Mhlongo, Wendy Mseleku, Tu Nokwe, Mercy Pakela, Ali Katt and many others.  He has also performed at musical productions including Mbongeni Ngema’s “The Zulu”, Jerry Pooe’s “Peace in the Valley”, and Edmund Mhlongo’s “Madam President” and many more.  His career as a bassist has seen him touring countries such as Germany, Denmark, Austria, Sweden, Malaysia, Mauritius, Lesotho, Botswana, Eswatini, Ethiopia, Senegal and Namibia.

Xhama’s Groove – Bongani Nkwanyana

His debut album titled “Ithemba Lami” was released in 2009 under Sheer Sound.  In 2021 he released his live EP with Sagiya Foundation.  Bongani has not changed his views on the importance of versatility if one is an instrumentalist.  He encourages musicians to expose themselves to different types of music because life is unpredictable.  “If you are a musician, you must always be ready for any opportunity regardless of the genre”, he said.  In 2022, he won the Best Jazz Guitarist at the inaugural Mzansi Musical Instrumentalist Awards(MMIA).  “I was over the moon.  It was my first award and I think more are still coming”, he said.  He is nominated for the Artist of the Year at Mzansi Traditional and Culture Music Awards to be held on 26 August.

Bongani has the following words to those that wish to pursue music as a profession: “Focus. Listen to various types of music. Find your own style of playing. Have discipline.  Avoid drug abuse. Practice, practice and practice”, showing years of experience. His hobbies include watching sport, hiking, reading and brisk walking.  Caiphus Semenya, Themba, Jaws Dlathu, Fana Zulu, Charles Mingus, Marcus Miller and Richard Bona are some of his favourite musicians.  He is Bongani Nkwanyana on Facebook.  Follow him on Instagram @bongani.nkwanyana