Jerry “Bra’ Monk” Molelekwa is the father of the late pianist Moses Taiwa Molelekwa. To keep his son’s legacy alive, he runs music classes at the Moses Molelekwa Art Foundation in Tembisa, with outreach to the community, including children aged six and upwards. Initiatives such as this flourished during the struggle era and Molelekwa still sees such grassroots cultural self-reliance as vital: he told the Mail & Guardian that his work aims to be “moving away from doing something for people only when they die. When you bury someone, you are not investing.”
One of Molelekwa’s students is Moses Sebola, now 18. In 2013 Sebola attended the Standard Bank National Youth Jazz Festival (SBNYJF), playing, says Alan Webster, “a tenor sax that was almost as big as he was. “I was blown away by his sound and incredible ears, but he couldn’t read a note and knew little English, so had no chance of getting into a reading band. He came to Grahamstown and was back in the auditions the next year with slightly improved reading. The following year he was selected for the “National Schools’ Ensemble” we created specifically for students like him – who have talent oozing out, but limited formal education. Last year I was gobsmacked to see him selected for the National Schools’ Big Band: a reading gig. On congratulating him, he beamed at me and said, ‘I can read!’ He and Michael Hoyle – a talented young tenor from SACS – were the pivots for last year’s NSBB.”
That achievement didn’t come from the festival alone. After hearing the playing of Sebola and others at regional auditions, music teacher Ceri Moelwyn-Hughes twinned Molelekwa’s youth band with the ensemble she teaches at St Mary’s (private) School in term-time, and provided free private lessons for the hardworking young saxophonist. Her work and Molelekwa’s both provided precious counterbalances to something the late drummer Lulu Gontsana had observed at Grahamstown as far back as the early 2000s: “It’s hard for kids from the township to hold on to what they learn from year to year [at Grahamstown] They may have nowhere to practice or no-one to tutor them.”
Kelly Bell saw the results, an impressive two-way learning, when she conducted the 2017 band: “Moses was one of the best young improvisers I have ever heard, but had not had the opportunity to play in the national band because he couldn’t read. It was so powerful to see a relationship grow up between the two tenor players, the other from one of the top schools in the country. They would hang out together, rehearse together to help each other learn the charts I gave them and discuss what the African sound is that I was looking for. They truly captured the essence of humanity and music.”
All this, says Moelwyn-Hughes is an instance of the “sensitivity to inclusion and financial support by Standard Bank and the festival.” SBNYJF was the space where multiple efforts from many people came together – a community cultural activist, two teachers (one, the 2017 big-band conductor) and, of course, the young musicians themselves – and provided the platform to showcase the results.