I was only four years old when I made a lifetime partnership with music and the trumpet. Music was what my family was known for; classical music on my mother’s side (the Tshosanes), and jazz on my father’s.
My grandfather, Jacob Ntsane, founded the Merry Makers’ Orchestra in the 1930s in Payneville, a suburb of Springs, a coal and mining town east of Johannesburg. This was before my grandparents were forcibly moved from Payneville to Kwa-Thema, a black township, by the apartheid government, because, as some locals say, substantial amounts of gold reserves were discovered in the Payneville area.
After my grandfather’s passing, my father’s oldest brother, Peter, took over the orchestra. That’s when giants such as Elijah Nkwanyana and Banzi Bangane played in the Merry Makers’ Orchestra trumpet section.
That’s also when the great South African trumpeter, Hugh Masekela, who passed away last month, played for the Merry Makers’ Orchestra. As Masekela recalls in his autobiography, that early jazz education with Peter Ntsane shaped his later career. He mentions playing with my grandfather’s Orchestra: “For me, School holidays were no longer boring. I looked forward to spending them in Springs, where through my uncle Kenneth’s hustling, I got to play with Peter Ntsane Merry Makers’ Orchestra.”
In an interview with MTV News, Masekela had particular praise for the Merry Makers and specifically Nkwanyama and Bangane: “They were my first idols, especially Elijah.”
Kwa-Thema is still blessed with great musicians and you won’t struggle to find an exceptional trumpet player: Prince Lengoasa, his father and his brothers Hloks and Thapelo, my cousin Tefo Tshosane, and other notable trumpeters. Makhosonke Mrubata, the brothers Mdu, Sipho Qwabe and Thabiso Mogotsi, among others, are all from Springs and are just phenomenal. When we started the Kwatsaduza Orchestra in 2016, a band of musicians from around the East Rand of Johannesburg, we had more trumpet players than anything else.
My own path would eventually cross with that of Hugh Masekela and last year I would get to stand in for him.
After graduating high school, I was derailed by the economics of the New but still Old South Africa. Like most black children who grew up in the townships, which more resemble concentration camps, I chose to pursue a field that would guarantee financial security and in the process eradicate any reminiscence of poverty in our family, So, I studied accountancy. My choice was also influenced by the perception, still prevalent today, that artistic interests are not feasible career paths, and that the highest paying jobs are considered to be in finance.
After finishing an equivalent of an associate’s degree, I realized that it had actually drawn me closer to music, so I enrolled for a music diploma at the Tshwane University of Technology (TUT) in the country’s capital.
I heard Masekela’s work throughout my life: at weddings, parties and funerals. His music was also more than accompaniment for celebrations. As Africans we considered his music to be the sound of liberty, the manifestation of actual freedom. As the writer Sisonke Msimang wrote last week: “… through his decision to pick up that horn and through his ability to move through the world and occupy it like a boss — [Hugh Masekela] managed to accomplish that rarest of feats. He was at once formidable and fearless. And, above all, Bra Hugh — our beloved, most feisty dlozi — was utterly, triumphantly, unapologetically free.”
If you play the trumpet, like I did, you are likely to be called “Hugh.”
In 2010, after graduating with a music degree from TUT, I shared a bill with Masekela at the Tshwane Jazz Festival. For me, Masekela was more like an elder, a grandfather, as I had never actually met my own grandfather, and Masekela had played in his band. Masekela was very vital source of information, and every chance I got to be around him I had a thousand questions for him. I was cautious not to be a nuisance.
In 2011 I came to study at The New School’s Jazz Program. There I had the privilege of studying under the tutelage of Jimmy Owens, Charles Tolliver, Bobby Sanabria, Cecil Bridgewater, Billy Harper Marcus Printup and others, whilst tapping into a significant pool of musicians from all over the world. This really expanded my scope of music in general.
Last Spring, Hugh Masekela was scheduled to play at Town Hall, a storied venue in midtown Manhattan, with Abdullah Ibrahim. This was part of a series of concerts to celebrate the Jazz Epistles, the iconic late 1950s and early 1960s band that launched the careers of Masekela, Ibrahim (then known as Dollar Brand), trombonist Jonas Gwangwa, saxophonist Kippie Moeketsi, drummer Makaya Ntshoko and bassist Johnny Gertze.
Masekela, Ibrahim and Gwangwa left South Africa soon after they recorded an album of bebop music in 1959. They all went on to celebrated careers internationally, especially Masekela and Ibrahim. (Moeketsi died in 1983.) The idea of the Town Hall concert was to play the music from the album. Ibrahim’s band Ekhaya would accompany the musicians. (Gwangwa and Ntshoko, who lives in Switzerland, were not part of the concert.) Given both Masekela and Ibrahim’s connections to New York City — both studied and worked as musicians here, on and off for two decades or more — there was a lot of expectation and excitement around the performance.
I had planned to be in the audience and to get tickets. I felt it was possible this would be the last time these two giants of jazz — not just South African jazz music — would be on the same stage at the same time, so I became a proponent of its historical importance. Ibrahim was 82 at the time, Masekela 77.
Four days prior to the concert, I received a phone call asking me to take Masekela’s place. He had suffered a fall on tour and would be unable to appear.
I couldn’t believe the magnitude of the moment. I went through many complex emotions at the same time. I was puzzled, because Dr. Masekela was one of the most defiant figures of our times and so full of life, and I was very concerned about what could keep him from making this important appearance. It was only after he released a video statement explaining why he couldn’t make the performance, saying further I would take his place (“the young Lesedi Ntsane … is just an amazing musician that I very much respect and that he would very much fill the space that I will be missing), that everything within me settled. After the performance, Jazz Times’s reviewer declared: “Trumpeter Lesedi Ntsane, standing in as an eleventh hour replacement for an injured Masekela, proved to be a breakout star in this climate, blending brash displays with thoughtful gestures.” Giovanni Russonelli writing in The New York Times characterized my playing as resembling “… a thick, smoky lassitude and pulling against the hopped-up swing.”
Jacob Ntsane’s grandson and the kid who grew up being called Hugh because he loved the trumpet, now had to take the stage that was set for him by his ancestors, and tell the story of his people.