For Jesse Mogale, ‘the music is above all of us’

The bassist, who recently released his first album as a bandleader, Heritage From an African Continent, pays homage to growing up in the cultural politics of Mamelodi and the idea of music as communal.

“Not for one moment,” says bassist Jesse Mogale, “do I regret giving up the periodic table for music.” 

Mogale – who, after 20-plus years as a musician and arts educator, recently released his first album, Heritage From an African Continent – started his working life as an industrial chemist in the gold industry. But jazz, the people’s music of Pretoria’s historic Mamelodi township, had captured his heart long before that.

Heritage pays deliberate homage to those Mamelodi beginnings.

“I got everything culturally and politically from my family and community. Everybody was politically aware. One brother was both an activist and in a theatre group. There were no scripts, in case the police found them; people memorised the entire play. As I grew up, I started to realise my home was some kind of a cell. The names our visitors used, they were code names. You couldn’t disclose a real name even if the police beat you up,” Mogale says.

Those politics were one source of his ingrained understanding that music was a collective activity, “not a moneymaking scheme”. Another was the weekly music events at a nearby hostel, mainly occupied by mineworkers from further north. “Sundays at three, they’d come out, and sing and blow horns and such. For us, it was a free show. But they didn’t think of themselves as performing. For them, it was a community gathering.”

Journeying into music 

Mogale’s elder brother, guitarist Moss Mogale, worked in the radical Dashiki theatre group with, among others, poet and artist Lefifi Tladi, whose voice and poetry are showcased on Heritage and who created the liner art. Moss had, when younger, played pennywhistle for two distant uncles who were travelling guitar players. Later, more music apprenticeship came from attending and playing at monthly jazz showcases hosted by the United States embassy information service in Pretoria and curated by revered Mamelodi arts organiser the late Geoff Mphakati. 

“But there were no music schools,” recalls Mogale, “and the tendency was if you were good in maths, the family would want you to be a doctor. Music and the arts weren’t at the forefront, and the frustrations musicians faced, which made many take to alcohol, created negative perceptions.”

So he qualified as a chemist at Wits and took the gold-mine job, all the while learning more as an (initially) electric bassist from his older brother. During that time he forged firm musical friendships with guitarist Selaelo Selota and reedman Sydney Mnisi: “We’d go to gigs, go swimming at the Yeoville pool, and spend time jamming in my Hillbrow flat … I was living a double life. Daytimes, I’m a scientist; evenings and weekends, I’m an artist; getting exhausted travelling between Hillbrow and Pretoria for rehearsal and up the next morning at six for work.” 

Something had to give, and music won.

The pull of the acoustic bass

But though he was playing electric bass, he was listening increasingly to acoustic bassists. “The first was Percy Heath. I could hear every note, whereas with electric bassists they’re often buried in the sound. Then Ron Carter, Ray Brown… In the mid 1990s, when [pianist] Bheki Mseleku came to jam with my brother, he listened to me playing and said, ‘You must get yourself a double bass, because you’re already playing like that.’ I got one three years later, and it’s a big regret that I never saw him after to thank him.” 

At the same time, Mogale’s ambition to help restore community arts was becoming stronger. He called a meeting of Pretoria artists across all genres to propose an initiative, inspired by the models of Johnny Mekoa’s Music Academy of Gauteng in Daveyton, and the struggle-era Musical Action for People’s Power school in Cape Town. Initial enthusiasm was eroded when it became clear there were no funds and the project would need to be built from the ground up. “In the end,” says Mogale, “I was left with only musicians, and mostly from Mamelodi.”

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He doesn’t think that was accidental. Mamelodi’s political legacy of self-reliant radicalism fuelled the courage to press on. “Moss said that, to make this thing happen, you had to have political understanding.”

Founded in 1998, the Committed Artists for Cultural Advancement (Cafca) community music school is still going strong. It operated first from an SOS Children’s Villages site, then a local high school, then, between 2004 and 2007, was supported through Pretoria’s twin-city arrangement with Delft in the Netherlands. It is currently hosted at the University of Pretoria’s Mamelodi campus – and several players who are Cafca graduates play on Heritage

The point of departure 

So Mogale hasn’t exactly been idle in the 20-plus years between starting his music career and launching his first album, and Heritage From an African Continent reunites people from across that time spectrum: Moss and Tladi, Mnisi, and younger players including reedman Mthunzi Mvubu plus others from Daveyton, Mabopane and a strong Cafca contingent, including drummer Manqoba Manku, who was 14 when the album was recorded, and trombonist Kopano Mashile, who both studied and later taught there. 

The album’s generational mixing is deliberate. “When bands are made up of the same age group, you don’t have the opportunity to learn. I was fortunate to be the youngest in my brother’s bands.”

Mogale composed 10 of the dozen tracks. The oldest, Things Finally Get Better, dates from 2001 and others update the story. “The biggest problem getting an album out is the financial challenge,” he explains, acknowledging the support of another brother, Si (Simon), and a benefactor friend, Edwin Smith, for finally making it happen, “as well as musicians I could negotiate with. These were great musicians, not just people with star names.”

As well as benchmarking his career, Mogale hopes the album will “inspire youngsters to go back and listen to the music it comes from, like The Drive and Spirits Rejoice. Our heritage should be the point of departure for music education, yet I hear about saxophone graduates who’ve never in all their studies come across [saxophonist] Duku Makasi, for example. 

“Guys from uni used to have problems working with the late Jonas Gwangwa – may his spirit rest in peace – because he’d tell them, ‘You’re voicing the chords wrong. We don’t voice our chords like that.’ They’d never studied South African voicings. Something’s wrong in that equation.”

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For that reason, Mogale relishes Mnisi’s flute-playing on the album. “The way Sydney interprets the track Lullaby For an African Child shows he’d understood the reference to malombo music. So much so that when Julian [Bahula, malombo drummer] heard it, he asked, ‘Who’s that playing? It sounds like Abbey [Cindi, historic malombo reed player].” 

While Mogale’s politics of collective working mean he often prefers the jazz bassist’s traditional role – laying down a reliable rhythm carpet on which other band members can shine – he also solos himself on arco (bowed) bass. “I wanted the music to explore both sides of the bass, solo and backing instrument.” 

The traditional backing role, for him, symbolises the jazz way of working together. “The music should not be about me, or for me to impose my leadership. I’m most influenced by the late [bassist] Ernest Mothle’s saying: ‘The music is above all of us.’ Once you understand that, you know how to cooperate.” 

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