Although the South African career of the drummer Makaya Ntshoko spans but a very short period his name is legendary. In June and July 2007 he returned to South Africa with a bi-national Jazz Quintet for concerts in Grahamstown, New Brighton, Johannesburg and Cape Town.
Makaya Ntshoko was born in Cape Town in 1939 growing up in Langa. Early on he learned from musicians such as George Castle (bass), Banzi Bangani (trumpet), Morris Goldberg (alto) and the drummers Columbus Phakamile “Phaks” Joya and Maurice Gawronsky. He teamed up with “Dan Boy” Danayi (alto) and Martin “Lilly” Mgijima and had the opportunity to jam and perform with Cups Nkanuka (tenor) and his Peninsula Stars. In 1959 he joined fellow Cape musicians Dollar Brand and Johnny Gertze on a trip to Johannesburg where together with Kippie Moeketsi, Jonas Gwangwa and Hugh Masekela they formed the legendary Jazz Epistles committed to serious, progressive jazz and recorded their ground breaking album. Whereas Dollar and Johnny Gertze eventually returned to Cape Town Makaya stayed on. Together with Kippie Moeketsi and Jonas Gwangwa he joined the crew of the musical King Kong for its second tour in England and Scotland in 1960.
He returned to South Africa in 1961 and spent much of this extremely busy period, which involved a lot of travelling, at Dorkay House. In 1962 Makaya Ntshoko formed his own Jazz Giants (with Aubrey Mathabatha, Khonzile Nana, Tete Mbambisa, Dudu Pukwana and Martin Mgijima) for the Castle Lager National Jazz Festival at the Moroka Jabavu Stadium in October of the same year. Again the focus was on progressive music, the repertoire including tunes of Miles or Golson such as Killer Joe. Other performances included the avant-garde Jazz Fantasia with Gideon Nxumalo. The tightening Apartheid system, however, took its toll on Makaya, who remembers this period as a very intensive time “you do not have time to waste, there is so much to do – you just have to do it.”
Eventually he responded to the call of Dollar Brand and joined him, Johnny Gertze and Sathima Bea Benjamin in Switzerland. The Dollar Brand Trio performed in Basel at the Atlantis and in Zuerich at the club Africana where Coltrane and Ellington came to see them. The latter in 1963 invited them to Paris for a recording that paved their way to international recognition. What followed was a rapid career that took Makaya to Germany, Denmark, England, France, the United States and the Far East performing with Johnny Dyani, Mal Waldron, Joe Henderson, Dexter Gordon, Ben Webster, Roland Kirk, Joe McPhee, John Tchicai, Pepper Adams, Hannibal Petersen, NICRA, etc.
In comparison with other musicians in exile, such as Moholo, Ntshoko did not foreground his South African roots that much and was closer to the European scene. He was – and still is – known for intricate polyrthyms, a light and resilient way of drumming, immediate response and sensitivity. For a while Makaya Ntshoko was the house drummer at the Jazz Jamboree in Berlin and at the Jazzhouse Montmartre in Copenhagen. As he constantly had a problem with permits he made Basel in Switzerland his base. He seized the opportunity to teach workshops at the Basel conservatory. His composition Bebby (or Bebe), a tribute to the young students at Basel, is reminiscent of this period.
Yet, life in exile was not less difficult than life under Apartheid. While the condition set free an immense creative energy it destroyed several of Makaya’s countrymen. Consequently Ntshoko kept a low profile. Together with his longtime companion John Tchicai he joined the project Jazz against Apartheid – the Music of Johnny Dyani in Frankfurt/ Germany in 1986, which was originally started by the initiative Kultur im Ghetto together with Dyani. More recently Makaya Ntshoko can be seen on stage more frequently in performances with artists such as John Tchicai (tenor), Pierre Favre (drums), Irene Schweizer (piano) or with his own Makaya and the New Tsotsis (the original Tsotsis were a project of his in the mid 70s) with Andy Scherrer (tenor), Vera Kappeler (piano) and Stephan Kurmann (bass). The CD Happy House by Makaya & the new Tsotsis has just been released under the label SteepleChase.
On the occasion of the residency of Feya Faku
at the bird’s eye jazz club
in Basel, Switzerland in May and June 2006 Makaya Ntshoko performed with the Swiss – South African Jazz Quintet
. Between 27 June and 8 July this quintet toured South Africa for performances at the Standard Bank National Youth Jazz Festival
at Grahamstown and further performances in New Brighton, Johannesburg and Cape Town supported by the Swiss arts council Pro Helvetia
. Besides Makaya Ntshoko and Feya Faku the quintet featured some of the top jazz musicians of Switzerland such as Domenic Landolf
on saxophone and bass clarinet, the young wizard Colin Vallon
on piano and Stephan Kurmann
on double bass. Subsequent to the tour Makaya Ntshoko spent a one-week residency the District Six Museum