South African saxophonist and a pioneer in the music scene and international recognition of African jazz in the 1950s and 60s.
Gwigwi Mrwebi, also called ‘Bra Gwigwi’, whose birth name was Benni, was a well known alto saxophonist in the 1950’s South African Jazz scene. He taught himself to play the saxophone and the clarinet, and is said to have had a big showman personality as he was loved by many of his peers and followers. He became the first black South African to form and lead a full 14-piece band in the country. Mrwebi was a founding member of the Union of South African Artists, which was formed in 1953 in order to protect the rights of musicians and their royalties.
With all of his gigs and concerts, he was also working for the South African magazine Drum as a circulation manager. Part of his international acclaim is due to his numerous appearances for the BBC World Service Africa.
Mrwebi’s genre of music was often referred to as African jazz and township jive and he was a very important part of these South African music subcultures, so much so that his influences have lived on in the genre of mbaqanga and the jazz scene locally and internationally. It is this legacy that is echoed in the renaming of a Johannesburg city street after him. Newtown - the area in which the street was renamed from Pim street to Gwigwi Mrwebi - is known for its historical significance in the music and arts scene, as such pays homage to a number of legends including Mrwebi.
He was a member of a number of local and international bands, namely The Jazz Maniacs, The Harlem Swingsters, The Three Jazzolomos and later The Jazz Dazzlers in the 1960s. The Jazz Dazzlers was previously known as the Shanty Town Sextet, it was later renamed after the inclusion of more musicians, including Mrwebi, Hugh Masekela and others. The group was well known for backing noteable artists and groups such as The Manhattans. The Jazz Dazzlers would be at the core of a South African musical titled King Kong: An African Jazz (1959) as the majority of the music was compiled and played by the ensemble.
King Kong played a very important role as it displayed the vibrant art, music and theater scene that was popular among the youth in the township in apartheid South Africa. It was written specifically to speak to and about the realities facing young black south africans whilst highlighting the life of young boxer Ezekeal Dhlamini “King Kong.” Mrwrebi was part of the ensemble and played the clarinet in the play.
Mrwebi received a scholarship grant to study at the Berklee College of music in Boston, USA. The scholarship was awarded by CHISA records, a record company founded in 1966 by Stewart Levine and Hugh Masekela. The company was based in Los Angeles and was formed to give an international platform for african and south african musicians.
Mrwebi will forever be remembered for his legendary musical achievements and his influences will continue to live on in the jazz world.
Footnotes: Jurgen. Schadeberg, Jazz, Blues & Swing: Six Decades of Music in South Africa (South Africa:David Phillip, 2007), 146. Lee. Zitho, “Mrwebi Gets CHISA Grant” Billboard Magazine Vol. 82, No. 42 (17 October 1970). Dalamba. Lindelwa, Gwigwi Mrwebi, Ghetto Musicians and the Jazz Imperative: the Social and Musical Dynamics of South African Jazz in 1960s London. (Wits School of Arts, 2012), 3. “Who was Gwigwi Mrwebi” Citybuzz.co.za. Date accessed: 10 Jan 2017. https://citybuzz.co.za/47235/who-was-gwigwi-mwrebi/ Mcebisi. Ndletyana, “Changing place names in post-apartheid South Africa: accounting for the unevenness” , Social Dynamics: A journal of African studies Vol. 38:1, Page 103. Date Accessed: 10 Jan 2017https://dx.doi.org/10.1080/02533952.2012.698949Schadeberg, Jazz Blues & Swing, 146. “King Kong, The first All African Jazz Opera 1956” Soul Safari Date accessed: 10 Jan 2017https://soulsafari.wordpress.com/2009/08/10/king-kong-the-first-all-african-jazz-opera-1959/
Edwards, Racine. “Who was Gwigwi Mrwebi” Citybuzz.co.za. (16 February 2016). Date accessed: 10 Jan 2017 Add url: https://citybuzz.co.za/47235/who-was-gwigwi-mwrebi/
Lindelwa, Dalamba. Gwigwi Mrwebi, Ghetto Musicians and the Jazz Imperative: the Social and Musical Dynamics of South African Jazz in 1960s London. (Wits School of Arts, 2012).
Ndletyana, Mcebisi. “Changing place names in post-apartheid South Africa: accounting for the unevenness” , Social Dynamics: A journal of African studies Vol. 38:1.
Date Accessed: 10 Jan 2017
Schadeberg, Jurgen. Jazz, Blues & Swing: Six Decades of Music in South Africa (South Africa:David Phillip, 2007)
Zitho, Lee. , “Mrwebi Gets CHISA Grant” Billboard Magazine Vol. 82, No. 42 (17 Oct 1970).
“Chisa” Motownjunkies.co.uk. Date Accessed: 10 Jan 2017 https://motownjunkies.co.uk/labels/chisa/
“King Kong, The first All African Jazz Opera 1956” Soulsafari.wordpres.com Date Accessed: 10 Jan 2017 https://soulsafari.wordpress.com/2009/08/10/king-kong-the-first-all-african-jazz-opera-1959/
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