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Celebrating International Jazz Day: Check Out These 5 South African Jazz Musicians

Apr 30, 2021 04:00PM ● By Boitumelo Masihleho
south africa jazz

In November 2011, the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) officially designated April 30 as International Jazz Day in order to highlight jazz and its diplomatic role inof uniting people in all corners of the globe. This year, in celebration, we’re showcasing some of the top Southern African jazz musicians that you should listen to.

Dorothy Masuka

Dorothy Masuka was born and raised in Bulawayo, Zimbabwe in 1935. Masuka moved to live with her aunt in South Africa in 1947, and was enrolled at St Thomas Convent School in Johannesburg, where she joined the school choir and her talent was immediately discovered. She signed up at Troubadour Records, and by the time she was 16 years old, Masuka had become a top recording star. Masuka then left for Johannesburg by train, and it was during this journey that she composed the song “Hamba Nontsokolo”, which launched her career as a professional musician.

Masuka composed and recorded close to 30 singles, several of which became major hits status. She also achieved the status of a top pin-up and glamour girl in South Africa, and  she became the principal star in Alf Herbert’s African Jazz and Variety show. A lot of Masuka’s performances were as a soloist while accompanied by close-harmony groups and other big bands that were featured in the 1950s. In 1961, she traveled to Malawi and Tanzania, and through her musical talents, she became the champion of the independence cause in Africa. Her work was also performed by other South African artists in exile, notably Miriam Makeba. Sadly, Masuka  passed away on February 23, 2019, in South Africa at the age of 84.


Dudu Pukwana

Mthutuzeli Dudu Pukwana was a South African saxophonist, composer and pianist from Port Elizabeth. He grew up studying piano, but in 1956 he switched to alto sax after meeting tenor sax player Nikele Moyake. In 1962, Pukwana won first prize at the Johannesburg Jazz Festival with Moyake's Jazz Giants. Pukwana spent the majority of his career developing his mixed sound of South African roots and European free jazz. His sound emitted a message of peace, love, and acceptance. Chris McGregor invited him to join the pioneering Blue Notes sextet, a multi-racial jazz group, but after The Blue Notes split in the late 1960s, Pukwana joined McGregor's Brotherhood of Breath big band, which  featured him soloing heavily.

After his tenure with the Brotherhood of Breadth, Pukwana formed a new band Assagai. One of their most popular and moving songs is called “Kinzambi'' which is filled with traditional African drums accompanied with amazing saxophone solos by Pukwana. Years later, in 1978 Pukwana decided to create his own record company Jika Records. In April 1990, Pukwana took part in the Nelson Mandela Tribute held at Wembley Stadium. Pukwana passed away in London on June 30, 1990, of liver failure, never reuniting with his homeland.


Judith Sephuma

Judith Sephuma was raised in Polokwane, Limpopo, and moved to Cape Town in 1994 to study as a jazz vocalist. In 1997, she graduated from the University of Cape Town with a performer's diploma in Jazz. In 1999, she won the "Best Jazz Vocalist" at the Old Mutual Jazz Into the Future competition and signed with the african division of BMG. She has been dubbed the queen of afro jazz. Sephuma has worked and shared the stage with international artists like Bebe Winans, Oletta Adams, Jonathan Butler, Al Jarreau, Randy Crawford, and Chaka Khan.

Sephuma has performed at all major jazz festivals in South Africa. She performed at the North Sea Jazz Festival in Cape Town in 2000 before her debut album was even released, and went to perform at the same festival in Holland in 2002, alongside Marcus Miller and Roy Hargrove. Sephuma is an ambassador of the One Campaign and has travelled to Washington D.C to perform for heads of states in 2014. She is also associated with the Poverty Is Sexist campaign, and continues to keep making a difference in our society and all over the African continent.

Julian Bahula

Julian Bahula is a South African drummer, composer, and bandleader, based in London. Born in Eersterust, Pretoria on March 13, 1938, Bahula first gained a reputation as a drummer in the band, Malombo. He migrated to England in 1973 and subsequently formed the group, Jabula, which in 1977, combined with the group of saxophonists, Dudu Pukwana, to form Jabula Spear. In 1983, Bahula organized “African Sounds”, a concert at Alexandra Palace in London, to mark the 65th birthday of Nelson Mandela. The concert drew a crowd of 3,000-strong and raised the international profile of Mandela and other political prisoners.

But, the concert’s biggest legacy was its successor, the Nelson Mandela Birthday Concert in 1988 at Wembley Stadium. It was attended by over 90, 000 revellers and was shown live on TV to billions of viewers across the world. In 2012, former South African President, Jacob Zuma, presented Bahula with the Order of Ikhamanga in Gold, which commemorates achievements in arts, culture, literature, music, journalism, and sports. “I felt like the chapter of that long journey of our struggle for freedom was closing in an exciting and amazing way. It was so special to be recognised during the historic centenary year of the ANC, and it was also appropriate that I was honoured in my hometown, the home of jazz, where it all started.”


Moreira Chonguiça

Moreira Chonguiça is an award-winning Cape Town-based musician, songwriter, producer, and record label director, originally from Mozambique. Chonguiça attended the University of Cape Town to further his music studies, graduating from the South African College of Music with a degree in jazz performance. He also holds an honors degree in ethnomusicology. Inspired by the likes of Miles Davis, Fela Kuti, Percy Sledge, and Manu Dibango, Chonguiça’s energetic contemporary rhythmic compositions have garnered applause across all six continents. In 2010, he started a jazz festival, Morejazz, in Maputo, and then invited artists who played at the festival to master-classes at Eduardo Mondlane University.

Chonguiça is strongly involved in the promotion of education. When his first album was launched in his hometown of Maputo, he contributed to starting a campaign to renovate the Escola Nacional de Musica (National School of Music), the school he attended as a youth. He regularly makes time to visit the school, conducting workshops, and involving the children in corporate functions he may be booked for. Chonguiça has been involved with the United Nations HIV/Aids agency in Maputo, and wrote a song for World Aids Day in 2009 that was performed for the President of Mozambique, Armando Guebuza at the opening of the All African Games in September 2011.



Jazz Day

SA History Online

Band on the Wall

Music in Africa

Judith Sephuma

Moreira Music

South African History Online

 Boitumelo Masihleho is a South African digital content creator. She graduated with a Bachelor of Arts from Rhodes University in Journalism and Media Studies and Politics and International Studies.  

She's an experienced multimedia journalist who is committed to writing balanced, informative and interesting stories on a number of topics. Boitumelo has her own YouTube channel where she shares her love for affordable beauty and lifestyle content.

Read more from Boitumelo Masihleho:

Mama Africa- The Legendary Miriam Makeba

The Father of South African Jazz - Hugh Masekela

The Princess of Africa: Yvonne Chaka Chaka