Billy Monama is passionate. He's an activist for jazz. And in conversation with him, one finds his passion for South African music and his desire to have it grow is not only palatable, but it's also quite infectious.
Monama’s story is like that of many a great South African musician. It begins in Mokopane in Limpopo the year 1997, where the largely self-taught Monama learnt to play his first musical love, the guitar. The opportunity to get further training in music after a not-so-successful attempt to study political science in Pretoria is what got the ball rolling.
And it's not because he wasn't smart enough, it's because he simply couldn't ignore the fire he felt towards music. That and his sheer determination is what has stood him above the rest.
It was during this time as a student that Monama had discovered another passion of his, memory making and contributing to the creation of knowledge.
In 2006, while studying music his class was assigned the task of finding what South African guitar styles exist. After a fruitless search, Monama was spurred on by this idea to get our music documented.
Billy Monama. Picture: Thami Ntuli
“I realised that there wasn't any materials that spoke to this. Even now, if you'd do a simple Google search on this subject you would still not find enough information in this digital era,” Monama said.
It's the lack of documenting these important moments in the history of our music that has led Monama and a number of partners to start down memory lane and preserve knowledge for future generations.
“I have started towards creating a tutorial for South African guitar styles because it's the one instrument that can give you a descriptor of what style of music is playing.
“Within the first few minutes of the guitar on a song, you can tell if you're listening to maskandi, to xiTsonga music, to baSotho music and that's why I chose to document the guitar.”
In his battle to keep the memory and the chords alive, his efforts include the changing of the arts curriculum in schools, being part of the creation of a jazz song book for South Africa, all while pushing his career.
While music is the only love that Monama has had and known, he is the first to share rather candidly that the road to jazz music relevance is not an easy one and for many reasons. The biggest reason is because times have changed and the space is tighter.
“Jazz musicians aren't as famous as they used to be back in the day because the style of music isn't popular anymore.
"Even if I went to present my music video for instance, it would be met with lukewarm reactions. So I would need to find for instance, specific jazz outlets and even those are suffering. I think the reason why we're not popular is because that was the only style of music that was popular at the time.”
Billy Monama. Picture: Thami Ntuli
The competition isn't the worst thing if you think about it because it means there is more variety for the listener.
However, what can be done to ensure that jazz music is able to stand tall among the other genres?
Creating more jazz-friendly spaces like digital media dedicated to the genre, more spaces like The Orbit and a larger jazz concert circuit in the country. And it's not that jazz doesn't have the talent and the history to back it up. Monama has a slightly different idea, however.
“I think that things will go back to where they come from one day. At the moment all the fashion, hair trends that we're seeing suggest that we always go back to where we were. I believe that music will do so too. What is happening now is a recycling. And we will go back to the source.”
As a young jazz performer, Monama said that their strength is that they are also playing around with ideas to collaborate with other artists from other disciplines to keep their content entertaining and fresh.
With his debut album, Rebounce, Monama has been working on it since 2009 and its title is a tribute to his ability to bounce back from the harshest adversities.
Billy Monama. Picture: Thami Ntuli
“In winter of 2009, I started recording my first bits of the album. There were so many obstacles till it was released in 2017.
"I lost my mother in 2010 and that caused a serious emotional shift for me. Then about a year later, my house got broken into. And they took everything. Because I was an independent and self-funded, bouncing back was tough. I knew the journey will still be hard, but I wasn't ready to give up."
As a result we have now a beautiful album that sounds just how we know South African jazz to sound with catchy melodies that tell stories of places and people, real or imagined that Monama fell in love with. Because of his background in gospel, we have hymns, an ode to his mother, traditional Afro-jazz songs and a whole lot more on the album.
For Monama, Rebounce has been the ultimate labour of love because he put everything to producing that album, even when he had nothing.
He tells a story, chuckling now at how impossible it all seemed, that he once ran out of petrol and as a result got stuck on the N1 highway after one of the last few editing sessions of the album.
He talks about how he had to call friends in order to be rescued with petrol money.
He went as far as applying for a teaching gig in Botswana.
If that is not dedication, then we will never know what dedication is. “Making this album was a beautiful experience. And the reason it's called Rebounce is that I'm bouncing back from all the situations, obstacles that I faced in making this album.”
He admits that the title is not grammatically correct. But it's a coming to fruition of the vision he had when he first played the guitar in 1997.
In this new phase of his artistry, Monama has also been billed to perform with the Grazroots Project at the Cape Town International Jazz Festival taking place this weekend.
Explaining the concept behind the collective, he said: “It's a project that I initiated in 2004/5, it was also about heritage preservation. I'm a sucker for heritage preservation because everywhere in the world where I travelled, people listen to their own music. But here we're spectators in our own country.
“So one day I did a show in Sandton. This guy who's not a South African asked me: ‘Billy, where do I go if I want to listen to South African music?’ And I had no answer. And the Grazroots Project was the answer to this.”
Monama is the leader of the project, and works with Themba Mokoena (guitar), McCoy Mrubata (saxophones/flute), Lwanda Gogwana (trumpet/flugelhorn), Mduduzi Mtshali (piano), Concord Nkabinde (bass guitar) and Paki Peloeole (drums). The collective features different singers, such as Siphokazi, Bra Hotstix and many others over the years.
The project is, as he calls it, a group of band leaders coming together.
At the festival, the collective is set to bring back music that Monama feels has all but disappeared from our consciousness, a music that spoke to something much more real.
About the performance at the festival he said: “I've warned those I have spoken to, to not come with their high heels. They are going to dance from the first to the last song. In fact, they must bring fire extinguishers. The stage will be on fire.”
Monama is what we all should be about, flawed yet exquisitely Mzansi, passionate and willing to put in the elbow grease to make it work.
Monama and the Grazroots Project perform this weekend at the Cape Town International Jazz Festival that takes place this weekend.
* Monama’s album Rebounce is available in all major stores near you.