In loving memory of Joseph Makwela (1940-2023) ❤️

Last week, the first electric bassist of South Africa, Joseph Makwela, passed away. I had the privilege of working with and getting to know this musical legend personally. As a tribute to the old master, I have written an in memoriam, sharing some memories of our encounters.

Joseph Makwela (1940-2023)

“Is Joseph Makwela Still Alive?” I asked in surprise. Sitting across from me was the famous singer Hilda Tloubatla from the Mahotella Queens. We were in Johannesburg in 2010, where I was interviewing her for a radio documentary. “Yes, but he’s old eh,” she replied, her face showing a hint of concern as if she wanted to prepare me for a potential disappointment. Joseph Makwela was South Africa’s very first electric bass guitarist, and his unique playing style had a lasting impact on his country’s music. A musical legend in every sense, and to my amazement, we would later become good musical friends.

Before Joseph, all bassists in South Africa used the double bass, but he was physically too small for that. Therefore, in the early 1960s, his friend West Nkosi gave him an electric bass guitar, which was imported from America by a local music shop. Alongside West Nkosi on the pennywhistle and saxophone, Lucky Monama on drums, and Marks Mankwane and Vivian Ngubane on guitars, Joseph formed the Makgona Tsohle Band. Starting from the ’60s, this band became the house band for Gallo Records, South Africa’s biggest record company. They played on many LPs and singles and backed up numerous artists. However, they gained the most fame for their collaboration with singer Simon “Mahlathini” Nkabinde and the Mahotella Queens. This supergroup became the most popular exponent of Mbaqanga, a mix of musical influences from different cultures brought together in the townships due to forced migrations during apartheid. Mahlathini, known as the ‘Lion of Soweto’ because of his deep growling voice, sang in call and response with the sparkling harmonies of the Mahotella Queens. The Makgona Tsohle Band created a captivating Mbaqanga groove while Marks and Vivian seamlessly weaved their guitar magic. However, the heart of the band was Joseph’s bass guitar playing, where he commented on the music with melodic lines up the neck and then returned to low, driving basslines. Until the late ’70s, the Makgona Tsohle Band toured relentlessly with Mahlathini and the Mahotella Queens, performing their Mbaqanga hits in packed stadiums across Southern Africa. The success of Paul Simon’s “Graceland” album in 1986, where he turned South African songs into catchy pop tunes, brought international recognition to the Makgona Tsohle Band. Together with Mahlathini and the Mahotella Queens, Joseph and his bandmates toured the world for years. In the late ’90s, West Nkosi, Marks Mankwane, and Mahlathini passed away in quick succession, abruptly ending the Makgona Tsohle Band’s journey. While the Mahotella Queens continued to perform and record, Joseph retreated to his home in Pimville, Soweto, and disappeared from the music scene.

Though I was born in Amsterdam, I grew up with the Makgona Tsohle Band’s as their records were frequently played at home. Even before I could walk, I was bouncing to their tunes as a child. Meeting Hilda was already a special experience, but the chance to connect with Joseph came as a pleasant surprise. When Hilda gave me Joseph’s phone number on a crumpled piece of paper, my heart raced as if the Makgona Tsohle Band had shifted into a higher gear, just like when the Mahotella Queens would dazzle with their dance routines. Nervously, I dialled the number. On the other end, a friendly crackling voice confirmed that he was indeed Joseph Makwela, and to my delight, he welcomed me for an interview. Joseph had stopped playing the bass guitar long before then. After his musical friends passed away, he didn’t have the desire to join another band. Neither did he have any Makgona Tsohle Band albums at home. Joseph seemed a bit downcast, but he passionately shared his musical adventures. After the interview, I hurried to a local CD store to buy some Makgona Tsohle Band CDs, and before leaving for the Netherlands, I gave them to Joseph. With a twinkle in his eyes, he exclaimed, “I will keep these until I die!” I wasn’t sure if I would ever see him again.

Five years later, I returned to South Africa with a project called “Soweto Soul.” My goal was to pay tribute to the musical legends of the townships. Along with filmmakers Jesse Bom and Bart Verhoeven, I created a documentary about the project, bringing together different generations of South African musicians to make new music together. Besides capturing Joseph’s captivating life story, I also wanted to involve him in some way in the project. I didn’t know if he could still play in the studio or on stage, but I was determined to convince him to pick up the bass guitar one more time. After some gentle persuasion, Joseph agreed to participate in a recording session at the studio of Hammond organist and producer Black Moses Ngwenya, the leader of the Soul Brothers. They knew each other well; Black Moses always received a souvenir from Joseph’s world tours when he was a child. The music of the Makgona Tsohle Band had a big influence on Soul Brothers, who became hugely popular in South Africa in the ’70s. Lemmy Special Mabaso, a pennywhistle player who gained fame as a teenager in the ’50s and inspired Joseph to make music, was also at the recording session. Joseph and Lemmy hadn’t seen each other in years, and their reunion was a heartfelt embrace filled with excitement. They could hardly believe they were both still alive.

During the session, Joseph gave it his best, but his basslines were simpler than what he used to play in his prime. Every now and then, he attempted a more complex melody, but if things got a bit tricky, he would go back to the basics, grumbling a bit. Gradually, the stiffness in Joseph’s fingers began to ease, and together we recorded the song “Jive Makwela,” highlighting Joseph’s bass guitar skills. In subsequent trips to South Africa, I always tried to involve Joseph in my projects. We shared the stage at a jazz club in Johannesburg, and he participated in the presentation of the Soweto Soul project in South Africa. I would always let Joseph know about my upcoming visits, so he had time to practice and warm up his fingers. Our reunions were always warm and familliar.

Earlier this year, before I returned to South Africa after a long absence, I called Joseph. His daughter told me he was sleeping and not feeling well, though the details were a bit unclear. One of the reasons I was in Johannesburg was a recording session with Themba Monkoena, an old jazz guitarist who perfectly mastered the Mbaqanga guitar style of the Makgona Tsohle Band. The idea of involving Joseph and temporarily reviving the legendary sound of the Makgona Tsohle Band was exciting. After a few attempts, I finally got Joseph on the phone. He sounded weak. Joseph explained that he wasn’t feeling well and politely declined the recording session. I wished him a speedy recovery and we agreed to meet during my next visit to South Africa. Unfortunately, that meeting will never happen. Last week, surrounded by his family, Joseph passed away at the age of 83. The sad news reached me through a personal message of a family member on social media.

During my last visit to South Africa, I discussed an idea with my close friend and music producer, Dr. Sipho Sithole. We talked about organizing a special concert featuring the surviving musical legends of South Africa, with a special focus on honouring Joseph. These plans will now continue as a posthumous tribute to one of the most influential musicians South Africa has ever known. Meanwhile, West Nkosi, Vivian Ngubane, and Marks Mankwane will surely be pleased to have their bassist back with them once again.

Below is a short trailer featuring clips of Joseph from the documentary “Soweto Soul,” edited by Jesse Bom.