Guitar master with fingers like spiders on the strings
Above the guitar his face reflects the agony and the ecstasy of the music while his fingers range up and down the fretboard like some huge and agile spider, creating chords and notes that sing and wail.
“When I play music I think about home,” says master guitarist Thema Mokoena. “There are no notes for me – anyone can play a note – I want to play Themba.”
“I don't know what is happening – I just play,” he told me in answer to a question about technique. “When I'm playing everyone becomes happy – and the other musicians respect me.”
Indeed they do. The list of musicians he has played with is long and impressive – Gibson Kente, Renee McClean, George Lee, to name just a few.
Mokoena comes originally from Pietermaritzburg in kwaZulu-Natal, where he was born in 1951. It was there that he learned to play by taking out his older brother Jotham's guitar while Jotham was at school and try things out.
“When he came home from school he would hit me because he could see someone had been using his guitar.”
Mokoena moved to Durban where he and a group of friends used to listen to jazz records. From these friends Mokoena learned a lot about guitar playing and his lifelong interest in jazz began – although he says his favourite music is mbaqanga (the heavily bass-dominated popular Zulu music).
Themba in action with George Lee's Anansi
Move to Johannesburg
Mokoena moved to Johannesburg in 1974 and began playing at the Pelican Nightclub in Orlando (a township in Soweto).
From there he moved to Gibson Kente's group of musicians and theatrical artists where he stayed for eight years. Then he worked with popular group Harare and other groups and made a few recordings with them.
In the late 80s Mokoena, with the help of his friend and mentor (and later manager of Kippies Jazz Club in Newtown, Johannesburg) Arthur Habedi, spent three weeks in Swaziland with George Lee preparing for George's first gig at Kippies.
Since that time Mokoena has been an almost permanent member of Lee's band Anansi.
During 1991 Mokoena went home to Pietermaritzburg to try to fulfill a dream – to open a guitar school for young people. Although there were no resources to make it a reality on this first attempt, the dream remains.
“I still have this dream – to teach kids to play the guitar. I don't like to see kids on the street,” says the maestro.
But first he would like to cut another album of his own – he has always been a sideman, never the leader, on a recording and he wants to change that. But he's up against the usual problem faced by musicians in South Africa – lack of capital.
“I want it to be my album – not that I'm jealous,” he says. “I have friends who will help me because I have helped them before.”
The songs on the album will be Themba's songs – mbaqanga, not jazz.
“Playing the guitar is my only job,” says Themba. “I'm here to play for other people, not just for myself.”
Who has influenced him? “The other guitarists likeare Wes Montgomery who is the master, and Kenny Burrell. For blues, the best is BB King,” says Mokoena.
Plus, of course, some South African mgaqanga kings. In particular he mentions Max Mankwane, who played with Mahlatini, and Joseph Makwela.
As for putting musicians into boxes, Mokoena has no time for that. “Just call yourself a musician, don't worry about names like jazz, and mbaqanga,” he says.
For all his slight build and modest manner, Mokoena is truly a giant of a guitar player – he must be ranked as one of the best in South Africa. His face as he plays reflects the music and the effort he puts into it.
But ask this master of the fretboard, and he still modestly attributes his success to others - “I play with giants.”
The text and all images on this page, unless otherwise indicated, are by Tony McGregor who hereby asserts his copyright on the material. Should you wish to use any of the text or images feel free to do so with proper attribution and, if possible, a link back to this page. Thank you.
© Tony McGregor 2009