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Guitar master with fingers like spiders on the strings

Updated on March 27, 2011

Early years

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.”

Copyright Notice

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

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    • profile image

      zwai 

      6 years ago

      One thing with musicians particularly backers, they don't have sufficient money even to maintain themselves. They can go wherever in the world and kids look up to them but when it mattered most they disapoint. If you look at Themba's career it started early in the 70s throughout 80s,90, and curent generation. I wont say much, good luck for his future, great personnel.

    • profile image

      sabta 

      6 years ago

      i was impress by music play by themba mo

      kwena,although i really miss that music.Worst part i forget the names of his albums please help i really need those albums

    • profile image

      nocawa 

      7 years ago

      Hi Themba!I was really impressed seeing such wondeerful transformation when we met in Portugal.I remember those days in Swaziland,believe me they were part of the process of the present-I`m glad you accepted the second voice that wispered to you saying, "time for change is here and now"Keep it Big Brother.

      When I u recording your personal piece-please update me Or when U`ll be staging in Portugal? Here`s my e mail nocawa@gmail.com.

      Keep it up!

    • profile image

      Andrew Koblick 

      9 years ago

      Excellent story. It is great to get information on guitar players from outside the mainstream. I need to start a few post on my blog guitar5day.com This hubpage and comments provide excellent stepping off places.

    • ixwa profile image

      ixwa 

      9 years ago

      There was Phillip Tabane and his Malombo; There was Allen Kwela, and so forth. There are still hundreds of thousands unknowns and have made some music I am collecting and trying to create them a disc and have them register their own music. I do not want a penny from them.The south African music scene has so much that needs to be written about because that is some of the most beautiful sounds, from acappela, to drums, Mbaqanga, , The Hugh's, Lettas, Mirriams, Sakhile,Drive, Harari, Scathamiya or "Ngoma Busuku", traditonal, dirges, marriage music, Township Jazz, Soul, R&B, Reggae, the Khabi Ngoma and the Ionians and so forth. This is a very interesting hub and am glad to be able to offer my two cents. Check me out on Live365.com/stations/djtot12

    • Russ Baleson profile image

      Russ Baleson 

      9 years ago from Sandhurst, United Kingdom

      Hey, thanks Tony! I loved this hub. You've captured his spirit so well and although I find it motivating I also feel a bit sad since leaving Africa and I miss seeing all of these wonderful humble musical masters. I remember watching Themba and marvelling at his passion, energy and unbelievable sounds.

    • profile image

      Peter Kirstein 

      9 years ago

      Thanx for the hub. I'd love to hear some of his music.

    • Mary Neal profile image

      Mary Neal 

      9 years ago from Atlanta, Georgia, USA

      Terrific story and photography! Thanks.

    • quicksand profile image

      quicksand 

      9 years ago

      Remember Chet Atkins?

    • BkCreative profile image

      BkCreative 

      9 years ago from Brooklyn, New York City

      Fabulous! Thanks for this hub!

    • profile image

      cosette 

      9 years ago

      ooh wish I could hear some of it. there are some amazing guitar players out there, including Robert Cray (also very modest about himself) and Ottmar Leibert. now I feel like listening to the Gipsy Kings. very nice hub!

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