Petite in stature, but ferociously melodic on stage, he blasts a soprano saxophone entry with his able quartet, then mellows into a tenor sax ballad, switching adeptly into a flute solo that rounds out his first set. By the end of the evening, the audience would have danced to a mbaqanga jive or a ghoema ditty, all very South African in tone and intent.
McCoy Mrubata, a son of the Cape Town soil, never fails to deliver what rhythms and sonic pulses have grown in his bones for almost 60 years, as he turns a youthful 62 in June. And he’s videotaping just that!
“I drink green tea, always, in the morning with slices of ginger, some honey and lemon in my cup,” he smiles, proud of this steady ritual, which (he says) helps tone down some hand arthritis creeping in. One would certainly not suspect such an affront to his seasoned dexterity.
Based in Johannesburg for most of his life, and raising four children there, McCoy greets multitudes of fans when he travels to perform in Cape Town. Sometimes, hiding is in order! Thanks to hosting by Jazz in the Native Yards, his three performances end of May brought the hordes: to the cozy (but far too small for this gentle giant) basement whiskey bar of the Athletic Club & Social and the Alliance Francaise, both in central Cape Town, and then to the outdoor Sunday afternoon hustle at Gugulethu’s popular Kwa Sec. Indeed, maintaining Covid-19 protocols were strained amidst the lack of larger economical venues, but fans will be fans. “I am very careful with the protocols for myself,” McCoy admits, “and I encourage others to do so.” His quartet swung, soloed, and supported with amazing facility, delivering some of the best and tightly executed performances for many: the improvising wizardry of pianist Lonwabo Mafani excited many; the energetic ‘talking drums’ of Tefo Mahola cast spells; and Wesley Rustin’s expert plucking on double bass – all well synced with this wind and reed man. https://youtu.be/E6IrOyNPk8o
But what is jazz to McCoy? See his interview with John Perlman at
McCoy boasts a large repertoire of his own jazz compositions performed over the decades, beginning with his early days growing up in Langa learning the flute, and then saxophone, under the tutelage of Madoda Gxabeka, the Ngcukanas brothers, Winston Ngozi Mankunku, and many other Langa musicians. “It’s important to always include songs by our earlier jazz legends where I grew up. You see, I was just a few blocks from Ezra Nqcukana, then down the road was Winston’s house, and over there lived Louis Maholo!
Living under Apartheid and faced by the 1976 uprisings in the country, McCoy made music his passion and traveled to Johannesburg to join the other early greats during the 1980s, forming his own bands, like the Brotherhood in 1989 with guitarist Jimmy Dludlu and the now late pianist, Moses Molelekwa. In 1992 he began touring with Hugh Masekela’s Lerapo band and formed a decades long friendship with pianist Paul Hanmer with whom many recordings have emerged. Other stints with Norwegian groups, residencies in Switzerland and tours elsewhere produced a list of albums. In 2015 Brasskap Sessions Volume 2 won the SAMA’s best Jazz Album category.
That same year, his stint in Switzerland with three different bands resulted in a double CD recording in Basel: McCoy Mrubata Live At the Bird’s Eye. Gobble up McCoy’s experiences at http://mccoymrubata.com
McCoy’s cultural philosophy focuses on intergenerational learning, in society, family environs, and with his musical collaborators. The Brasskap sessions series is a platform for the young, the old and the legends to interact musically and draw positive energies from one another. When asked how Brasskap Vol 3 differs with Volumes 1 and 2, McCoy replied, “Not much different. I don’t want to dig around to try to find something else new. I didn’t want to go the Marrabenta route of music from Mozambique in the song, ‘Xhai Xhai’, for example, but preferred to add a Caribbean twist with Andy Narell on steel pans playing that song with South African young musicians. “
How does he filter acceptable quality from the many young musicians coming out in the last decade? How does he choose whom to groom, to capture? “So many are coming to me! Brasskap 2 featured Sisonke on baritone sax, then Vol 3 with Mthunzi Mvubu on saxes and flute. Then, when I heard drummer Lumanyano Mzi, who heads his Unity Band, he knocked me out! My producer Luyanda said yes, get him on! I love Lumanyano, he’s a great band leader, has a wonderful sound, and is very proficient to work with.”
Baritone saxophonist Gareth Harvey is another young gun McCoy employs to arrange his compositions occasionally to ensure excellence in output. “When I was recording in Cape Town with his Unity Band earlier in 2018, I asked Gareth to arrange my songs as well as Unity’s compositions. It worked out well.”
These days, one can see McCoy more often with a Sony video camera on a tripod than with a saxophone. He’s making his own documentary, a selfie, with a self-taught approach including learning and using Final Cut Pro, his editing tool. “The purpose is to show my upbringing in an urban township of Cape Town, even though my ancestry comes from Heuwu village in the Cala area of the Eastern Cape. Then explain the musical journey I’ve had, again focusing on intergenerational relationships.” For instance, during his recent studio recording session in Cape Town with the legendary ‘Mama Kaap’ singer, Sylvia Mdunyelwa, also a long time resident in Langa, he filmed her with his tripod setup. “It was so emotional: she was crying as she sang, because the lyrics of my song were written by her own son who works with me!”
Inspired by recent tours within the United States, McCoy was able to share his music as therapy. In 2018, he told this writer: “Paul Hanmer and I are finishing 30 years celebration of working together, touring USA just as a duo for 3 weeks in different cities. We did a live recording in Princeton which includes a video and DVD and produced it on Paul’s and my respective labels. We, also, gave short courses, workshops, and master classes. “
McCoy returned to Philadelphia in 2019 to contribute to a conference on music and trauma. He admits he was writing his story of how he grew up, the trauma of the 1976 uprisings and violence during the Apartheid era. “My songs are with spoken word and instrumentals. Also, while at Berklee, we were doing music therapy sessions.” Other tours have taken McCoy to Kuwait (in 2019) and Algeria with Greg Georgiades, a South African who comes from eastern Europe and plays the oud and different guitars. A master performance with other South Africans brought McCoy together with the Jazz at the Lincoln Center in New York in September 2019 which kicked off with a composition by trumpeter Feya Faku followed by other South Africa Songbook specials.
Back home, his project with bassist Lex Muchana, called ‘The Summit’ operates in Soweto to bring ‘home-grown’ sounds into various communities, homes, centers, and local venues. “We host ticketed concerts in our houses.” This strikes a similar cord in what Cape Town’s own Jazz in the Native Yards is trying to do in communities to reach various audiences around this large city. Another local project McCoy started to support youth musical development is the “Strings Attached” program involving young string players from Daveyton, a quartet of 1st and 2nd violins, viola, and cello playing with a backline. Currently, he is an ambassador for a number of youth development causes, including the Kasi Angels Foundation which provides shoes for children and youth and other items that encourage learners to attend school.
“I will continue to record in video form my performances with musicians, record my travels, workshops, how I and my family live, my neighborhood, and my life in general, so as to educate people about my passion for music and its role in inspiring a wholesome personal development.”
This major musical Legend has loads ahead to offer. Stay tuned at http://mccoymrubata.com