By Jean Noel Mugabo 

Two jazz artists who come from geographically and educationally distinct backgrounds will share the same stage on February 3 in a gig organized by the Portland Conservatory of Music. Long-time musical colleagues, South African reed man McCoy Mrubata and New York-born jazz guitarist Gary Wittner first played together in South Africa. The two musicians spoke with Amjambo Africa about their upcoming show, with Wittner in Maine and Mrubata joining via Zoom from South Africa. 

Wittner recalled his first encounter with McCoy. “My first gig in South Africa came through a book that I wrote about taking Thelonious Monk’s music and adapting it to guitar. The book attracted some attention in the music world, and there was a guy in South Africa [who] seemed to be interested in bringing me over there. He pushed me toward somebody else who had more connections, and I ended up playing in a big festival in Makhanda. McCoy was on the bill there.” Makahanda is a city of 140,000. 

The organizers put different combinations of musicians on stage, and that was how Wittner found himself playing with Mrubata. “I felt very comfortable immediately. I felt like our … phrasing and timing were very compatible.”  

Mrubata said he felt the same way, and that playing with McCoy gave him an opportunity to learn from the best. “It is comfortable to play with Gary. As a non-professionally trained musician, I make sure that I learn from every artist I work with. I tell it to my students, too. … Working with Gary was another learning opportunity for me. His sense of writing and so on. Our music is very secular, without many chords, but he loves it – and I could see the sincere willingness to learn from the reading [of] our hymns. That is special to me,” he said. 

Mrubata grew up at a time when South Africa was facing a dark period of its history. Apartheid was ravaging all corners of the country and proper education was an illusion for a young Black man. 

“I was never trained professionally because back in my time, during that time, as a young musician, Black people did not have music school or even normal schools.  There was a lack of instrumentation, except for a few schools where we were lucky to have brass instruments – such as bugle, percussion, and drum – and that was it. So I created music along the way as I was growing up,” Mrubata said. Born in Cape Town on June 1, 1959, he has been in the music industry for over 40 years. 

“The [music] bug hit me in 1976, during the uprising. South Africa was on fire. As a 16-year-old, I was attending political rallies … blocking some institutions … and burning,” Mrubata confessed. With chaos in the background, he started playing penny whistle in 1976, and two years later his mother bought him a slide flute. He joined a band within six months of receiving the instrument. In 1976, he had time on his hands to practice, and learned to play by ear. Along the way, friends also taught him to read music. 

“We would buy DownBeat Magazine, a great American publication. As poor as we were, I made sure I had every issue on a monthly basis by subscription. In the back, they would advertise books by [saxophonist and renowned jazz and improvisation educator] Jamey Aebersold and much more – older guys who could help us … and here I am today,” Mrubata said. 

Wittner is a music lecturer at the University of Maine School of the Performing Arts and Bowdoin College who was lucky enough to have received a formal music education. Over the course of his interview with Amjambo, Wittner noted another commonality with Mrubata. “Something that I just realized now, is that in that same year [that Mrubata started to learn penny whistle] – 1976 – I switched [my college major] from pre-veterinary medicine to music. That’s the same year I went from playing guitar because it was fun, to practicing five to six hours a day. So, in our two little corners of the world, we were kind of in the same zone.” 

After starting with guitar lessons from a jazz musician in Manhattan, in New York City, Wittner went on to music school, eventually earning a master’s degree in 1986. His career has taken him to Eastern Europe approximately 25 times and South America about 12 times. He has also played four times in South Africa with Mrubata, and the two have played together four more times in the U.S. Though they have never recorded together, both artists say the idea has been there, and that one day it will come to pass. February 3 will be their fifth U.S. concert together. 

The artists will perform a program they are calling “Jazz for Mainers.” At 4 p.m., McCoy Mrubata will present a multimedia program connecting his songs with the traditional African music he grew up listening to. The concert with Gary Wittner begins at 7:30 p.m. 

“McCoy’s music is happy and melodic – the melodies are just breathtakingly beautiful,” Wittner said. Some of the songs to be performed were written by Mrubata, who received the South African Music Award (SAMA) for lifetime achievement in 2022, his third SAMA award. 

“Some say jazz is a dead music genre, but I find it special – it combines heart, feeling, and beauty with challenging the listener. It is not just [following] a pre-made form, like pop music will very often follow. Jazz has infinite possibilities. As Thelonious Monk once said, ‘Jazz is freedom’!”