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Tragic Ending for Rising African StarCopyright © 2001The Scotsman, 2001
The South African jazz scene suffered a tragic loss with the news that one of its most promising artists, the pianist, composer and record producer Moses Taiwa Molelekwa, had been found hanged next to the body of his wife and manager, Florence Mtoba, who had apparently been strangled. She had also been a prominent figure in South African music circles. Their bodies were found in her office. They leave an eight-year-old son, Zoe.
Although only 27, Molelekwa was already regarded as a major figure in South African music. He was born in the Tembia township outside Johannesburg. His father and grandfather were musicians, and he was introduced to the music of John Coltrane, Thelonious Monk and Miles Davis early in life. He started playing guitar and keyboard at home, then studied piano at the Federated Union of Black Arts Academy.
He graduated in 1987, by which time he was already performing in Kippies nightclub in Johannesburg, where he accompanied well-known artists, including singer Miriam Makeba. He joined Hugh Masekelas band in 1988, and led two groups of his own, Brotherhood and Umbongo, in the early 1990s.
In the course of the decade, he evolved an exciting fusion of African and western idioms, drawing on both both traditional and contemporary influences. The two albums he released on Robert Trunzs progressive Melt 2000 label, Finding Ones Self (1995) and Genes And Spirits (1997), won awards in his homeland, and were hailed in the west as emblematic of the new spirit emerging in indigenous music in South Africa.
The earlier recording was a direct extension of the South African jazz tradition, while the second deliberately aimed at a more eclectic reach, and featured several guest stars, including Brazilian singer Flora Purim and Cuban pianist Chucho Valdes.
His music was well-received in the west, and he played in Europe, including consecutive appearances at the massive North Sea Jazz Festival in Holland. He toured Britain in 2000 with pianist Joanna MacGregor, and was just beginning to make inroads in the USA. A third album, this time of solo piano music, was virtually complete at his death.
He was also active as a record producer in South Africa, and was involved with the more commercially-oriented kwaito scene, a new urban fusion music which melds garage, ragga and hip-hop with the feel of township jive. He produced albums for artists like Sibongie Khumalo and TKZee, the biggest selling kwaito group. Colleagues reportedly said that he had been over-working in recent times, and his marriage was known to be under strain.