The Life of Chris ‘Mra’ Columbus
Over 40 years ago Christopher ‘Mra’ Columbus began to play jazz. Dollar Brand was still a young boy when Chris was singing, tap dancing and blowing a trumpet in the townships of Cape Town. This is the story of his life.
Christopher’s real name is Fezile Ngcukana. He was born in Cape Town in the 1920’s -with music in his blood. Chris studied until standard nine. But then music called him away from his books.
Chris left school and joined a band. They were called the ‘Bantu Ideas’. Chris sang and tap danced in the band. And he taught himself to play the trumpet.
In 1945 Christopher’s father sent him into the bush near Cape Town. Like most Xhosa boys who became men, Chris had to go for ‘ukoluka’ circumcision. But music followed him even into the bush.
One night in the bush Chris was sitting with his friend. They were sad and lonely. Then they heard the soft sound of jazz.
A band called Zonk was playing in a hall nearby. Zonk was a big and famous band. They played American tunes like “In the Mood” and “Tuxedo Junction”.
Chris heard these tunes. The next day he sang the tunes. His friend joined in. The bush wasn’t so lonely anymore. And Chris decided to make music his life.
Chris left the bush. He played the trumpet with many bands in Cape Town. One night he went to a party. A friend asked him to play a tune on the saxophone. Chris picked it up and began to blow. And that’s how he learned to play the sax.
” The sax was easy for me to play,” says Chris. “Music is in my blood – African and Xhosa music. Even when I play music from overseas,· I mix it with African music.”
Then Chris went to Johannesburg. “I wanted to show something to the guys in Johannesburg. I wanted to show them they were not the only guys around who could play music,” says Chris.
He met David Mtimkulu and Zakes Nkosi. They played for the famous Jazz Maniacs band. They asked Chris to play the trumpet with them. He agreed. He played with this big band for a while.
But Chris didn’t only play with the big guys of jazz. He liked to move around. So he left Johannesburg and went to East London. He joined a small band called the Hot Shots.
” People asked me why I played with such a small band,” says Chris. “I told them I wanted to share my music with the young guys. I wanted to help them with their music.”
Chris taught the Hot Shots what he knew about music. And then he went back to Johannesburg.
In the early 1950’s, a new band called the Shantytown Sextet started in Johannesburg. Kippie Moeketsi played for the Shantytown Sextet. Chris played with Kippie and the other guys in the band.
Then Chris went home to Cape Town. He got married and had three kids. He decided to stop moving around so much.
“In Cape Town I began to play big, big jazz,” says Chris. ” I started a new band. We called ourselves Dibafana – The Young Boys. This band had a big sound – two drums, two pianos, two bass players and plenty of saxophones and trumpets.”
But now times were hard in South Africa. All over the country people were fighting against passes. In 1960 the government arrested many of the people’s leaders. They stopped all meetings in the country. And they banned the ANC and the PAC.
The people were suffering -and so was their music. Bands could not play in the halls anymore. Music in the townships stopped.
But Chris and the Dibafana never lost hope. They said the people needed music. They needed to sing and dance again. So Chris and his friends made a new song. They called it lzwe Lifile – the land is dead.
Since then Chris has always played music. Today music is still in his blood. He is still blowing his saxophone. People are still dancing to his tunes. “I can’t stop playing music,” says Chris. “When I die, I want them to bury me with my saxophone.”