Saxophones, trumpets, trombones. We love the sweet sound of these brass instruments – or horns, as their players call them. But sometimes they don’t sound so good, or they don’t make any sound at all. Then it’s time for the horn doctor.
Most horn players know where to find him. They go straight to his small workshop in a building called SACTA House in Bree Street, Jo’burg. And there they will find PauI ‘Fix’ Ngwenya hard at work with a screwdriver in one hand and a bottle of glue in the other. It doesn’t matter what it is or what is wrong with it. Bra Fix will fix it somehow.
Bra Fix knows instruments – and he knows about music. He has been busy with music for most of his life. He started many years ago, playing the pennywhistle with his young friends in the streets of Alexandra.
His young friends were the first people to call him Fix. But they didn’t call him Fix because he fixed things. They called him Fix because his home name was Fanyana. It was a good name. It was a perfect name. But who was to know then?
A LESSON FROM FATHER
“I was the last of ten children,” says Bra Fix. “My father was a motor mechanic – but he didn’t earn much money. My mother tried to help. She sold vegetables in town. But it still was not enough. My father had to work in the evenings.”
“In the evenings he used to fix things. He fixed anything – stoves, bicycles, gramophones. My brothers used to help him. But I never did. I used to run away and play with my friends. But I think I learnt something from my father. I learnt that it’s better to fix things – and not to throw them away.
“I was nine or ten when I started school. The other children laughed because I was so old. But I liked school. Most of all liked the woodwork class. Not because of the woodwork, but because some of the boys in the class started a music group.
I also worked at a golf course to get extra money. But the money was not enough. Our problems were too great and soon I had to leave school. I left after I finished standard five. I was sorry to leave but there was nothing I could do.”
Bra Fix thought about his life. But he didn’t think for too long. He was young and he knew what he wanted to do.
A STRANGER KNOCKS
Bra Fix went out and found a job. He earned very little money, but he saved and saved. And then one day he had enough money to buy a saxophone. Bra Fix’s friends did not see him for a long time after that. He stayed home and taught himself how to play. He wanted to play like his hero, Zakes Nkosi.
One day while he was playing at home, a stranger knocked at the door. “Ekse, kan jy die music lees?” the man asked. Bra Fix told him that he couldn’t. The man, Satch Leepile, said that he would teach him.
Satch was a good teacher – and Bra Fix was a fast learner. Before a year had passed, Bra Fix could read and write music. Bra Fix could now play the sax with the best of them.
Satch and Bra Fix played together. And then they looked for other people to join them. They started a band. They called themselves the Blue Flames. Once again, it was a good name. The band was really hot.
WEDDING AND HALLS
“All we needed,” says Bra Fix, “was a place to play. We wanted people to listen to our music and enjoy it. We played anywhere and everywhere. We often played at weddings and halls.
Sometimes we played for high class people like the Baragwanath staff, or at teachers parties .
“One day we-were playing in a hall and the Paradise Gang arrived, They paid at the door, like everyone else. When the other people saw them, they got scared and left in a hurry. Soon the Paradise gangsters were the only people left in the hall.
“We put down our instruments and tried- to leave the stage. But we did not get very far before one of them spoke. “Hey, bly julie net daar en speel vir ons,” the gangster said, with a crooked smile in his face.
“We were very frightened. We picked up our instruments and started to play again. Every time we finished a song the man, with the crooked smile said the same thing. “Hey, bly julie net daar and speel vir ons.” We played until six o’clock in the morning.
“We worked hard that night. I remember how we all sweated. But it was good for us. We had ‘paid’ our protection. From then on the Paradise gang protected us from all the other gangs. No other gang came near us.”
A KNIFE AND A SCREWDRIVER
“I remember one of the worst days in my life,” says Bra Fix. “My sax wasn’t working and we were playing on the Saturday night. No matter how hard I blew, no sound came out of my sax. It was broken and I had no money to fix it.
“I sat down with a knife and a screwdriver and took my sax apart. A friend came and saw my sax in pieces on my bed. He couldn’t believe it. I was also worried. I didn’t know if I could put it together again.
“I saw that one of the air buttons was broken. I slowly fixed it. Then I cleaned all the pieces. Bit by bit I put the sax together again. Then I blew on it and ….. it sounded great again.”
THE SURPRISE OF HIS LIFE
From that time I have fixed broken instruments. Like my father I worked in the evenings. My friends brought all their old instruments to me. And I fixed them all. I just tried and tried until the instrument sounded healthy again. And then the word spread. People came from all over with their instruments.
“Then one day ‘I got the surprise of my life. My hero, Zakes Nkosi, arrived at my house. He had brought his sax for me to fix. It was special to him because it was his first sax. He said that it carried the story of his life.
It took me two days to fix. But I did a good job. Bra Zakes was very pleased and he wanted to help me. He took me to a music shop in town.
At the shop they brought me a trumpet. “Fix this and you have a job,” they said to me. So I fixed it and I got the job. They said they would share the money with me from the repairs.
“I worked there for a long time. They gave me the tools – but I did all the work and all the thinking. But they still took half the money. This didn’t seem right. Then one day I decided that enough was enough. I decided to leave and work for myself again.”
ONE MORE THING
Today Bra Fix is doing okay. He makes a living doing what he loves best. But there is still one more thing he wants to do. He wants to teach people to fix instruments like he does – so that they don’t have to learn the hard way, like he did. Bra Fix wants to share what he knows. With people like him around, the music will never stop .