‘Back to The Future’: Billy Monama’s Journey to Preserve South Africa’s Musical Heritage

Guitar virtuoso’s concert series at Joburg Theatre promises to revive the nation’s musical past and celebrate the resilience of African jazz.

By Monalisa Molefe

Billy Monama is a South African guitarist, author, composer, arranger, producer, and educator. In 1997, Monama was drawn to a guitar belonging to a neighbour, he instantaneously showed signs of natural talent. Having had other interests outside of music such as Political sciences – years later his destiny in music made itself clearer. As a self-taught researcher and musician with no formal background in musicology, he has faced both support and scepticism in his journey.

When Monama realised how the legacy of our uniquely South African guitar styles was fast disappearing. Not only was it the voice of the Guitar that was dying, but a whole generation of musical culture and lifestyle stood a chance of being completely wiped out. “This is the sound that touched the world and gave us a voice through trying times in our history,” says Monama. These are the sounds of Mbaqanga, Mgqashiyo, Maskanda, African Jazz and more. He strongly believes that we need to reflect meaningfully on the past to gain a clearer perception of the future and that we are surrounded by mirrors whose depths reflect where we come from and the roots of our identity. “Why then are we ignoring the sounds of the great masters?”, he asks. “What will the future look like in the advent of social media killing the true essence of our beings as black people?”

Monama’s “Grassroots Project” is a testament to his commitment to heritage and preserving what our future will look like as a nation through music and storytelling. This initiative stands as a bulwark against the cultural erosion threatened by the rapid currents of social media, which, he argues, has often diminished the profound narrative of black lives and histories. “The advent of social media is what has killed the culture of African people”. Through mentorship, Monama is sowing seeds and investing for the future, cultivating a landscape where the roots of South African jazz are not just remembered, but invigorated and allowed to flourish.

His upcoming annual one-night-only “Back To The Future” concert at the iconic Joburg Theatre is more than a musical spectacle; it’s a cultural crusade and an autobiographical journey through Monama’s 27-year odyssey in music, melding personal growth with collective memory, celebrating the nation’s 30th anniversary of democracy with optimism and a call for renewal. This concert is a bridge spanning the chasms of past, present, and future. It’s here that Monama intends to reconnect us with our roots, using music as a vehicle for education and awareness, spotlighting the struggles and triumphs of African heritage.

His partnership with SAMPRA – South African Music Performance Rights Association – is more than a collaboration; it’s a strategic investment in the legacy of South African music. By involving young, burgeoning talents in his performances, Monama is actively passing the torch, ensuring that South African jazz continues to burn bright. “We cannot take for granted the power of a microphone. It is dangerous what a song can say, it can change the world for better or worse,” says Monama.

His work echoes a deep understanding that music is a powerful “herald of tradition,” and he is dedicated to ensuring that the traditional sounds of South Africa do not merely survive but thrive and evolve for generations to come.

The ‘Back to the Future’ concert will be held on 2 March 2024 at Joburg Theatre, tickets are available on Webtickets.

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