Fiction Friday: read an exclusive extract from Nthikeng's Mohlele's Illumination

'There was a time, when my mouth was still as God intended, before the gas explosion, when I was a master of the trumpet'

15 February 2019 - 13:36 By Nthikeng Mohlele

It is widely, albeit erroneously, assumed that I acquired all of my musical tutelage from the University of the Witwatersrand School of Music. It is partially true that that school gifted me the intricacies of music theory and notation, but a lie to think that my musical angels and demons only existed or came alive upon my admission to that esteemed academy.

I was born into a family of musicians and, to this day, still have saxophonist uncles and drummer aunts, clarinet nieces and trombonist cousins. Pianos and guitars were fixtures in the various homes in which

I was raised: my great-grandfather’s house in Soweto, Uncle Ambani’s palace of a house in Saxonwold, and Aunt Mavis’s home in Tembisa. I was groomed around bands and star vocalists and instrumentalists, fell sleep and arose to various grooves that made Uncle Ambani, a magnificent percussionist, grin with passion and delight.

My young life was that of curling cigarette smoke and piano keys in full flight, of Uncle Hugh’s trumpet lighting my spirits, which at times saddened me, when he, for instance, commanded it to birth sombre dirges.

I grew up with uncles and friends of uncles pointing at pictures on record sleeves and in magazines, saying: This is Monk. This one here is Jonas Gwangwa. Remember Miles? This is Miles Davis as an older and fatter man, fake hair and all. Brilliant musician. This brother here is Grover Washington, and these two are Chet Baker and Billie Holiday.

And, lastly, this lanky fellow here is the one-and-only Ali Farka Touré. We will talk about him one day when we talk about the blues, him and BB King, Lightnin’ Hopkins, all the way to Eric Clapton, Carlos Santana and people like that.

It was people in the mould of Uncle Ambani who taught me how to feel and appreciate music: how to trace its magnetic pulse, even during brief impromptu rehearsals. You will one day learn, promised Uncle Ambani, all bearded and buff, that it is not only about finding the right note, but how to use it correctly and in unexpected ways to propel people into the musical stratosphere.

Those home scenes were my musical schooling, my first clasp of the drum sticks, my maiden G chord on the piano, my first baptism singing – or rather murdering – Mr Richie’s ‘Three Times a Lady’ behind the microphone.

I sang so off key that Uncle Ambani burst into laughter every time our eyes met, followed by that bear hug and his coy assurance that not all singers are singers.

It was around that time that I stole a glance at an aunt, Portia, in the nude, covered with soap but still nude, the first time I witnessed a breast the size of my head (I have always had a biggish head), soaped and rinsed after long sweaty rehearsals.

My utter shock and bewilderment must have prompted Aunt Portia to pity me, or to, in her own particular way, use me as her mirror: to gauge the power of her disrobed and moist body. She asked for me around bath times, sent me on silly errands: to bring toothpaste, soap, this or that towel.

Other adults complained, Uncle Ambani being the loudest: No, Portia. This must stop. You are going to confuse and derail this child. How is he supposed to look at his other aunts and cousins? Like a little devil? Stop your body parades, please!

There was a time, when my mouth was still as God intended, before the gas explosion, when I was a master of the trumpet. My injury has caused me great turmoil, for I have resorted to scavenging slow ballads as intense and fast-paced numbers sadden me, for my mouth cannot subdue the mouthpiece as it used to.

It is difficult to trap air and force it into the trumpet – which makes me feel like a fraud, and has caused me to oil, polish and store my trumpet away, to resort to the dreary consolations of the piano, which I find to be too formal and overbearing.

I am subservient to the trumpet now, feel I have become average, robbed of the majesty I commanded in front of mesmerised throngs and the thunderous applause that followed every time I doubled over in a bow, to mark an end to a magnetic solo.

The explosion has also deformed my smile, wrecked its natural proportions so that it now resembles a pained grin, a mouth that feels like it belongs to someone else, a month from when Rowena brought me back from certain death.