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PhD in sight for student who speaks through jazz

- Wits University

A blind jazz music student in the Wits School of Arts has been awarded a PhD scholarship worth R130 000 from the Arts Research Africa (ARA) project.

A musician, pianist, singer and researcher, Yonela Mnana draws his inspiration from the lineage of South African music. His PhD research, under the supervision of musicologist, Dr Lindelwa Dalamba, aims to examine the aesthetics and politics of the South African solo jazz piano recital, which is an instrument that “in conventional jazz settings mostly plays a supporting role.”

“My research will also enrich South African jazz musicology because, while there is increasing scholarly interest in South African music and jazz studies, little of this interest is on jazz figures as instrumentalists. My research interest stems mainly from an instrumental point of view, a phenomenon no one has as yet ventured into,” he says.  

Yonela Mnana_ Pic credit: Christo Doherty

The Andrew W. Mellon Foundation funds the ARA project in the Wits School of Arts. This is a New York-based educational foundation that supports training of scholars and the production of scholarship in the Arts and Humanities at top universities and research institutes internationally. The grants support postgraduate students in the Wits School of Arts who are conducting creative arts research that uses the methodologies of art practice to create new forms of knowledge.

The School of Arts’ selection committee unanimously selected Mnana from several other applications submitted for the ARA PhD award. Professor Christo Doherty, chair of the selection committee, said Mnana was a worthy recipient, given his sound academic record.

“Not only did Mnana achieve excellent results in his previous degrees, his MA research challenged the conventional understanding of South African jazz piano and established the terms for his PhD research topic, which will use a combination of performance and scholarly analysis to articulate the distinctive aesthetic of the South African jazz piano tradition,” says Doherty.

Four Wits master’s students and four honours students are also recipients of bursaries from ARA this year.

A dialogue through music

Mnana’s interest in musical instruments was sparked during his high school years in Polokowane when he was a member of the school band. He subsequently enrolled for a Bachelor of Music degree at Wits where he studied classical and jazz piano. In 2018, he obtained his master’s degree in music with distinction.

Passionate about sharing knowledge, the performing artist says he is grateful for the funding because it has enabled him to continue the momentum of learning. With his research, he hopes to empower people with information. “I want to enable ordinary people who are not students to gain access to information, because most of [what] make people poorer – either in knowledge or materials – is due to lack of information,” says Manana.

He teaches music at Ezibeleni School for Physically Disabled Children, in Katlehong, and assists choirs at the South African School Choral Eisteddfod. He also composes for the community project, Vivacious Sounds. When it comes to his craft, jazz, he enjoys its conversational element.

“The very essence of jazz is that it allows for sharing. I am grateful that I was able to receive gifts from other musicians and pass on those gifts to the people who are listening. It is not only about sharing, it is about creating a conversation – it is a dialogue. I cannot just play without creating a dialogue. It has to imbue with a specific live organism. The song is supposed to turn into an entity that is supposed to perform a specific function.”

Mnana has performed on numerous stages in Johannesburg and South Africa and has performed alongside jazz luminaries such as Herbie Tsoaeli, Marcus Wyatt, Zoe Modiga, Barney Rachabane, and Bheki Khoza, amongst others. Mnana released his debut album, Baba, in April 2016 and his single, Iskhalo, in December 2018. He recently performed at the Cape Town International Jazz Festival with Mandla Mlangeni, where they played with artists from Switzerland.

About Arts Research Africa

Funded by the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation, the Arts Research Africa project in the Wits School of Arts consists of a range of activities, from artist residencies and seminars, to symposia, online publishing, bursaries and grants. The purpose of these activities is to spark dialogue, stimulate practice, enable research and inspire collective engagement in developing artistic research in the African university.  For more information, see