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PhD candidate in Music, University of the Witwatersrand

Yonela Mnana is a jazz scholar, a recording singer, and jazz pianist who also teaches and composes.

The diversity that underlies his musicianship has been inherent throughout his life. He was born in the southeastern Cape part of Transkei and schooled in the northernmost parts of the Limpopo province. The Thogwaneng based Siloe Boarding School for the Blind (30km outside Polokwane) coupled his Catholic school tuition with the Sepedi and home town IsiXhosa musical background, seeping through his jazz inspired compositions effortlessly. His high school choral experience was later crystallised by his classical and jazz lectures at the University of the Witwatersrand. This is where he completed his junior and master’s degrees in music with distinction.

He has been awarded the Arts Research in Africa bursary in 2019, First Rand Trust Bursary, and the Wits-hunt/Rorich bursary to pursue his PhD studies in South African solo jazz pianism.

Before he released his solo debut album ‘Baba’ in 2016, he paid his dues by playing in jazz clubs around Johannesburg, throughout South Africa, and abroad as a sideman, co-composer and bandleader. His internal collaborations with DJ QB Smith (London), The Mill with Mandla Mlangeni, and Benedikt Reiseng (Bern, Switzerland) and soon to be released ‘Equal Spirits’ with Raphael Clarkson (UK) bear some testament to such work. He traversed the SADC region for events such as Bushfire (Swaziland), the king’s celebration (Lesotho), Mozambique (Maputo) and Namibia (Oranjemund).

In 2020 he co-produced a seminal album ‘uGaba - The Migration’ with the current Standard Bank Young Artist of the year, Sisonke Xonti. The release of this album led to great success in written reviews and sold-out shows. Mnana finished off his year by conducting a 3 day hybrid webinar under the auspices of Joburg ArtsAlive where he held workshops and premiered his children’s mass: ‘Kosha Mantsi Choral Blues’ at the Morris Isaacson Centre for Music in Soweto. Mnana has also been a prominent feature on two of Marcus Wyatt’s live stream projects mainly, Alone Together and House on the Hill with his new trio ‘Threequency’.

His work continues to be predominantly with township schools and young students under his mentorship. Some of the projects have been with Vivacious Sounds in Katlehong, Gugulethu High School choir, Peart Memorial Corps songsters, the Jazz Tag, and Harmonarty Fourtet. Lastly, his upcoming album to be released later this year will be on the heels of his single ‘Iskhalo’.

He has also had encounters with some popular artists, working as a sideman (or accompanist) to singers including Siphokazi, Ringo Madlingozi, Dr Tumi, Gloria Bosman, Zoe Modiga, Dumza Maswana, Maleh, Thandi Klaasen, Lindiwe Maxolo, Thandiswa Mazwai and Nomsa Mazwai.


  • –present
    Lecturer and PhD candidate in music, University of the Witwatersrand