24 Nov 2023

Thabani Gapara: The accidental Aotearoan

From Three to Seven, 4:00 pm on 24 November 2023
Saxophonist Thabani Gapara

Saxophonist Thabani Gapara Photo: Flora Driessen

Fate played a big role in bringing Zimbabwean sax player Thabani Gapara to New Zealand.

While he was mastering his instrument in South Africa, the rest of his family were in the United Kingdom.

In those days, when Zimbabwe was still under the rule of Robert Mugabe, folk travelling on a Zimbabwe passport weren't welcome at the UK border.

Faced with the prospect of not being able to see their son, the Gapara family made things easier for the prodigal to return by moving to the other side of the world: New Zealand.

When Gapara moved to New Zealand, he barely knew anything about the local music scene. Now he's one of Aotearoa's 'go-to' sax players, not just in jazz, but also soul, reggae, and even kapa haka.

Thabani Gapara Project and Hātea Kapa Haka perform a tribute to the late Te Kumeroa "Ngoingoi" Pēwhairangi QSM & Tuini Ngāwai

Thabani Gapara Project and Hātea Kapa Haka perform a tribute to the late Te Kumeroa "Ngoingoi" Pēwhairangi QSM & Tuini Ngāwai Photo: RNZ / Cole Eastham-Farrelly

Gapara came to the saxophone quite late.

He was born in Zimbabwe's capital Harare, but moved around the country frequently as his parents worked in the hospitality business. That might have been unsettling for some, but not Gapara.

"These places just added so much colour to your upbringing."

His first musical outlet, at the age of 13, was the violin. This proved to be a struggle for the rest of his family.

He experimented with a range of both western and African instruments, from the marimba to the cello, before coming across the saxophone in his last year at high school.

That lead to happy times performing in the school jazz band, and from there Gapara wasn't looking back.

He was looking forward, and moving south to study in land of many of his musical heroes: the pianist Themba Mkhize, or the great trumpeter Hugh Masekela.

Hugh Masekela at Elbjazz Festival, Hamburg, 2014

Hugh Masekela at Elbjazz Festival, Hamburg, 2014 Photo: AFP / FILE

For Gapara, going to South Africa was "like going to Mecca, and I had to do it".

He studied sax performance at the University of KwaZulu-Natal, and maybe he would have stayed there if kin hadn't been so important to him.

With the rest of the family in the Zimbabwe-unfriendly UK, the Gaparas hatched a plan to moved to Aotearoa, where Zimbabwe didn't have such a rogue nation status.

"It's a very strange world we live in, when those are the kinds of decisions parents are having to make to keep a family together."

But what resulted was Gapara's discovery of a "huge community" rich with culture, music, and just "incredible talent right across the board, really".

So Gapara asked to stay. Luckily for the local arts scene, New Zealand's immigration system said 'yes'.

Thabani Gapara

Thabani Gapara Photo: Kadambari Gladding

His latest tour, which ends in Hamilton on Friday 1 December, features not only a jazz band but a string quartet.

The imaginative scoring is a result of Gapara's recent Masters degree in music at Auckland University and advice of his supervisor, the bass player and "fantastic human being" Oliver Holland.

"Oli just helped me understand taking chances in music can be extremely rewarding. Even if you aren't successful, there's just a wealth of lessons to be learned from the experience, and so it just helped me be fearless about it. It's been fantastic, and fortunately, it sounds good", he laughs.

Gapara's latest tour has the banner, 'Mwana Wevhu'. Translated from Shona to English, that's 'Child of the Soil'.

"I really think it's really important to have a foot where you are, but also a foot where you've come from. I am acknowledging my heritage having become an adult in Zimbabwe ... then moved to New Zealand and experiencing all these wonderful cultures but realising there's these strong connections between us as people, and our connection to the land as well."

He may have come to Aotearoa by chance, but Gapara's decision to stay is no accident.

Saxophonist Thabani Gapara

Saxophonist Thabani Gapara Photo: Flora Driessen

Get the RNZ app

for easy access to all your favourite programmes