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He first gained prominence playing trombone with The Jazz Epistles. After the short-lived group broke up, he became important to the South African music scene and abroad. In the 1960s, he began to gain notice in the United States, and in 1965 he was featured in a "Sound Of Africa" concert at Carnegie Hall. The others at the concert included Miriam Makeba, Hugh Masekela, and Letta Mbulu. He attended the Manhattan School of Music. Despite his international fame, he was not seen favorably by the apartheid government and went into exile in the 1970s to the United States.
Gwangwa spent the late 1970s and a better part of the 1980s living in Gaborone, Botswana, where he founded the band Shakawe, which included South African musicians Steve Dyer, Dennis Mpale, Tony Cedras, and local Botswana musicians Rampholo Molefhe, Whyte Kgopo, Bonjo Keipedile, Tsholofelo Giddie, and Japie Phiri.
During his time in Gaborone, Gwangwa got involved in the MEDU Art Ensemble, a collection of anti-apartheid musicians, visual artists, and writers, working alongside other Botswana-based South African exiles such as Keorapetse Kgositsile, Baleka Mbeta, Tim Williams, Thami Mnyele, and Mongane Wally Serote. During June 14, 1985, apartheid South African Defense Force (SADF) cross-border Raid on Gaborone, which killed MEDU members Mnyele, Mike Hamlyn, and ten others, as well as bombing a house recently vacated by MEDU leader Williams, Gwangwa believed he and other artistic exiles were being targeted by the apartheid government and returned to overseas exile.
From 1980 to 1990, at the request of ANC leader in exile, Oliver Tambo, Gwangwa was the leader of Amandla, the cultural ensemble of the African National Congress. Gwangwa assembled Amandla participants from exiled South Africans in Angola and toured more than 40 countries with 'Amandla the musical,' a story of South Africa's struggle against apartheid told in artistic, musical form. In later life, he became important as a composer doing the scores of films like Cry Freedom (1987), and at the 60th Annual Academy Awards in 1988, he performed his nominated song Cry Freedom.
Also, in 1988, he performed at the Nelson Mandela 70th Birthday Tribute in Wembley Stadium. In 1991, he returned to South Africa and, in 1997, composed the theme for their Olympic bid. Gwangwa is paid tribute in the composition "Portrait of Mosa Gwangwa" by Johnny Dyani. Jonas Gwangwa, an important figure in South African jazz for over 40 years, died at 83 on January 23, 2021.