King Kong, the first All African Jazz Opera 1956August 10, 2009
King Kong is of course one of the most famous movies ever made, involving a big ape being transported to New York from an obscure island. But in 1956 in South Africa King Kong became the first all African Jazz Opera starring Miriam Makeba and the Manhattan Brothers with Kippie Moeketsi and Hugh Masekela among others.
Between the conception of ‘King Kong’ and the actual premiere of the musical lay 3 years. In 1956, the syndicate of African Artists commissioned Todd Matshikiza’s ‘Uxolo’, a work on a massive scale for choir and brass band. Todd Matshikiza wrote great choral works, using a brass band because it was impossible for him at that time to get access to a full orchestra. He wrote in a certain way because he was a man who interacted with jazz musicians, understood what genres were all about….
Matshikiza wrote the music and some lyrics using as much African lingo as he could. ‘King Kong’ was situated in a township in the heart of the White kingdom and blacks were shot at sight at nine by the police, especially if they were talking some lingo.
Nathan Mdeledle played the title role with Miriam Makeba,the female lead as the shebeen queen, Joyce, who presides over the legendary Back O’the Moon drinking den.
A fourteen piece orchestra backed the sixty-three member cast, the cream of the era’s modern jazz players. Among them was reed player Kippie Moketsi, whose contribution to modern jazz led to comparisons with Charlie Parker.
The musical was produced by Ian Ephriam Bernhardt, the manager of Dorkey House as I was informed by his son Brian Bernhardt recently.
The show opened on 2 February 1959 at the Wits University Great Hall and was an immediate success; the white Star newspaper called it ‘the greatest thrill in 20 years of South African theatre-going’. In South Africa, it repeated packed runs over the next two years before securing a London booking for early 1961. By the time the company left for London, 200.000 South Africans had seen King Kong. Two-thirds of them were white. The music of ‘King Kong’ was also favorite amongst the punters of the Jo’burg shebeens and listeners to black radio stations all over the country.
The origins of South African theatre can be found in the rich and ancient oral tradition of indigenous South Africans – the folk tales around the fires, with their drama, and an audience ranging from the very young to the very old. Performances on stage came much later. In the townships, particularly in Johannesburg’s vibrant Sophiatown, an eclectic performance culture developed, drawing on American, English and African cultural traditions and involved comic sketches and acting as well as jazz, singing and dancing.
King Kong -All African Jazz Opera, music by Todd Matshikiza, lyrics by Pat Williams, book by Harry Bloom.
Todd Matshikiza with members of the original cast at work
The real King Kong
From time to time, in every country in the world, a figure emerges from the masses –pulled up usually by his own bootstraps- and catches the imagination and affection of the people. King Kong was such a person. Mostly they are tough guys and flouters of authority, but often they have courage.
King Kong, more prosaically Ezekiel Dhlamini, was a Zulu from Vrijheid. Dhlamini’s meteoric rise to the top of South African boxing dwindled into lost bouts, drunkenness, off-ring violence and murder. He knifed his girlfriend when she arrived in a club surrounded by rival gangsters. He asked for the death sentence, but got 14 years hard labour – and drowned himself in March 1957 at the age of 32; a perfect story for the first township musical. He was a bully, and a braggart and was recognized as such in the townships. Yet they cheered him. He brought colour, vitality and excitement into their lives. And hope, too.
If a man could work himself up to be a heavyweight champion and have the crowds roaring their delighted heads off as he jumped flamboyantly over the ropes into the ring, perhaps they, too could somehow manufacture this sort of adulation for themselves.
Uncontrolled and violent in temper, the downward slide began when a middleweight champ –a puny man by comparison- knocked him out in the ring. The unthinkable had happened.
When King Kong staggered up that night from the canvas he was not the same man. Some people had laughed, actually laughed when he was floored. Thereafter he went about beating up anybody with the suspicion of a jeer in the face.
In a brawl the leader of a much-feared gang lay dead, felled by King Kong’s fists. The plea was self-defence, an he was acquitted. But the next he was in court the charge was murder. She had been his girl friend.
It was the night the had hired a hall for the dance. The girl arrived followed by a gang who forced their way in. There was a fight. The girl was knifed. Above the din the tremendous voice of King Kong roared; ‘send for the police’.
And when they came he stood there, the knife still in his hand. He refused to drop it and was warned that action would be taken unless he did. He refused again and firing began. He appeared at a preparatory examination into an allegation of murder and was committed for trial. Eccentric to the last –he pleaded guilty. In February 1957 he was sentenced to 12 years of hard labour.
‘No’, he cried out. ‘I tell you to sentence me to death’. The judge rebuked him and repeated ‘twelve years hard labour’. What good would that do, King Kong asked, in stopping other people from killing.
He was sent with a labour gang to Leeuwkop. There is a vast dam there. One day, within a short time of being sentenced, he leapt far into it.
Two days passed before they could find the body. King Kong was about 32.
about Todd Matshikiza
Todd Matshikiza, who composed the music of ‘King Kong’ was commissioned in 1956 to write a choral work for 200 voices and orchestra for the Johannesburg Festival, the result being ‘Uxolo’.
A musician of exceptional gifts, Matshikiza was born in Queenstown and has his early education at St Peter’s, Rosettenville. He matriculated from Adams College and then studied at the Lovedale Teacher’s Training College. For some time he taught at Lovedale High School.
He is one of a family of 10, all of whom are either singers or instrumentalists. His father was a church organist. He started to play the piano at the age of six, and music has absorbed him ever since.
Todd Matshikiza made his home in Johannesburg in 1947, and in the past 11 years he has turned his hand to many things other than music. In between composing choral works and songs –many of which are heard regularly over the radio in the township-he has been bookseller, messenger boy, hotel waiter and journalist.
His newspaper career began in 1951 when he joined the editorial staff of ‘Drum’ under editor Anthony Sampson. He wrote vigorous, colourful prose, and the way he played with words was not without its own kind of music. Sampson in his book ‘Drum’ pays warm tribute to the part that Matshikiza played in helping to establish the magazine.
about Pat Williams
Pat Williams, lyric and scriptwriter, is a journalist of wide and varied experience. She started on the Cape Times at the age of 18, then joined the Sunday Times, where she wrote specialized articles on a wide range of subjects under her own name. For more than a year she was the newspaper’s film and theatre critic. Ms Williams has a natural flair for writing verse, both light and serious, and her delightful pieces have appeared in most of the major newspapers of the country.
Original liner notes from “King Kong, All African Jazz Opera” Original Cast 1959
(Gallo GALP 1040, South Africa)
excerpt from “Soweto Blues” Gwen Ansell Continuum 2004
King Kong has been released on CD. Check out the following link