In the beginning, there was marabi: a raucous, distinctly African mixture of indigenous harmony and structure blended together with Afro-American ragtime and jazz (with an occasional touch borrowed from Tin Pan Alley pop or even British music hall), which was thrashed out of weatherbeaten pianos, harmoniums and guitars in slumyard shebeens, often to the accompaniment of inebriated patrons shaking pebble-filled tins. Marabi was synonymous with the lowest of low life, denounced from pulpits as immoral and branded as a cacophony by music critics, so it is no wonder that the early record companies chose to ignore it.

This particular performance by the otherwise unknown Mabiletsa (who may have been a resident of Alexandra Township near Johannesburg) together with a barely audible guitarist is probably a relatively sophisticated example of the genre but it nonetheless is one of the very few authentic marabi piano pieces ever recorded. Gallo apparently regarded ‘Zulu Piano Medley Nr. 1’ as a poor commercial prospect as the company waited nearly four years before releasing it.

Mabiletsa -Zulu Piano Medley Nr. 1 Part 1

(Gallotone –Singer GE944 released circa 1944)

Manhattan Brothers –Jikela Emaweni

(Xhosa; Turn Around to the Cliffs)

Gallotone released circa 1954

When this recording was made, the Manhattan Brothers were already African show business veterans of over two decades standing at the height of their power and popularity. The quartet had grown up together in Pimville (later a part of Soweto) and began singing as the Manhattan Stars while they were still attending school. Gallo first recorded them in 1947 and the immediate commercial success of their music coincided with an economic and artistic renaissance among urban Africans that ultimately affected a wide range of cultural activities, from drama to journalism.

At first, the Manhattans merely copied the songs and style of several popular Afro-American close harmony groups (most notably the Mills Brothers and the Inkspots whose recordings were well known in South Africa. The original English lyrics were transformed into an African vernacular. At Gallo’s insistence, however, the quartet later began developing material which was more African and ‘Jikela Emaweni’, one of their biggest hits, is a perfect example of the process. The song’s first melodic strains consists of an exact –albeit beautifully harmonized-rendition of an ancient Xhosa melody which was still sung at drinking parties among rural non-Christians as late as the 1930’s. At the conclusion of the festivities, male and female participants would pair off into the night to ‘turn around to the cliffs’. The quartet then composed a new second melodic line, also adding lyrics that contributed to the spirit of the original, and a South African classic was born.

Jazz Dazzlers –Diepkloof Ekhaya

(Xhosa; Diepkloof, My Home)

Featuring Kippie Moeketsi (1st Alto), Benny ‘Gwi Gwi’ Mrwebe (2nd Alto), Mackay Davashe (Tenor), Sol Klaaste (Piano)

USA Recordings -Released 1960

Once upon a time, jazz in South Africa was not a remote elitist art-form but was truly the entertainment music of the masses. Township residents danced and partied to the strains of eight-to-ten piece bands that served up a dynamic mixture which was either referred to as marabi or African Jazz. The essentially circular structure of African music remained a prominent characteristic together with various typically African melodic and harmonic qualities.

These elements were combined with the instrumentation of an overseas swing band which then gave scope for the complex voicings and arranged alternation between sections –usually brass against reeds –that had typified American big band jazz since the 1920s.

‘Diepkloof Ekahya’ is a wonderful example of this homegrown genre and features the sort of shouting, extraverted trumpet work that died forever in US jazz, with the beginnings of bop and the birth of the cool. The exact identity of this group is something of  a mystery but it sounds very much like the Jazz Dazzlers, an aggregration that grew out of the ‘King Kong’ backing band. See also my other post on the original King Kong production from 1959.

Notes by Rob Allingham

Musical selections pic and excerpts from liner notes from the compilation ‘From Marabi to Disco -42 years of Township Music’

Recommended Listening

‘From Marabi to Disco -42 years of Township Music’

Gallo Music Productions CDZAC 61 released in 1994

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