the South African roots of reggae -Griffiths MotsieloaMay 30, 2011
true or false?
this remarkable story appeared in the Dutch newspaper NRC Handelsblad of May 29th 2011. This article describes why South Africa should be considered as the original birthplace of reggae and not Jamaica. Writer Bertram Mourits explains, a few excerpts…
Who says reggae, thinks of Jamaica . The worldwide popularity of Reggae started in the seventies after the pioneering days of Ska and Rocksteady.
Several stories about the origin of the word reggae exist. On the island in the mid sixties it was slang for ‘sloppy clothes’ or another word for ‘a quarrel’. Toots & The Maytals recorded the song ‘Do The Reggay’ in 1968 and the name hit a wider audience. Others used the term for a slow variant of rocksteady, a related musical genre that originally was produced by DJ’s who played records slower than intended.
The origin of the word reggae began in the sixties, then? Not so.
There is a song that starts with a simple piano motif, the drum comes in: a quadruple time, lazily swinging groovy beat, with an emphasis in the rhythm of bass and banjo on the second and fourth count. A chorus sets in, and then a male voice starts speaking, it is not rap, it resembles more Jamaican toasting. The song is faster than most reggae but slower than ska and it sounds like something out of the mid-sixties in Jamaica.
But it was recorded in South Africa in 1939 by the Pietersburg Melodians who called it “Rea Gae” (We Are Going Home). The name of the artist being an alias used for the occasion by a far more familiar South African vaudeville group, The Pitch Black Follies. The leader of that group, Griffiths Motsieloa studied, taught and performed and recorded music in London.
Motsieloa was Gallo’s and South Africa’s first African talent scout/producer who scripted this piece and can be heard energetically calling out ‘Highbricks’, the name of a famous marabi pianist of the day.
The song was commissioned by the South African label Gallo, which still exists and is a treasure trove of traditional African music.
Not only did the Gallo label record music in London. Also musicians from other corners of the British Empire went to London to record – the first studio in Kingston was opened during the first years of the fifties.
Somewhere a cross-pollination may have happened: musicians from Jamaica, Trinidad, Durban and Johannesburg met in the studio or on the Trinity College of Music where Motsieloa studied. The Pitch Black Follies had built already a large international audience that was not limited to the townships around Johannesburg.”Rea Gae” by Pietersburg Melodians might have been heard by Jamaican musicians who were influenced by their sound and groove.
Who knows?Let’s think this over. In the meantime here is another track from 1963 that links South Africa to Jamaica…
selections from ‘Marabi to Disco -42 years of Township music’ Gallo CDZAC61