on my recent trip to South Africa last January 2020 I found this LP ‘How Long’, a recording of an obscure musical, written in 1973 by Gibson Kente (born July 23, 1932, Duncan Village, near East London, South Africa – died November 7, 2004, Soweto, South Africa).
Gibson Kente was a South African playwright, screenplay writer and musician. He also taught many high profile South African performers how to act, sing and dance, including Brenda Fassie and Mbongeni Ngema.
One of his earlier works ‘Sikalo’ (1966) was already in my collection but ‘How Long’ is another eye-opener. Musically the compositions are quite diverse, from African jazz to hymns, beautifully performed by a group of singers and musicians unknown to me; Zakithi Diamini, Zakes Kuse, Mary Twala, Ndaba Twala and others.
The condition of the LP was poor, scratched vinyl, torn worn cover with the name Bra Cecil on the labels, it clearly was once a well loved record in a township somewhere….
I thought that the theme of this musical and the music fits the date and spirit of this post perfectly. The musical ‘How Long’ is a document that reminds me of the horror of the Sharpeville massacre on March 21, 1960. Exactly 60 years ago. Today 21st March 2020 we commemorate Sharpeville and Human Rights Day.
Both sides of this LP can be heard in their integrality with all the crackle and hiss but the music still stands proud.
Sharpeville massacre, (March 21, 1960), incident in the black township of Sharpeville, near Vereeniging, South Africa, in which police fired on a crowd of black people, killing or wounding some 250 of them. It was one of the first and most violent demonstrations against apartheid in South Africa.
The Pan-Africanist Congress (PAC), a splinter group of the African National Congress (ANC) created in 1959, organized a countrywide demonstration for March 21, 1960, for the abolition of South Africa’s pass laws. Participants were instructed to surrender their reference books (passes) and invite arrest. Some 20,000 blacks gathered near a police station at Sharpeville, located about 30 miles (50 km) south of Johannesburg. After some demonstrators, according to police, began stoning police officers and their armoured cars, the officers opened fire on them with submachine guns. About 69 blacks were killed and more than 180 wounded, some 50 women and children being among the victims. A state of emergency was declared in South Africa, more than 11,000 people were detained, and the PAC and ANC were outlawed. Reports of the incident helped focus international criticism on South Africa’s apartheid policy. Following the dismantling of apartheid, South African President Nelson Mandela chose Sharpeville as the site at which, on December 10, 1996, he signed into law the country’s new constitution.
The Kwela Swingsters is Australia’s leading exponents of Kwela, South African penny whistle jive music!
Band leader Andy Rigby learned the Kwela style penny whistle playing while he was living in Botswana in the 80’s. The unique way of ‘bending” the sound of the penny whistle gives the Kwela swing music its distinctive vibe.
With its rhythms rooted firmly in swing, add a lot of South African vibe and you have one happy dancing band.
The Kwela Swingsters have got many a foot dancing at leading Festivals in Australia:
a few kwela tunes on ‘Township Jive & Kwela Jazz Volume 2’ start with some jive talking in an unknown language. At first I thought it sounded quite like Afrikaans, with a pinch of Zulu or Xhosa in da mix maybe? After all, South Africa claims 11 official languages and in a city like Cape Town that’s home to an eclectic mix of cultures it is easy to hear this sort of street jive. In the 1950’s, the neighbourhood District Six near Cape Town was the birthplace of an extremely lively and eclectic brew of a patois spoken mainly amongst the Cape Coloreds and certain groups of blacks, hottentots, Cape Malay and the Khoi San.
The Apartheid regime brought an extremely uncertain time for black and colored people so a slang as a sort of protection shield was born. At the time black music did not get much national radio coverage at all, although some black radio stations broadcasted for local communities. The music was either played live in the streets -the birthplace of kwela- or experienced in theatres and public halls. Left wings white South Africans, politically open minded people also found their way to these local get-togethers to hear some of the finest black and colored musicians on the scene.
The spoken intro’s of some of the kwela songs are characteristic conversations between the musicians, often in a humoristic slang, always extremely funny. Here are 3 examples culled from ‘Township Jive & Kwela Jazz Volume 2’ and translated into English as accurate as possible.
Track nr. 7 ‘Ek Se Cherry ‘by Lemmy Special and The Mofolo Kids; a conversation between a man and a woman who argue about the man’s infidelity to his wife. The woman tells the man that people in the township are talking about his behaviour,that he is seeing a ‘cherry’ ( a loose woman). The man denies but the woman teases him and tells the man firmly –Ek sê Cherry – ‘I say that you are seeing a loose woman’.
Ek sê, Eksê (Eh-k-s-eh): Afrikaans for, ‘I say’. Used either at the beginning or end of a statement. “Ek sê my bru, let’s braai tomorrow.” “This party is duidelik, ek sê!”
Track nr. 5 ‘Skanda Mayeza’ by The Benoni Flute Quintet translates as such; “Yes folks, the man heard from you so nice as Two Kop Pak. All must raise the roof. Where is it going with you and old Two Kop Pak. Carly from the Kasbahs. There were the day never was a grass. The life was nice like the cabin in the sky. Go Totsi.”
Track nr 8 ‘Broadway’ by Alexander Sweet Flutes translates as such; ” Hey men, have you heard of the Bell -telephone call-? How Edward, how Space and how Azaren can really really mean what the Tow Can dobbo”.
Thanks to Susie Mullins and Kevin for the research and the translation.
See also Your Guide to Cape Town Slang
Awê, get the low-down on the Mother City’s colourful colloquialisms and sayings, ek sê…
Ag (ah-ch): An expression of irritation or resignation. “Ag no man!” “Ag, these things happen”
Awê (ah-weh): A greeting. “Awê, brother!”
Babbelas (bah-bah-luss): Derived from the isiZulu word, ‘i-babalazi’, meaning drunk; adopted into the Afrikaans language as a term for ‘hangover’. “I have a serious babbelas!”
Bakkie (bah-kee): 1. A bowl. “Put those leftovers in a bakkie.” 2. A pick-up truck. “We all jumped on the back of my dad’s bakkie and went to the beach.”
Befok (buh-fawk): 1. Really good, amazing, cool. “The Symphonic Rocks concert is going to be befok!” 2. Crazy, mad, insane. “You tried to put your cat in the braai? Are you befok?”
Bergie (bear-ghee): Derived from berg, Afrikaans for ‘mountain’. Originally used to refer to vagrants living in the forests of Table Mountain, the word is now a mainstream term used to describe vagrants in Cape Town.
Bra (brah), bru (brew): Derived from broer, Afrikaans for ‘brother’; a term of affection for male friends; equivalent to dude. “Howzit my bru!”“Jislaaik bra, it’s been ages since I last saw you!”
Braai (br-eye): Barbeque (noun and verb). “Let’s throw a tjop on the braai.” “We’re going to braai at a friend’s house.”
Duidelik (day-duh-lik): Cool, awesome, amazing. “That bra’s car looks duidelik!”
Eish (ay-sh): isiZulu interjection; an exclamation meaning ‘oh my’, ‘wow’, ‘oh dear’, ‘good heavens’. A: “Did you hear? My brother got into a fight with a bergie!” B: “Eish! Is he hurt!”
Eina (Ay-nah): An exclamation used when pain is experienced, ‘ouch!’. “Eina! Don’t pinch me.”
Entjie (eh-n-chee): A cigarette. “Come smoke an entjie with me.”
Guardjie, gaatjie (gah-chee): The guard who calls for passengers and takes in the money on a minibus taxi.
hhayi-bo (isiZulu), hayibo (isiXhosa) (haai-boh): An interjection meaning ‘hey’; ‘no way’.“Hayibo wena, you can’t park there!”
Howzit (how-zit): A greeting meaning ‘hi’; shortened form of ‘how’s it going?’
Is it?: Used as acknowledgement of a statement, but not to ask a question – as one might assume. Most closely related to the English word ‘really’. A: “This guy mugged me and said I must take off my takkies!” B: “Is it?”
Ja (yaah): Afrikaans for ‘yes’. A: “Do you want to go to a dance club tonight?” B: “Ja, why not?”
Ja-nee (yah-near): Afrikaans for yes-no. Meaning ‘Sure!’ or ‘That’s a fact!’ Usually used in agreement with a statement. A: “These petrol price hikes are going to be the death of me.” B: “Ja-nee, I think I need to invest in a bicycle.”
Jol (jaw-l): (noun and verb) 1. A party or dance club. “We’re going to the jol.” “That party was an absolute jol!” 2. Used to describe the act of cheating. “I heard he was jolling with another girl.”
Jislaaik (yiss-like): An expression of astonishment. “Jislaaik, did you see that car go?”
Kak (kuh-k): 1. Afrikaans for ‘shit’. Rubbish, nonsense, inferior, crap or useless. “What a kak phone.” “Your driving is kak.” 2. Extremely, very. “That girl is kak hot!”
Kwaai (kw-eye): Derived from the Afrikaans word for ‘angry’, ‘vicious’, ‘bad-tempered’. Cool, awesome, great. “Those shoes are kwaai.”
Lekker (leh-kah): 1. Nice, delicious. “Local is lekker!” 2. Extremely, very. “South Africans are lekker sexy!”
Mielie (mee-lee): Afrikaans term for corn, corn-on-the-cob.
Nee (nee-ah): Afrikaans for ‘no’.
Naartjie (naah-chee): Afrikaans term for citrus unshiu, a seedless, easy peeling species of citrus also known as a ‘satsuma mandarin’.
Potjie, potjiekos (poi-kee-kaws): Afrikaans term for pot food/stew comprised of meat, chicken, vegetables or seafood slow-cooked over low coals in a three-legged cast iron pot.
Shame: A term of endearment and sympathy (not condescending). “Ag shame, sorry to hear about your cat.” “Oh shame! Look how cute your baby is!”
Shisa Nyama (shee-seen-yah-mah): isiZulu origin – while shisa means ‘burn’ or to be hot and nyama means ‘meat’, used together the term means ‘braai’ or ‘barbeque’. “Come on, let’s go to Mzoli’s for a lekker shisa nyama!”
Sisi (see-see): Derived from both isiXhosa and isiZulu words for sister, usisi and osisi (plural). “Hayibo sisi, you must stop smoking so many entjies!”
Sosatie (soo-saah-tees): Kebabs, skewered meat. “Let’s throw a few sosaties on the braai.”
Takkies (tack-kees): Trainers, sneakers, running shoes. “I want to start running, again but I need a new pair of takkies.”
Tjommie, chommie (choh-mee): Afrikaans slang for ‘friend’. “Hey tjommie, when are we going to the beach again?”
Vrot (frawt): Rotten; most often used to describe food that’s gone off or a state of being sick. “Those tomatoes are vrot.” “Champagne makes me feel vrot!”
Voetsek (foot-sek): Afrikaans for ‘get lost’, much like the British expression, ‘bog off’. “Hey voetsek man!”
Wena (weh-nah): isiXhosa and isiZulu for ‘you’. “Hey wena, where’s the R20 you owe me?”
Wys (vay-ss): Show, tell, describe. “Don’t wys me, I know where I’m going.”
So, whether you’re asking for directions, engaging with the locals or just eavesdropping in a taxi, let’s hope this guide will give you some insight into what’s being said. And keep in mind, if anyone says “Joe Mah Sah…” just know, it’s not a compliment.
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…
This album demonstrates Noise Khanyile’s range of both traditional and jive music. In 1960 he began to play shebeens, and he als learned how to play the violin. His violin playing was influenced by Mareza, probably the most famous jive violist of the early 60’s.
In 1964 Noise was still playing acoustically. He did not begin to play in a band which used drums until 1969. He went to Trutone Records, made a record, switched to EMI’s Umsakazo label but although the worked hard at several sessions, the result in being paid was a session fee of about 8 rand ( UKP 2.00) a side.
In 1972 he recorded with the Boyoyo Boys, a big jive band at the time. He worked with the legendary producer West Nkosi on sessions like ‘2 Mabone’ which went gold twice for the FGB label. These ‘Mabone’ records were a bit of a craze among jive musicians. Mabone means headlight and the number describes the number of headlights on a car. There were loads of Mabone titles ‘3 Mabone’, ‘4 Mabone’ etc.
But jive music had not made much progress since it originated and consequently the newer sounding disco took over as a popular form in the mid-70’s. Jive as a music form was put into the shade by disco for some time, but Noise remained optimistic about its survival. Noise has never made disco records, he went back to the traditional music and also marabi, an early jive guitar picking style, where the instrumentation is guitar picking and rhythm guitar, plus occasional addition of saxophone, but no drums or bass guitar.
In a previous post I have highlighted the work of Miriam Makeba after her departure from South Africa to the USA. As an artist in exile Makeba became an even bigger star then she had ever been before in South Africa. But how many people will realise the fact that Makeba was already a big star in her country of birth in 1959 before her departure? That she had performed in a movie ‘Come Back, Africa’ singing one of her signature tunes? That she had recorded as a solo-artist on Gallotone Records and later with the Skylarks for the same label? Note the advertisement on a Gallotone 78 rpm sleeve for a release by Mariam Makeba ‘Pass Office Special -Hoenene’ (GB 2134).
She had made a name for herself in her early career as singer with the Manhattan Brothers and in the beginning of 1956 –about two years after she had joined The Manhattan Brothers- Sam Alcock, Gallo’s black talent scout, asked Miriam to form a ‘girlie group’ for recording. He wanted to compete with the success that rival labels like Troubadour were enjoying with similar material and particularly with the Quad Sisters who recorded for Trutone, another rival. Miriam recruited her sister Mizpah and a friend, Joanna Radebe, and two songs resulted which were issued as The Sunbeams on the Tropik label, a Gallo affiliate
The style that so interested Alcock was hardly indigenous although there is a tradition of group female singing in some South African tribal cultures. The line of influence was rather, like so much urban black music in South Africa from that period, taken directly from American popular. In the 1930’s, the white Boswell Sisters enjoyed a tremendous popularity as a jazzy, close harmony trio (they had grown up in New Orleans at the same time as Louis Armstrong and the development of early jazz).
The Boswells drew upon Tin Pan Alley pop and contemporary Afro-American vocal styles, religious and secular, that had evolved from traditions developed under slavery. Their success spawned in turn the Andrews Sisters in the 1940’s and the McGuire Sisters in the 1950’s, and all three groups became well known in South Africa through imported recordings. At some point, perhaps by the Second World War, this style was being copied by black female trios on Johannesburg’s concert stages with vernacular lyrics eventually substituting for the English originals. In the 1940’s groups like the V Dolls and the Twisting Sisters had already enjoyed commercial success as ‘girlie groups’ but it would take another decade before female singing groups would become popular with record companies and the general public as well.
By the mid -50’s when the Quad Sisters were at the height of their popularity, ‘girlie groups’ were already regarded as a black show business tradition. The Manhattan Brothers, too, had assimilated virtually identical American roots. They modelled themselves after the Mills Brothers –who had come to international fame in the 1930’s by updating the same Afro-American traditions- and then later, after the equally famous Ink Spots. As the 50’s progressed, the Manhattan’s music came to incorporate more indigenous elements but they had originally become famous by singing American originals in Sotho or Xhosa.
The first Sunbeams record sold well enough to soon warrant the girls’ return to the studio but this time the songs were issued on Gallotone and the name of the group was changed to The Skylarks. On this second session, Mizpah dropped out because of work commitments and Mary Rabotapi joined. By the time Mary joined Miriam’s new group, she had already recorded several discs under her own name and was regularly singing on advertising jingles.
Mummy Girl Nketle, a good looking girl from Sophiatown who could sing well on stage, was the next addition. Miriam had discovered her fronting a group called the Midnight Kids. Her elder brother, ‘Boetie’, a gangster and a member of the notorious Americans, was briefly married to Dolly Rathebe. See my previous post on Dolly Rathebe who recalls her years as a gangster moll. See also my previous post South African Soul Divas pt 3 Dolly Rathebe, Mabel Mafuya, Nancy Jacobs, Eva Madison
According to Mary, the idea of expanding the group to four voices had a practical rather than musical basis, if one member was absent, the requirements of a trio were still provided for. Then, Joahnna Radebe left and a coloured singer from the West Rand, Helen Van Rensburg, came in. She was in turn replaced in late 1957 by Abigail Kubeka from White City Jabavu.
There was an underlying reason for these personnel changes. “It was all Miriam’s doing”, recalls Mary Rotapi, “she was the boss”. Miriam held the recording contract and she was the eldest, a position from which authority had traditionally emanated in African society. There was a feeling that the younger girls were being entrusted to Miriam’s care by their families. Mary adds “Miriam wants hard workers. If you’re slow on your feet, she’ll take somebody else…I was a lucky one. She never got rid of me!” Needless to say, these circumstances often make it impossible, some 35 years later, to exactly determine who was singing on the earlier sessions, but with the arrival of Abigail, the situation stabilized. The line-up of Miriam, Mary, Abigail and Mummy Girl, occasionaly supplemented with Nomonde Sihawu as a fifth voice and Sam Ngakone singing bass, would produce all of the Skylark’s biggest hits such as “Hush”, “Inkoma Zodwa” and “Hamba Bekile” amongst others.
Just how popular were the Skylarks? Unfortunately, no sales figures for the group’s recordings have survived to reveal the true extent of their success. In fact, sales were somewhat irrelevant to the recording artists of that era because they were paid on an ‘outright buy-out’, flat fee basis. Only with the institution of the royalty system in the early 1960’s would the number of ‘units’ sold become a matter of concern. Nevertheless, because of the frequency with which they recorded, the Skylarks discs must have sold very well indeed, perhaps in the region of 100.000 copies or more for the most popular numbers.
In a short history of little more than three years, the group cut well over 100 sides, almost all of which were issued. Few artists of the time could equal that number and certainly no other vocal groups, not even the Manhattan Brothers whose fortunes declined somewhat towards the end of the 50’s.
And then of course, Miriam Makeba played Joyce as a character in the original black cast of the musical “King Kong”. By the time she left South Africa, she had already built a name for herself that would open doors in the United States of America.
‘Miriam Makeba & The Skylarks’ -African Heritage -Teal Records 1991 TELCD 2303
this article contains excerpts from the liner notes by Rob Allingham