Isaac ‘Zacks’ Nkosi

Spread out north of the city of Johannesburg is one of the oldest and funkiest townships in the country –Alexandra. History has it that an Afrikaner farmer once bought a number of farms around the modern day township. One of the farms, Zandfontein, became Alexandra Township in 1912. Alexandra produced some of South Africa’s music legends like Ntemi Piliso, Lemmy Mabaso, Zacks Nkosi and many others.

Isaac Zacks Nkosi

Isaac ‘Zacks’ Nkosi was a legendary saxophonist who composed many songs.

His popular band was City Jazz Nine, which boasted the talent of former members of the Jazz Maniacs. He had his own way of blowing the horn to create a unique African Jazz sound. “Our Kind of Jazz” (Gallo Records, 1975) was produced by Hamilton Nzimande and is a classic example of his originality.

“Kwasibasa” is a  tune  Zacks Nkosi recorded for CBS in the 60’s.  A-side “Left turn”,  with infantry style horns and a funky marching drumband.

Zacks Nkosi -Kwasibasa

Zacks Nkosi -Left Turn



In addition to jazz, mbaqanga (the name derives from Zulu, meaning something like steamed maize bread’) has become a style which has given South African music a direction. It is a blend of various styles, of which American jazz; the marabi and the kwela are the most important. Founded in the 1950s, mbaqanga soon took on a political dimension. Songs such as Azikwelwa (‘We won’t ride) supported the bus boycott of 1957 in Alexandra, while the removals in Sophiatown (which started at the beginning of February 1955 and took five years to complete) were sharply criticized in Bye, Bye Sophiatown and Asibadali (‘We won’t pay rent’), songs which were promptly banned on radio by the SABC, although black disc jockeys tried to get them on the air anyway. Mbaqanga became the pride of the urban blacks in the townships.

Michael Xabu (who gave the name mbaqanga to this type of music), Isaac ‘Zacks’ Nkosi and Elijah Nkwanyane formed the cornerstone of the mbaqanga. See my other post on African Jazz composer and trumpet player Elijah Nkwanyane.

excerpt from an original article “A reflection on music” by Jonas Gwangwa and Fulco van Aurich

African Jazz -Elijah Nkwanyane, African Swingsters

music and rhythms of Africa

this rare double gatefolded EP reveals some of South Africa’s most popular tunes and key players in the formation of South African Jazz and popular styles like mbaqanga and kwela; Elijah’s Rhythm Kings (Elijah Nkwanyane), African Swingsters, Benoni Flute Quintet and The Alexandra Shamber Boys.

music from Africa binnenkant

In 1955 jazz lovers formed the Sophiatown Modern Jazz Club, which on Sundays organized a number of jam sessions, led by Pinocchio Mokaleng, in the Odin cinema in which leading musicians like Mackay Davashe, Elijah Nkwanyane, Kippie Moeketsi, Ntemi Piliso (saxophone player in the current African Jazz Pioneers) and many others took part. In Sophiatown for the first time in South African history black and white jazz musicians could meet on such a regular basis on common platform, a unique and typically Sophiatown fact. From these jam sessions emerged a very successful, star-studded band, the Jazz Epistles, featuring among others Kippie Moeketsi (alto), Jonas Gwangwa (trombone), Dollar Brand, now Abdullah Ibrahim (piano), Hugh Masekela (trumpet), Johnny Gertse (guitar) and Makhaya Ntshokr (drums). They laid the basis for a period of modern South African jazz, which was developed further in the 1960s. Jonas Gwangwa and Hugh Masekela were members of the only African high school jazz band ever formed in South Africa – the Huddleston Jazz Band, which was based in St. Peter’s secondary School, Rossettenville, later closed by the government.

Elijah’s Rhythm Kings -Elijah Special

Elijah’s Rhythm Kings -Bop Special

Under a wide interpretation of the pass system, musicians were classified as vagrants. A black musician could only be semi-professional, for they worked in the daytime and performed after hours. For instance, the father of mbaqanga music Isaac ‘Zacks’  Nkosi worked for Gallo, not as a musician, but packing records in their storeroom.  Spokes Mashiyane, the international penny whistle star, who gained world recognition, similarly worked for Trutone Records until Union Artist released him. The penny whistle became one of the symbols of black South African music. Its origins date back to the pre-colonial period of South African history, when herdsmen made instruments out of reeds. It became popular in the 1950’s, thanks to the film ‘Magic Garden’, in which Willard Cele played it.

Willard Cele was born and raised in a segregated South African township, although he was disabled, and although he died young, his impact on South African music was immense. Cele’s innovation was to turn a flute or pennywhistle sideways in the mouth, which created a “thick” sound and allowed the player to vary the tone and range of the instrument far beyond its designed abilities.

music and rhythms of Africa label 2

African Swingsters -Section Z Special

African Swingsters -Liyaduma

excerpt from an original article “A reflection on music” by Jonas Gwangwa and Fulco van Aurich

Willard Cele~ Leon Jackson, All Music Guide

about Township Jazz & Jive

to American ears, South African pop sounds utterly blithe. It lilts along with harmonies that are always consonant, and it revolves around the three major chords -and, usually, the 4/4 beat and four-bar phrases – that are also basic to rock-and-roll. British, East Indian, European, North African and American music have all had a continuing impact on South African pop

Zulu choruses, for instance, made connections with hymn-singing (via British missionaries), jubilee songs (from black American minstrels) and more modern gospel and soul music, while retaining vocal interjections and a rhythmic sophistication that are unmistakably African. Ladysmith Black Mambazo, the a cappella Zulu-Swazi chorus that recorded with Paul Simon and that has three albums available in the United States, won’t sound alien to anyone who’s heard the Five Blind Boys, the Four Tops or the Persuasions.

Within South Africa, the music carries mixed meanings. Under Apartheid, the Government worked to segregate blacks into tribal groups, as if decades of urbanization and shared culture had not occurred; separate, state-controlled radio stations, for instance, broadcast in Zulu, Xhosa and Sotho. Explicitly and implicitly, performers are steered away from political songs. So when a group sings in Zulu about the perils of urban life, it can be seen as endorsing a return to some rural homeland, away from the wealth and power of the cities.

Yet the sound and form of the music itself represent a triumph of African styles – call-and-response singing, overlapping instrumental lines, traditionalist melodies, the accents and rhythms of indigenous speech – as they continue to transform foreign influences. Outside South Africa, local symbolism recedes and the dignity, originality and sheer moxie of the music come through.

Mbaqanga (literally, in Zulu, ”maize bread”) is dance music that reaches blacks who work in cities but still have ties to rural life -migrant laborers and others who don’t identify with the ”sophistication” of American-style pop and jazz.

It’s citified rural music. Call-and-response vocals mix traditional melodies with the imperatives of pop catchiness; tinny electric guitars, and sometimes fiddles or accordions or pennywhistles, recall the the sound of African instruments above saxophones, keyboards, electric bass and American trap drums. While the bands vamp, the vocal melodies expand and contract; familiar as the music sounds to rock-trained ears, singing along isn’t easy.

excerpts from an orginal article
By JON PARELES/New York Times
Published: Sunday, February 8, 1987