on the Jazz Train with Dolly Rathebe

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See also previous posts

 South African Soul Divas pt 3 Dolly Rathebe,MabelMafuya,NancyJacobs,EvaMadison

African Jazz & Variety -AlfredHerbert1952

Dolly Rathebe -Thlapi Ke Noga

following  Dolly Rathebe’s film career,her fame as a singer increased. Before there was Miriam Makeba, Dolly was the lead singer of the Manhattan Brothers and she recorded her first tunes with them.

She says: “It was a hectic time because I also worked with the Harlem Swingsters and toured with the African Jazz and Variety Show.”

 At that time, Dolly was under contract with Alfred Herbert, a creative organiser who arranged many concerts and who was a driving force behind the popularization of South African jazz. It was Herbert from whom Dolly Rathebe learned the tricks of the trade. She became the star of the show because of her silky singing and good looks. Her legs were considered so beautiful that a metaphor was coined for them. ‘It’s dolly’ meant ‘it’s wonderful’ and was an abbreviation of the Afrikaans ‘s’Dolly se boude’ (it’s Dolly’s tights).

Dolly Rathebe -Ke Ya Kae Le Bona

Drum cover July 1955 photo Bob Gosani

At the start of the 50’s, Herbert had an extensive series of jazz concerts arranged as the African Jazz Parade, a series of numerous performances and concerts, ending years later in Kenya as the African Jazz and Variety Show. During this period that show became somewhat of an institution inSouth Africa. The theatres of Johannesburg were sold out and the show went on tour around other main cities of South Africa and across the African continent.
The musicians all travelled by train and formed bonds and friendships during those long tours away from home. Inspired by the successful Jazz Train in the United States, a special tour to Durban was  organized. The most important musicians of the South African jazz scene from that era were onboard this train.   On a Wednesday morning in June 1955 the Jazz Train left Johannesburg, full of fans, musicians and groupies, on their way  to Durban.

  • Dolly Rathebe posing for an ad for Max cigarettes in 1951.

Photographer Jurgen Schadeberg. “I took this photo in theWerner studios in Johannesburg to promote a cigarette brand. It was one of the first images of black people who were used for commercial advertising.”

  • Dolly Rathebe on the beach 1952. Photographer Jurgen Schadeberg.

 Excerpt and photographs from the book

‘Familieverhalen uit Zuid Afrika, een groepsportret’ by Paul Faber

KIT Publishers, Amsterdam and Kwela Books Cape Town 2002.

South African Soul Divas Pt 4 -The Skylarks

Good day to all.

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.

The Skylarks –Siyavuya 1959

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.

Miriam Makeba –Dubula 1963

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.

The Skylarks w Makeba & Spokes Mashiyane -Inkomo Zodwa 1959

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.

The Skylarks -Goodbye To Africa 1959

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

Miriam Makeba performs “Into Yam”

Come Back, Africa (1959)


les Sapeurs; battle of the dandies

A good day to all of you…This is not a fashion blog.

Yet,  I can not resist reporting this spectacular fashion event, held just last night. An official part of the Amsterdam Fashion Week 2010, organised by the Prince Claus Fund and the Amsterdams fonds voor de Kunst. Quite an official gathering…

My interest was stirred first of all since this night out promised to be a fashion battle and   a few key members of  ‘Sapeurs’, members of  La SAPE (Société  des Ambianceurs et Personnes Elegantes) were invited.  On the catwalk Sapeurs  from  Congo, Ghana, Rwanda and Morocco elevated fashion to the status of religion.

Les Sapeurs create a totally different identity through expensive Western haute couture garments that are presented with African eccentricity. Looking good for les Sapeurs is just as important as following the rules of elegance and good manners.

One could call them dandies, more critical minds may discard them as idle poseurs or fashion victims. But whatever their image may evoke, their impact on African culture should not be underestimated.

Les Sapeurs started in the mid 70’s as a small group of Zairous Fashion Lovers who rebelled against the regime of president Mobutu of Zaïre who introduced the uniformed look. A look for men and women based on communist Mao suits, replaced  the suit and tie  of Zaïre’s colonial oppressors and banned European fashion in general.  Les Sapeurs found a new way of protesting Mobutu’s  regime by importing Western extravagant outfits from chic boutiques in  Brussels and Paris. Musician Papa Wemba was their idol; ‘le pape du Sape’.

La Sape was a very peculiar movement. At first glance it seemed ridiculous for a man in Kinshasa, in the midst of an economic crisis, to walk around with gaudy sunglasses, a colorful shirt by Jean-Paul Gaultier and a fur coat of mink, but the materialism of Sapeurs was social criticism, as punk in Europe in later years was. It depicted a profound aversion to the misery, poverty and repression that they knew and it allowed to dream of a carefree Zaïre.

La Sape was all about success, about visibility, and about scoring. Discothèques were entered with a combination of Chic, Choc et Chèque. The true Sapeur was űber cool, he moved and spoke with perfect control, he regaled his friends on beer and women were his easy prey. He was a dandy, a playboy, a snob. The Sapeur was not despised but admired. For many poverty-stricken youth his extravaganza kept hope alive.*

Les Sapeurs are following the footsteps of those dandies who flashed the streets of South African townships like Sophiatown and Alexandra in the 40’s and 50’s. These people were known as tsotsis and widely regarded for their immaculate sense of dress. And love of music too; marabi, jazz. Tsotsis had been named for the zoot suits they adopted just after World War II, but the name was also conveniently close to the Sotho verb ho tsotsa, meaning ‘to behave thuggisly’.

Gangsterism had a range of forms and social meanings. Many gangs had started out as genuine self-protection groupings for country boys prey to the wicked big cities; to survive, they had to learn that wickedness themselves. They progressed to demand protection money, traded in dagga and bootleg liquor and controlled the prostitution market.

They gathered their inspiration from movies about Al Capone and Cab Calloway, of whom they borrowed their trademark look; the zoot suit. And they dated the beautiful ladies; Miriam Makeba, Dolly Rathebe, Thandy Klaasen. They were going through that whole thing of the moll, the gangster’s moll.


Their attitude towards women performers-as to women in general- was not so respectful as singer Dolly Rathebe recalls:

‘We used to have it very tough in those days…Sophiatown was like New Orleans -it had the jazz, the fashion, everything! We had competition with Orlando -we used to call them turkeys because they spoke too much of the native languages like Zulu. To us, it sounded like gobble, gobble. We were proud of our Afrikaans and English.

Those from Alexandra were real raw and uncouth and used to go and raid other townships, starting fights and kidnapping women. They came for me once, said; ‘after the show, you’re coming with us’! I had to go with them. What choice did I have? Oh yes, it was tough…the police didn’t care about it, because later I reported that this guy had taken me against my will, but nothing happened. We were just kaffir meids (black girls), Bantus, so the police didn’t care. We found ways to survive. The tsotsis were the best dressed gangsters in town and eventually I settled down with one of them. He looked after me. It was just that kind of life, and we’d grown up with it.’*

*from the book ‘Soweto Blues -Jazz, Popular Music & Politics in South Africa’ by Gwen Ansell. 2004 Continuum Publishing New York-London

on the Amsterdam catwalk last night, the finest selection of les Sapeurs had no criminal connections nor did they belong to any gang of tsotsis. Les Sapeurs LOVE fashion with a Sexy, Afro Glam Wham Attitude!

African chic combined with  European fashion. Models striking a pose to bass-heavy raw African tunes and sophisticated NYC 90’s discotheque hits.  Two young boys on the decks,  “l’Afrique Som System” signed for the soundtrack; Asheru Alhuag & Ashwin Murli.

Certainly  a night to remember,  quite refreshing and what great fun. Vive les Sapeurs! Long live the African Renaissance!

all photographs©Soul Safari 2010

a selection from ‘les Sapeurs’ soundtrack right here


**excerpts from ‘Soweto Blues -Jazz, Popular Music & Politics in South Africa’ by Gwen Ansell. 2004 Continuum Publishing New York-London

*excerpts on La SAPE  from ‘Congo. A History’ by David Van Reybrouck‘. 2010 De Bezige Bij Publishing Amsterdam

Bo Jungle -1959 SA musical by Bertha Egnos

here is part two of the tribute to Bertha Egnos, one of South Africa’s grand old ladies of movies and musicals. See also my previous post OST Dingaka 1965 for more music and info on her career.

South African-born Egnos (1 January 1913-2 July 2003) was a talented musician in her own right who performed in London during the 1930s as a jazz pianist. During the Second World War she returned to South Africa, where she led the armed forces’ drum majorettes.

During the apartheid years she was a regular performer at the legendary Dorkay House venue in downtown Johannesburg, where black and white musicians defied the country’s laws by performing together under one roof.

Commissioner Street Empire theatre 1955

The Empire Theatre was situated in Commissioner Street (corner Kruis Street) diagonally opposite the Colosseum Theatre.

It was built during the mid-1930’s and formed part of the African Consolidated Theatres chain. It was used during the 1950’s and 1960’s alternatively as a live theatre venue and presented such Broadway smashes as ‘My Fair Lady’ (with Diane Todd) ‘West Side Story’ and ‘Fiddler On The Roof’. It was also the Johannesburg home of the fabulous minstrel shows devised by Joan Brickhill and Louis Burke.*

‘Bo Jungle’ was written and produced by Bertha Egnos while the music was by George Hayden who also played the organ. The show premiered at the Empire Theatre, Johannesburg in May 1959. It must have been an answer to the all black cast musical ‘King Kong’ that had it’s premiere that same year and became a huge international success.  ‘Bo Jungle’, however, remained an obscure production that raised only a few curtain calls in Jo’Burg theatres.

At first impression  ‘Bo Jungle’ has links to ‘King Kong’, even the cover  has the same graphic elements. But that is the only similarity, ‘Bo Jungle’ is an all white singing and dancing affair. It must have been quite a hilarious showdown of all the clichés in white South African culture; the black man as bingo bongo ape man beatin the drums and playing the flute on a streetcorner.

The cast features no black musicians nor players and the music is based on  the tradition of English Variety and Vaudeville rather then typical black South African music like jive, mbaqanga or kwela. Although one kwela type of track is featured; ‘Kwela Rickshaw’ by The Nu-Tones, sung in Zulu by an all white cast!

Bo Jungle -Kwela Rickshaw

‘Bo Jungle’ is a rather amusing selection of bel-canto vocal numbers, cha cha, calypso and even rock ‘n roll with the odd kwela tune thrown in for the local character.  Above all this record is a historical document of white South African culture in 1959.

Bo Jungle opening medley -‘Jungle Capers’/ ‘The Idol of my life’/Bingo Bongo Ape Man/Beatin of the drums’

Bo Jungle -Jungle Rock

*Contributed by John Ferreira

SA Jazz -Abdullah Ibrahim speaks! Staffrider interview with poet Hein Willemse NYC Dec 1986

Abdullah Ibrahim 1986 photo Kevin Humphrey

A legend in his native country, jazz pianist and composer Abdullah Ibrahim, formerly known as Dollar Brand, has also carved a name for himself on the international music scene. Born and raised in Cape Town, SA, he started playing piano at an early age encouraged by his grandmother who was the pianist in the local A.M.E. Church. He was also exposed to the diverse cultures of the cosmopolitan sea port. Traditional African music, Cape Malay songs, the carnival, popular tunes and recorded American jazz formed an integral part of his childhood experience. He started playing professionally with local dance bands whilst still in high school.

the Jazz Epistles 1961

In 1961 he formed a group called the Jazz Epistles which had as its members Hugh Masekela and the legendary alto-sax player Kippie Moeketsi, the father of contemporary black music in South Africa. In 1962, Abdullah Ibrahim left South Africa for Switzerland with his wife, vocalist Sathima (Bea Benjamin) where he was subsequently heard and  recorded by the late Duke Ellington. Abdullah and his wife came to the USA in 1965 under the auspices of Ellington and performed at the Newport Jazz Festival with the Ellington Orchestra.

In December 1986 in New York, USA, Abdullah Ibrahim spoke to South African poet Hein Willemse about his commitment to his art and about the struggle for liberation in South Africa.

This is the complete interview as it appeared in the magazine ‘Staffrider’ Volume 6, No 4, 1987. Parts of it are in Afrikaans and have been left in the text as they originally appeared. This interview was held during the Apartheid regime in South Africa and Abdullah Ibrahim was then living in exile in the United States.

HW: Abdullah, can we start off from something you once said, namely that you see yourself as a ‘delivery boy’. Explain that to me in terms of your music and your commitment to South African society.

AI: In the traditional society, especially in Africa, the position or job of the so-called musician was never viewed (as it is today) in the western world, where the musician is an entertainer. In the traditional society if, at an early age, you showed any musical inclination you were immediately drafted in the field of medicine –traditional medicine. Because in the traditional society medicine and music were synonymous. A healing force. My great grandfather was a medicine man. I remember: he knew all the herbs. He was a stable-boy for Paul Kruger.

HW: Do you really see your music as affecting society? I can for instance remember: I saw you singing the tribute to Solomon Mahlangu – unaccompanied. And I was greatly moved and touched by it. Do you see your music also fulfilling that role, namely a vehicle through which people can view themselves; an instrument through which they can react?

AI: Oh, definitely. I couldn’t have put it better. What is our role? As I’ve said: the West completely misinterpreted our music. What shall I do? Become a millionaire? Buy a house in Malibu Beach? That has no meaning. As delivery boys we are like the keepers of the books, the keepers of the keys of the society, the keepers of the knowledge of how the society should be structured. Our duty is just to remind. To remind ourselves and others what the true reality is, especially in South Africa with the political situation.

We have been playing this music for many many years. And all these waves come and go. We’re trying to keep the purity and the innocence and rhythm of the community that they have now turned into a subterranean culture with this constant institution of cultural imperialism. What they makes us believe is that what we have is inferior. That’s all part of the strategy too, on a political level, make you feel inferior as human being, make you feel inferior as far as learning is concerned. It’s the same with the music and culture. Once they get you to do that, I think you’ve become completely subjugated.

HW: I agree with you completely. We have to get to the stage where we dominate the cultural scene. Dominate the cultural scene in the sense that our language is the norm, our music is the norm, our poetry…And I see your music, from earlier times onwards, taking elements of the community, taking elements of the downtrodden, the forgotten people, the working class and making that –almost in raw form- accessible. Presenting it as their voice, their authentic voice. And I think that is necessary.

AI: The music is playing out our tradition. Being aware of our tradition is the most potent way of looking within ourselves, truthfully. People used to tell me about ‘this great musician’, this ‘great music’….You know, Kippie Moeketsi always used to say, ‘My friend, do you know Planet Earth?’. He always used to ask, ‘What is great music?’. And I remember, when Kippie asked that question nobody answered. What shall they answer? I asked myself that question –many times. I’ve come to the United States and I went all over the world and listened to ‘great musicians’. And then you hear ‘that by general consensus this is supposed to be great music or great musicians.’ So you just agree to it, you go with the stream. But deep in your heart you know this doesn’t really move you.

Then I go home. I’ve stayed out for nine years in the US. I go home. I go the the Athlone stadium on New Year’s day with the Klops*. And this troep comes by! Man! And the music! Right! It makes my hair stand on end, man! You know; daai tamboeriene en die banjo’s en die bass. That’s rhythm man! I feel tears come to my eyes.  How am I going to deride this, because there is no music that does this to me.  Except that. That for me is the yardstick. I don’t care how intellectual it has been considered.

*Klops: The Kaapse Klopse (or simply Klopse) is a minstrel festival that takes place annually on January 2, in Cape Town, South Africa. Up to 13,000 minstrels, many in blackface, take to the streets garbed in shockingly bright colours, either carrying colourful umbrellas or playing an array of musical instruments. The minstrels are grouped into klopse (“clubs” in Cape Dutch, but more accurately translated as troupes in English). Participants are typically from Afrikaans-speaking working class “coloured” families who have preserved the custom since the mid-19th century.

Abdullah Ibrahim -African Marketplace

HW: coming back to that, Dollar. It is common knowledge that you see your roots essentially in the Klopse. Some of your music refers to or is based on and reflects something of that old Klopse element. A lot of people vilify that music saying it’s ‘only Coon music’. What you did was to take it, put a revolutionary element-almost- to it. Saying, ‘this is the music of the people, listen to it’.

AI: You want to say this is not traditional music?Then what is? If this is not the traditional music, what is? You know, the music functions as the music functions. And the music functions in society. Now you ask people in Cape Town if the Coon music is traditional music? And they will answer; ‘No, this is Diena-kanna-kiena’. (cannot be translated)

On the 26th March 1658 the Dutch ship, Amersfoortdocked at the Cape with about 300 slaves from Angola. These slaves were captured by the Dutch ship from a Portuguese vessel, bound for Brazil. When we are playing this rhythm,  people will say ‘this is samba, and samba comes from Brazil’. Do you know how it comes from Brazil? When you go to Brazil there’s a large Angolan community. This is how the samba got to Cape Town. From Angola. Slaves.

HW: I totally see the role of the artist as being the facilitator of this new history of ours.

AI: Sure, it’s like the sage in West Africa. If you want to know what happened in 1215 he’ll sing it for you. It’s the same thing.

HW: You’re known, not only for your music, but also for your political commitment. You’re not only singing about ‘African Herbs’ or ‘Manenberg’, you’re also singing about the heroes of the struggle. What does that do to you as an artist?

AI: It puts everything in perspective. If you haven’t done that it is very hard to describe. How can I ask anybody ‘how do you feel about committing yourself?’. It’s something you cannot explain in words. It’s a feeling. When you take that step it’s such an incredible feeling because, like Allah says in the Koran ‘the devil threatens you with poverty’. That’s how he gets you to do his work. You see?  If you can say to him: wait a minute, I am not begging you anymore, as from today. One of our songs says: ‘Final arrival, end of the line/nowhere to look but your eyes in mine/No, no not anymore, we are not afraid of freedom’. Because the problem is that we are not afraid. Not for them, not for anyone. We are afraid of freedom. The time must come when we say, ‘We are not afraid of freedom’.

Abdullah Ibrahim -Whoza Mwathana

HW: I think we have reached that stage –in the last three, four months, the last eighteen months especially have proved that we’ve reached a pinnacle in the development of a historical consciousness of South Africans. Now, we know: we can, it’s possible for us to overcome. It’s the marvelous thing of the committed artist. He is able to see himself and insert himself in society and see that his interest are coterminous with those of the oppressed community.

AI: That’s why I’ve said, I’m a delivery boy. My function in the society is no more important than that of the street sweeper or a worker. The musician is no exception.

HW: One way in which cultures function is that very often elements of the subjugated classes are adapted, co-opted into the culture of the ruling class. A strange thing is actually happening to your music. I am yet to learn about ruling class musicians who are taking over your music and co-opting it. It seems to be very hard to adapt and co-opt. Why?

AI: The music is only the ultimate expression of the intention. The music says exactly the same about the intention of the people. The intention is so concrete and so strong that it cannot be co-opted. But the oppressor will try….

HW: Taking the point of a commitment a bit further. How do you see artists –people like yourself – struggling in the ghetto. Struggling to get out. What do you say to people like that about the need to express themselves? But now in order to express themselves they say, ‘okay to be known I rather chose to play commercial disco’, rather than looking at the real roots of the people here. That means looking at my community. You know there are different choices and they opt for the one which is commercially viable.

What do you tell people like that?

AI: To come back to the previous question: it’s the intention. When we started playing the music there was no question of importance, that we wanted to be known. It’s by grace, by God’s grace, that we are here. We accept it as it comes. But there is no intention that I’m going to be a superstar. If you’re busy, if you work with this purpose it’s going to take you at least twenty years to hone your art. Dizzy Gillespie says it takes thirty years to learn what you play and then it takes another thirty years what not to play. We have arrived at the second thirty. There is no way that you can get in here by faking it. The admission fee is….

HW: honesty and truthfulness?

AI: That’s right….and dedication. We can recognize it. That’s how we met Ellington. There was that immediate recognition. We met Coltrane. We met Monk. When I first met Monk I introduced myself and told him that I’m from South Africa and all that. And I said, ‘Thank you very much for the inspiration’. And he looked at me and said ‘You know, you’re the first piano player to tell me that’. And I believed it.

HW: Your own history is quite an interesting one. You went from the Cape to Sophiatown. ‘En die boytie van District Six kom in Sophiatown aan’. At that time, what was the Fifties like, for you? What was it like to be in Sophiatown? To be there where you actually saw a culture being developed, being in struggle. Trying to get out against all the ‘cultural imperialism’ around you?

AI: It was fantastic.But it was not just there. It was all over. All over South Africa.It was in the Cape as well. It was in Durban. It was in Port Elisabeth. It was all over the place. Of course you must remember now that we had counterparts in the United States. People like Charlie Parker, Monk. And like always the revolutionary spirit is contagious. So I remember as one example: I was with Kippie (Moeketsi) in Johannesburg one time. And Kippie was saying, ‘Ja, you see Dollar. You see people in South Africa they don’t respect us, man’. We were walking in the township –Western. ‘Kippie said ‘Ja, jy sien die mense vat ons nie kop toe nie. Hulle treat ons soos moegoes’. He said ‘They think we are like old Duke Ellington, man –look old Duke and old Monk- they think we’re a few old jazz guys they can meet on the corner of the street’. And just at that moment a youngster walked by and he said ‘Hi, bra Kippie’. You see, it was that kind of awakening to say, ‘wait a minute man, you are being recognized. We have something that is different and new.’

HW: Perhaps the last question. How do you see yourself in the future? Your vision as an artist?

AI: Perhaps on three tiers. Firstly there’s the devotional aspect; then there’s the personal aspect of the music, of working with oneself and discovering and working with new directions. And then there is the question of the struggle. And the struggle and the music is synonymous. Where the struggle goes, the music goes.

HW: Doesn’t the music sometimes leads as well?

AI: The music is only coincidental, you know. The music is like a freedom fighter. One time it’s a pen, another time it’s a sword and at other times it’s a stick. We’re in a revolutionary situation. So we have to use revolutionary methods and flow with the wind.

musical selections from “African Marketplace” Dollar Brand Abdullah Ibrahim -Elektra EKC 6090 released 1980

a gallery of South African music on 78 rpm

dream on…none of the following 78 rpm records will be traced easily in the wild but patience awards those who can wait for the bait. I like to start the year 2010 with some eye candy, a gallery of 78’s pressed in South Africa.

Elias & His Zig Zag Flutes -Tom Hark

Elias & His Zig Zag Flutes -Rij Rij

African releases of local talent were marketed for a small group of afficionados,  those who could afford a  grammophone player or more commonly for the black population, via township radio distribution.  During the fifties and sixties many small locally distributed labels flourished, a few were actually owned by black entrepreneurs. Many of these releases were pressed and controlled by the  Gallo Record Company.  Interesting fact is that ethnomusicologist Hugh Tracey was instrumental in choosing the material for those releases. Tracey set up the first arena for the public display of mine dancing,  at the Consolidated Main Reef Mine in Johannesburg in 1943. He later paid tribute to the culture of mine dancing in his book ‘African Dances of the Witwatersrand Gold Mines’,  published by African Music Society in  October 1952

Mambuaulela Makhubela & his Shangaan Drum Dancers -Park Station

Nyasaland Nyo Tribe -Ndano

The Globetrotters -Vuyisile

Patla Pett & his Five boys -Polokwane Nr 4

Morning Lights Choir -Uxazazela -1962 Zulu Vocal acapella

Kid Zondi  -Saley’s Cycle Blues -1967 Sax Jive

with thanks to ILAM Grahamstown, South Africa

Kwela Africa! Black Mambazo, Little Kid Lex

Black Mambazo -Kwela Africa

Little Kid Lex -Witbank

this rare 10″ contains 10 songs by leading penny whistle groups from the 50’s. The bands featured on this record are the genuine article. Here are the musicians who are leading the now worldwide movement towards Kwela as an accepted style in popular music. My other post on Elias and his Zig-Zag Flutes and the African Swingsters has more info and soundfiles

Elias and his Zig-Zag Flutes  :: Black Mambazo ::

Little Kid Lex  ::   Swing Tone Whistlers  ::

Kwela has burst like a bomb on the scene of international popular music. How did it all start?

Wolf Mankowitz, famous British author, came to Johannesburg looking for material for a film script, and found what he wanted, and more. He needed a theme tune, music to set the scene for his thriller on diamond smuggling, and he chose Rubert Bopape’s “Tom Hark”, recorded on Columbia by Elias and his Zig Zag Flutes.

The television screening of the movie  ‘The Killing Stones’ soon created tremendous public enthousiasm for the new sounding rhythm which accompanied it. “Tom Hark” promptly rose to No. 2 in the British Hit Parade against all comers and to No. 1 in the Jukebox Top Ten-all within the space of a few weeks. America itself was not immune; Little Kid Lex released records issued in the States.

excerpts from the original liner notes of “Kwela Africa!” July 1958

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

Cabaret at The Moçambique

Maputo, formerly Lourenço Marques, is the capital and largest city of Mozambique

Cabaret at The Moçambique

with Elsa Vilar, Moniz Trindade, Maria Adalgis, David Pantoja with Benny Baker’s Orchestra

One fine October morning in 1955 Antonio Amral arrived in Johannesburg from Lourenço Marques, unable to understand one single word he heard around him. Despite language difficulties he bought a restaurant that very day, and soon discerning Johannesburg diners were finding their way to an unostentatious little place in Simmonds Street that served the finest piri-piri dishes in town.


Towards the end of 1958 he moved to this present premises in Noord Street, and it is to celebrate the first anniversary of this new restaurant, “The Moçambique” that he presents this gala cabaret of artists imported from Portugal, specially for the occasion.

Cabaret at the Moçambique

Elsa Vilar is one of the most popular vocalists in Portugal. After only two  years in showbusiness, she is now a top star with the enviable reputation of  making a ‘hit’ out of everything she features




Maria Adalgisa trained under the great Portuguese   singer Tomas Alcaide. A soprano who excels in the   colourful folks music of Portugal, she is equally proficient in classical   compositions


Cabaret at the Moçambique -Kanimambo

Cabaret at the Moçambique -Brincos Vermelhos

Moniz Trindade is one of the world’s foremost interpreters of ‘fado’ songs. Born in Lisbon, the home of the ‘fado’, he is in equal demand in Spain and Portugal for appearances on stage, televison and radio. A well-known composer, he writes all of his own material.

David Pantoja is the instrumentalist of the group. It is his brilliant accordion accompaniments that give the songs their authentic Porguese flavour.

Cabaret at The Moçambique -Fadista Gringa

Cabaret at the Moçambique -Polana A Noite/Cançăo Do Mar/ Uma Casa Portuguesa

The musical director at “The Moçambique” is Benny Baker, British born pianist and band leader. Although better known in South Africa for his recordings of the ‘pop’ type, Benny is a brilliant exponent of Latin American and Continental dance music. He had  his own combination in some of the smartest nightclubs in Europe, and just before coming to South Africa was for two seasons leading the Orchestra of the famous Palm Beach Casinos in Cannes, France.

from the original liner notes of the album “Cabaret at The Moçambique” Gallotone GALP 1067



African Jazz & Variety -Alfred Herbert 1952

South African crowd 152   In 1952, white promoter Alfred Herbert organised his first African Jazz and Variety Show in South Africa at Johannesburg’s Windmill Theatre, presenting some of the city’s best musicians, dancers and singers. Herbert was the son of Sarah Sylvia (‘Madam Sarah’, she preferred to be called), who had toured South Africa, leading a Yiddish theatre company in the 1940’s. She taught Yiddish songs to both Thandi Klaasen and Dolly Rathebe whose popularity won her the opening spot for her son’s show.

Herbert was a feckless entrepreneur with a taste for gambling, who created a programme somewhere between concert and dance and burlesque. He gave his artists regular work, including tours (he was able to secure passports for his performers), and promised good wages. This meant that he attracted many top acts to his programmes, despite his penching for pushing the staging towards the sensational and stereotyped. ‘We had to have bodyguards, because we were dressed in short African attire and it was very sexy’ remembers Dolly Rathebe. Dolly was in the shows, Miriam Makeba, Dorothy Masuka, Sonny Pillay, Ben ‘Satch’ Masinga and The Woody Woodpeckers….* It was the first time in history that a white audience could witness black Africans perform on a stage.

As it always goes, the big recording companies had a keen eye on South African tunes made popular by local ‘black singers’ to adapt the most succesful ones to please their ‘white audiences’.

Like this original song by Barbara Thomas “Pickin’ a Chicken” that became a chartbuster with new words for Eve Boswell in 1956, which rose to No 9 on the UK Singles Charts. More on Eve Boswell in future posts…

here is the original…Barbara Thomas -Pickin’ a chicken

Barbara Thomas on stage in 1952
Barbara Thomas on stage in 1952

The troupe performed ragtime, Negro spirituals, jazz vocals, and syncopated African hymns and satirical comedy sketches


King Jeff and African Jazz Troupe -Rock Around the Clock

Sonny Pillay -My Yiddische momma

Ben Satch Masinga -six foot three

South African Institute for Race Relations presents African Jazz and Variety


The Woody Woodpeckers -Fanagalo

this rare 10″  includes two songs by The Woody Woodpeckers, a group around  songwriter and musician, Victor Ndlazilwane, who was awarded the Metro FM Lifetime Achievement award in 2006 in South Africa. During his early career, Ndlazilwane was part of the legendary Woody Woodpeckers group as well as the Jazz Ministers, both of which were signed to Gallo Record Company. The Jazz Ministers were the first African jazz band to perform at the prestigious Newport Jazz Festival in New York.

The Woody Woodpeckers -Gumdrop


*Excerpt from ‘Soweto Blues’ by Gwen Ansell (Continuum 2004)

thanks to reader Earle Thomas for the picture of his grandmother Barbara Thomas