New Internationalist

King Kong, Kwela, And The Shebeen Queens

Issue 98

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CULTURE [image, unknown] African music

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King Kong, kwela, and the shebeen queens
White South African authorities have done their best to cow and fragment their black majority. Curfew restrictions force them each night back to the massive unlit townships squatting beyond city boundaries. But, as Ruth Weiss recalls, even the strictest apartheid laws failed to dampen the explosive spirit of black township jazz.

A tale is told about a Red Indian who walked through the town with a white man. He stopped suddenly, saying he'd heard something - a small animal. The white man laughed and confessed he could hear nothing. The Red Indian cautioned him to stay still, advanced to a creeper against the wall, gently parted it and there sat a small cricket. 'Ah, you Red Indians have better ears than we', said the white man. 'Not so', answered the Red Indian. He produced a coin from his pocket and threw it on the pavement. Instantly people stopped and small boys got down on hands and knees to look for the coin. 'You see', said the Red Indian, 'the same hearing. Only what we hear is different.'

And so it is in Africa. Africans hear different sounds to the white man. In Johannesburg when the first wave of workers came from the countryside to the new industrial complex in the 30s and 40s, groups of Africans would roam the suburbs on their days off. Carrying Zulu guitars, a drum, even the white man's accordian, they played and sang as they walked. But no white person heard the sound: thrilling, rhythmic, new, utterly different from the sentimental western songs heard on livingroom gramophones and 'wirelesses'.

No-one heard because, after all, it was only the 'boys' strolling around on their Sunday off. True, some children opened a window or two, and black kids in the poorer suburbs followed the players. But on the whole, the sounds fell on ears that could not listen.

Then, suddenly, in the 50s, Township jazz exploded in the sprawling black slums. In Meadowland, Jabavu, Orlando, Western Native Township - and above all in Sophiatown and Alexandra Township - the shebeens erupted, and these illegal drinking places - the only places of entertainment for the ever-increasing black urban dwellers - began to throb with the new music. The crime rate soared, but the newcomers had given birth to an urban culture which spawned new writers, poets and musicians. Female voices crooning blues-type songs, male baritones singing in harmony: the songs, the rhythms, the message was their own, their very own African jazz - a heady mix of dimly understood American jazz and traditional music from 'back home' - in Transkei, Ciskei and Bostwana, in Lesotho and Northern Transvaal. They drummed, tried out saxophones, experimented, and made music - great music.

Suddenly there were ears that listened. White musicians went to Sophiatown, overawed by the new sound. An Anglican priest raised money to buy a trumpet for a small boy called Hugh Masekele, whose playing brought amazed appraisal from no less a man than Louis Armstrong. 'In the great days of "Zulu Boy Cele" (Masekele), in the 30s, he was a tall, slender young fellow. A big-eyed floydoy of a jazz maniac. Rushing himself into admiration and fame. Girls. Men. People. Jazz fans. They soon chucked his real name on one side and called him "King Force"wrote Todd Matshikiza in Drum - the black magazine that reached its heyday in the 50s. 'A mighty mass of black jazz was bursting out through every jazz house in Africa'. When King Force was finally persuaded to record his music, Matshikiza wrote 'And now he's put his music, his great sounds, down on Gallotone discs. Jo'burg has claimed him now, as it claims most of the jazz greats. There's a reason too. A quarter of a million blacks spend and end their lives in and around Jo'burg. And where so much life is found, good jazz is found: King Force is found.'

Todd Matshikiza himself was to be found in Jo'burg too, writing his cheery - yes, and mournful - music for that great South African black musical King Kong. In an old warehouse in Johannesburg, King Kong was born - an amazing co-operative effort between black and white artists - working, writing, making music, orchestrating it. And sometimes the blacks had to 'sleep over' to evade the black urban curfew.

King Kong burst on white South Africa with the first ever black show at the Witwatersrand University Hall. Its star: Miriam Makeba. Singing in the townships since she was a little girl, her voice caught the ear of a young black writer, Bloke Modisane. 'A new nightingale is born' he said. Makeba electrified King Kong's white audiences. In one scene, as shebeen queen of the 'Back of the Moon' shebeen, she stood absolutely still, back to the audience, white dress marking every inch of her superb body. The tsotsis on stage - small time criminals, drinkers, gamblers, dancers - stood equally transfixed. Everyone waited for the cue. It came at last, with the Matshikiza sound of the kwela* as Miriam swung into her dance, the song, and turned slowly to face her audience, who rocked and swayed with her.

Never again would King Kong recapture the magic of that moment - when white 'liberals' discovered township jazz, the kwela, and Miriam Makeba. Certainly not in London, where the musical was played in smart costumes and with little of the local Jo'burg flavour. But by that time Miriam had already left South Africa, lured to fame and fortune far from home by fellow black artist Harry Belafonte. In the Caribbean, his calypsos tried to re-create what was original in Jo'burg's township jazz. It was great Caribbean music that could clasp hands with the music of Makeba - and Masekele, who soon followed her into exile. The entire cast of the London King Kong left South Africa, and because passports were seldom issued to blacks, most of them were never to return.

Late in 1980, Miriam Makeba and Hugh Masekele returned 'home' for the first time in 30 years to give a tremendous concert in Lesotho, the small mountainous independent country on the border of South Africa. Unable to go really home to a Jo'burg that by now housed over one and a half million blacks, not a mere quarter million, in its Soweto complex, Lesotho seemed the next best thing. Yet thousands came to listen and applauded in a frenzy.

The political significance of township jazz is clear. 'We used Xhosa ... like in my click song ... made up lyrics which the white man couldn't understand' Miriam told me. And she still has South African songs written for her: like her song about wives and mothers left weeping in the homelands while their men work far away in the goldmines.

American jazz combined with township jazz resulted in a music style recaptured today by that other well-known South African great, Dollar Brand. Jet-setting today, Brand's vital sound is reminiscent of the early jazz days in the big gold-boom cities. Visiting Germany recently, he slipped away to sit in on an amateur performance of virile young black South Africans stamping out the every-joyful 'Gumboot Dance' and performing with a zest and spontaneity lost on most western platforms. 'It's like an injection,' Brand remarked, 'Now I can live again without this for a few years'.

The Gumboot Dance is a marvellous dance evolved in the single-men-only compounds of the goldmines. These goldmine 'tribal dance' events became a tourist attraction some decades ago. Shangaans from Mozambique, Shonas from Zimbabwe, Xhosas from Transkei and others troup into an arena to perform their stamping, fierce dancing in front' of a white audience. The whites applaud with excitement, sure they have seen the real thing: the magnificent savage. But for blacks this commercialised, stereotypeddancing is a travesty compared with their own uninhibited joyful performances - outside the circus ring, without ringmaster and ceremony. The polished performance in the arena is a pale copy of the wild abandon in the not-for-whites section of those same mining compounds.

Mineworkers' dances or Makeba singing of unhappy homeland wives - both reflect the South African tragedy. Nothing in South Africa is non-political. The new 'swing' from the earlier industrial era, the kwela and pata-pata* of Sophiatown: all this was highly political. Sophiatown, the home of Makeba and most of Drum's writers, with it numerous shebeens, where the potent illegal skokiaan was brewed, was razed to the ground by bulldozers in the 50s - removing an unwanted black spot within the expanding white suburbs. Its demise was fought by the local residents. Its death is still commemorated in song and dance today. Renamed Triomf by Afrikaaners to show their triumph over aspirations, Sophiatown's sound is nonetheless a triomf for South Africa's urban blacks.

Today, a good deal of African music is siphoned off by the record companies, commercialised and can be heard in all its smoothness with the help of trained black disc jockeys on South African radio for black audiences. But non-recorded fresh sounds are still being made in the shebeens and beer halls of the ghettos.

From Rhodesia too, the 'mineboys' brought their music to South Africa and their new music from the bush war. Freedom songs, sung with villagers in the bush, were part of the guerilla repertoire - the catechism with which they prepared villagers for change. Shona music has its own haunting sound from the marimbas*, a horn instrument difficult to learn. An American musicologist, Paul Berliner, learnt to play it. He transformed it, yet kept so faithfully close to the sound that Shona audiences were amazed that the words were English, not Shona:

where Pasipamire went is very far
there's no returning
all that remains is his heart

shot like a dog outside a protected village
while his family looked on in pain
saved by his own government from
communists

oh, what a shame, his own curfew he's missed

Cry, the beloved country, Zimbabwe
black children plant dead trees that bear
no fruit in Rhodesia
people cry but nobody hears
well, they water their crops well with their tears
Cry, the beloved country, Zimbabwe.

Bob Marley saluted Zimbabwe with reggae. Photo: Camera Press
Bob Marley saluted Zimbabwe with reggae.
Photo: Camera Press 

And on that momentous day when Rhodesia became Zimbabwe on April 18, there was a meeting of cultures: white girl choirs singing a hymn, black guerillas performing freedom songs - and, above all, to close the circle, a real Caribbean group: Bob Marley himself come to honour anew country and be honoured himself with the new Caribbean sound of reggae music.

In the arena where multitudes waited impatiently through the final hours of Rhodesia, Bob Marley gave of his best. And the black audience responded - dancing spontaneously, cheering, singing, enjoying the mood and the music. Then nervous, over-zealous police fired tear-gas: the place where Marley's devotees had begun to dance was needed, apparently for the firing of the salute to the new Zimbabwe.

But no tear gas, no white disapproval, can dampen the thrust of African creativity - not that night in Zimbabwe, nor in the future, Marley, reggae, and Zimbabwean freedom songs are just the first waves of a tide of black music yet to come, with the ever closer merging of black cultures from all over the world.

*Kwela - rhythmic joyful tunes with a compelling beat that demand you to dance, kwela was invented by the black street urchins who played it on penny whistles.

*Pata-pata - sensual, erotic, acrobatic dance - a cross between limbo and rockand-roll.

*Marimba - a horn made from bone with a mournful wailing sound, accompanied by the saddest lyrics.

Ruth Weiss went to South Africa as a child refugee from Germany. She became a journalist for the Johannesburg Financial Mail and in 1968 was deported from Rhodesia for her political writing. Author of 'Women against Apartheid', she now works as a freelance journalist in London.

 

The beat goes on

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African music is music with a job to do. With songs, rhythms, dances for every conceivable social event, the musician is not concerned with flawlessly reproducing what the composer wrote: his task is to serve the needs of his community.

All our cherished dichotomies - between percussion and non-percussion, music and dance, speech and song - break down in this context. African drums are pitched so that melodies can be played on them, and all instruments, including the human voice, are played percussively with forceful dynamic attack. What terms do we have to describe the music of two Ba-Lari women - who tap their knees, chins, and foreheads with clasped hands, tap fingers together, and click with their tongues? Are they dancing with clasped hands while seated on the ground? Are they using their bodies as drums?

African influence entered Western music through the back door - as soon as the first slaves were transported to Europe and the New World. Their music was a daily help in the struggle to survive, a means of preserving their identity - and sanity - in a hostile environment. The influence was greatly speeded up by the ragtime craze until, by 1920, the roots of North American and European 'pop' music could all be traced to the traditional sounds of black Africa.

Africa gave us the xylophone, the samba, the rumba, the banjo, and many other dances and instruments that survive in Latin America today. In Brazil, Haiti and Trinidad, sacred Yoruba drums - originally from West Africa - can still be heard. And in Grenada, the Big Drum Dance still begins with a number of 'nation dances' - Cromanti, Arada, Chamba, Congo, Temne, and Ibo - all passed down from the first generation of slaves who left a message that rings through the centuries.

Nor have serious composers stayed aloof. Dvorak borrowed from black American religious songs. Delius in his opera Koanga used the kalinda from the carnival of stick fighters of Trinidad. Villa Lobos borrowed Afro-Brazilian melodies and rhythms. And Dubussy, Satie, Charles Ives, Ravel, Stravinsky, Hindemith, Krenek, were all influenced by ragtime and jazz.

But back in its native Africa, traditional music is threatened by the guitar and the American disc jockey. Young people are not interested in learning to make native instruments or singing native songs. Little by little the musical arts of the past are disappearing as old people die and as westernised elites turn away from the sounds of the past.

But perhaps conservation is unnecessary. Music is such a vital part of African society that there is little doubt that African musicians will use - not be used by - western music and will continue to create their own authentically African sound.

Peter Fryer



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