Some time ago, after waiting patiently for a long time, I came across an old VHS recording of the film that is alleged to have, specifically, propelled the pennywhistle boogie of Willard Cele into the limelight, and to have, more generally, opened the ears of the South African mainstream to kwela. For me there are two and a half most-memorable sequences within the film which feature kwela and street-music, and I’m pleased to be able to present them in finest digital form(!)
The first clip is from the opening of the film, which features an extended Willard Cele solo over which the narrator sets the scene for the rest of the story.
The second clip is a short sequence that shows Willard playing his pennywhistle with the characteristic, sideways kwela embouchure that results in a fatter, and slightly flattenened, tone.
Finally, my favourite sequence, which doesn’t actually include any pennywhistle, is a catchy musical number by unknown (to me) artists, but showing a young Dolly Rathebe dishing out the drinks, some fine ‘mbube’ wailing, and proto-pantsula bandy-leg dance.
In addition to being the film that really propelled a young Miriam Makeba onto the world stage, Come Back Africa includes a street scene of young kwela buskers – a scene rarely captured on film. In it we see six pennywhistlers and one guitarist improvising around an eight-bar motif that is close to the key of G:
G G C D
G G C D
G G C C
D D G G
Although not in syncronisation with the sound, we can see the guitarist play chords C (0:45, 1:10), D (0:46, 1:11) and G (0:47, 1:13) on what is probably a standard-tuning, commercial (not home-made) guitar with no capo. In contrast with the animated dancing of the musicians, the mixed audience (including some in official uniform) watch, from a small distance, with reserved, middle-class approval. There doesn’t seem to be any financial transaction in the scene – no hat to collect money. Perhaps this is because the scene is being filmed, or perhaps the custom is to donate to the buskers at the end of the tune. The scene appears to be taken close to a grand civic or religious building in downtown Johannesburg. An electric tram passes in the background. Can you help to fill in the missing details? Who are the musicians and where are they playing in Johannesburg?
Black Mambazo (“Axe”) was also known as the Alexandra Shamba Band, and was composed of band members Aaron (Jack) Lerole, Elias (Shamba) Lerole, David Ramosa and Peter Khumalo. The band ruled the Alex music scene for a while, and introduced the style of mixing Tsotsitaal spoken introductions to their songs – something that can be heard at the beginning of the classic kwela track: Tom Hark.
The story of how Big Voice Jack ended up in 1998 playing with the Dave Matthews Band in the Giants Stadium in New Jersey USA and the Foxboro Stadium in Massachusetts, is captured in Jonathan Dorfman’s 50 minute documentary “Back to Alexandra”. This can currently be found in six sub-10 minute parts on YouTube: This can currently be found (but is likely to disappear without warning) in a single 50 minute clip on YouTube (ignore the first 10s or so):
The legacy links below are broken (for now) – sorry.
In which we meet Jack and members of his old band, Black Mambazo, talking about the Old Days; we hear Jack interviewed by ALX FM about his trip to the USA with the Dave Matthews Band; we see Jack’s journey from SA to the USA (three months earlier).
In which we watch Jack, Dave, Leroi and the rest of the band prepare for the performance; we watch the band’s dramatic arrival at the stadium on show-day; Dave explains how the link-up with Jack began.
In which we see Dave teaching Jack “One Sweet World”; we see Jack in action on the stage; then a flashback to Jack and the Shukumo Mambazo Allstars at the Bassline, whilst Jack reminisces about life in the Dark City.
In which we watch “Back to Alexandra” performed, including Jack’s signature two-whistle playing; then, one year later we see Jack leaving his home in Diepkloof, Soweto (where he was forcibly relocated in 1959), to rehearse with his band Shukuma Mambazo and teach children at Diepkloof Hall (community centre).
The song “Uile Ngoan’a Batho” reminds me very much of Inkomo Zodwa – also sung by Miriam Makeba and The Skylarks, with Spokes Mashiyane improvising behind the verses as well as providing inspired soloing during the breaks. “Uile Ngoan’a Batho” is found on The History of Township Music, and – as this web page demonstrates – The Rough Guide “Music of Africa”. Take as listen whilst the sound file is still available – if you like it, buy the CD :-)
Its about time there was some practical, hands-on music around here, and to this end I’ve transcribed|arranged|made-up the short and sweet solo section from Spoke’s Mashiyane’s song called ‘Shisa Phata Phata’ (composed by a ‘R. Msomi’).
The Voice of America web site is running a very interesting African Music blog – well worth checking out.
Matthew LaVoie has written a fascinating post entitled Musical Sunshine from Malawi which outlines how the Kachamba brothers, Daniel and Donald, discovered kwela to the city that is now Harare, but was then called Salisbury, and bought it back to Malawi (the Nyasaland) in 1961.
Best of all, this blog is full of example recordings by the featured artists, and the Kachamba Brothers are no exception. There are two kwelas to listen to: ‘Malawi Moto’ and ‘Malawi Cha-cha-cha’. I like the frantic tempo and vocals (which seem rare in kwela – the musicians usually preferring to play whistle) – I hope you enjoy these recordings too!
I apologise for the elapsed time since my last post – I’ve been busy learning guitar and catching up with old friends. In addition I switched from one kwela arrangement project (that proved a bit too complicated at the time) to another that I am presenting here…
A couple of posts back in ‘Rare Willard Cele Recordings‘ we encountered on of the earliest recorded kwela pennywhistlers: Willard Celes. I was particularly intrigued by the similarity between these recordings, and traditional USA jazz/blues played on the clarinet. It would be great to find out how Willard came to sound like this. Here we have a 12 bar blues structure that I’ve not seen in kwela recordings anywhere else. Since the 12 bar blues is pretty much universally understood, you might be able to find some other willing musicians with which to play. If you play a Bb whistle, then a capo of the first fret will enable a guitarist to play in the very blues-friendly key of A.
This arrangement is based upon the first 48 bars, which I’ve adapted for pennywhistle. The recording seems to be in the key of G! Yet more evidence that kwela pennywhistlers were getting low whistles from somewhere.
Skokiaan is a significant instrumental that was composed, performed and recorded originally in South Africa’s neighbour, Zimbabwe. We’ve already seen that the influence of kwela has been felt in this country, and although Skokiaan is described as tsaba-tsaba, it shares a common ancestor with kwela: marabi.
The instrumental was later recorded by Gallotone (which, perhaps, lead to the confusion as to whether it was a South African-composed tune or not) and released in the USA by London Records. It met with considerable success and has been recorded by loads and loads of artists since, practically right up to the present day.
It wasn’t until I discovered the learning2share blog a couple of weeks back for the Willard Cele kwela project post that I had a chance to really hear Skokiaan, and I thought that it would be a great idea to have a go at arranging the melody for whistle in the kwela style.
Just about everything that is currently known about Skokiaan can be found on the Skokiaan Wikipedia page, so take a look there and then come back to learn how to play some of it!