Big Voice Jack with Black Mambazo: Iye Bulala i Nice Time

Whilst fixing up the broken links from the YouTube article about Big Voice Jack, I came upon this earlier example of his playing:

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.

Big Voice Jack Lerole on YouTube

Big Voice Jack Lerole, kwela performer from Alexandra Township, Johannesburg, South Africa
Big Voice Jack Lerole, kwela performer from Alexandra Township, Johannesburg, South Africa

Aaron “Big Voice Jack” Lerole was one of the most influential kwela stars and, in a revival of his popularity that is described in Keith Addison’s 1998 article ‘Return of the Big Voice‘, must have been one of the last of the originators to still be recording.

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.

Part 1 of 6

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).

Part 2 of 6

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.

Part 3 of 6


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.

Part 4 of 6

In which Jack explores New York and thinks about how long it’s taken to get this far; we’re taken back to the rehearsal at the Giants Stadium where Jack’s “Back to Alexandra” is added to the set list.

Part 5 of 6

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).

Part 6 of 6

In which we watch a rehearsal of Shukuma Mambazo, a kwela lesson with children and a kwela street procession in Diepkloof.

You can find out more about the extraordinary life of Big Voice Jack on the following web pages:

Uile Ngoan’a Batho

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 :-)

Shisa Phata Phata

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’).

Phata Phata was a popular dance “down Jo’burg way” (or sometimes “down Gauteng way“) as Miriam Makeba reminds us in her famous song Pata Pata. Shisa (does anyone know what ‘Shisa’ means?) Phata Phata is a different tune to Miriam & Spokes Phata Phata (which can be found on the rather good Miram Makeba – Her Essential Recordings: The Empress of African Song album), but I strongly suspect that Miriam is singing in the original recording (New Sound GB.2975).

Shisa Phata Phata solo, played by Spokes.

More about Donald Kachamba

Following on from my last post about the Kachamba Brothers, I decided to try and find out more.

First of all, I found some interesting photographs of Donald and ‘friends’ jamming together. These pictures were taken by Rike and Henrik Bettermann when they visited Chileka in Malawi as part of their 1996/97 tour of West and South Africa. One of the pictures is the same as the babatoni picture in an earlier post about babatoni – the kwela bass. A linked page contains a biography for Donald Kachamba, and notes that he died on 12 January 2001.

Shortly before Donald died, he was an artist-in-residence (November 1999 until July 2000) at UCLA’s Department of Ethnomusicology. Christie Burns (a.k.a Dulcimergirl) was one of the students that worked with Donald during this time, and she presents some of her memories, and a great recording of the students and Donald together, in her music blog.

You can get hold of the UCLA course material through the Kwela Project Store; a song/essays book, and a CD recording (including the tune in Christie’s blog). I’ll review my copies here, just as soon as they arrive from Amazon.

Kachamba Brothers: Musical Sunshine from Malawi

Donald Kachamba, Kwela musician from MalawiThe 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.

The post goes on to explain the role that Austrian ethnomusicologist Gerhard Kubik played in promoting the brother’s music abroad under the moniker of Donald Kachamba’s Kwela Heritage Jazz Band, in which he played clarinet.

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!

Pennywhistle Boogie

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…

JitterbuggersA 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.

Pennywhistle Boogie whistle part, played by Willard Cele

Skokiaan

Bulawayo Sweet Rhythm BandSkokiaan 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!

The arrangement I’ve made can be played on a Bb whistle and will sound in tune (more or less) with the Bulawayo Sweet Rhythms Band recording on learning2share. You’ve got the introduction and first 24 bars; after that you’re on your own :-)

Happy kwela-whistling!

Skokiaan melody, maybe originally played by August Musarurwa.

Rare Willard Cele Recordings

The Magic GardenMany thanks to The In Crowd and his/her learning2share blog for making these very early Willard Cele tracks available. Willard was the inspiration for many kwela players, maybe including Spokes Mashiyane. Listen to these recordings (Penny Whistle Blues and Penny Whistle Boogie) and you’ll hear quite a different style of kwela to that recorded by the likes of Spokes or Lerole; it almost sounds like US American clarinet jazz.

Gadzooks! It’s Sophiatown’s Phalanzani Scots Band!

Africultures, cultures africaines

If you’ve ever wondered how “35 pennywhistlers and two drummers, dressed in Scout hats, kilts, tartan sashes, and neckerchiefs” could possibly be connected to the 1956 Alexandra bus boycott, then David B. Coplan’s essay Sophiatown and South African Jazz: Re-appropriating a Cultural Identity is for you. Telling the story of life, and music in particular, during Sophiatown’s brief 60-year lifespan, Mr Coplan provides a compelling account of the quest for genuine new-urban cultural expression in a time of both increased opportunity and oppression. Budding kwelaleses (what is the collective noun for kwela-players???) might be particularly interested in the substantial section that describes the birth of kwela (as recognised as an urban phenomenon, as opposed to a continuation of herder-flute traditions) to its demise, and how it relates to the melting pot of freehold-Sophiatown.

When you walk down Louis Botha [Avenue], you see wonders.
Shoes are worn out.
People are taking their jackets off.
It is hot, and people are walking on foot to work.
There are no busses, no motor cars.
We shall not ride! They [busses] are not ridden!
They [busses] are not ridden! We shall not ride!

The Alex Casbahs – Azikhwelwa (‘We Shall Not Ride’)