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.
September 2013 This post was based upon an extended clip from the film that has been taken down due to copyright infringement. The copyright-holder’s own promotional video includes a very short segment right at the beginning that features the kwela band discussed here.
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 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!
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!
The song Inkomo Zodwa was recorded by Miriam Makeba and the Skylarks in March 1959 and features Spokes Mashiyane on the pennywhistle. It is accredited to the South African playwright Gibson Kente. I originally got hold of this track on The Rough Guide to the Music of South Africa, and you can too (although I think it was an earlier version and the tracks have changed now).
Spoke’s whistle part is a constant solo throughout the song, playing in the lower registers during the singing, and rising up in volume and pitch in between. The key signature is somewhere between F and F#, and if we assume F, then Spoke’s whistle playing goes right down to low F. We’re talking Low Whistle territory here, and I must say that I’m rather surprised by the idea that Spoke’s had a low F – I mean, these aren’t so easy to come by nowadays and I daresay that Overton didn’t exist back then (if you have any ideas how this was played, I’d be very happy to hear them!)…
Leaving the academics behind; I’ve party transcribed, partly made up (the low bits of) the whistle part so that this can be played, along with the recording, on a Bb whistle – it’s sure to bring a tear to your eye. You might like to fractionally pitch shift it to get it in tune. -130% semitone did it for me using the demo version of Ableton. [I've subsequently learnt that this kind of manipulation is possible using Audacity, which is free]
I hope you enjoy trying to play this part and that it encourages you to listen to some of these old kwela recordings.
Back in June there was a blip in the visitor stats that was the result of a link to the Kwela Project from a post in the Banjoroots Yahoo group. The post was about Africa-American single-stringed instruments, and as well as mentioning the renowned ethnomusicologist Gerhard Kubik (who happens to play clarinet in Donald Kachamba‘s Kwela Heritage Jazz Band), it talks of the babatoni – South African washtub (well, more accurately, tea-chest) bass. Babatoni, aka Kwela Bass, is just one instance of a vast, worldwide class of single-string bass instruments. So now, when you listen to kwela – listen to what is happening in the bottom-end, far from the wailing pennywhistle. Maybe that’s a babatoni you’re hearing!
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’)