Atenteben – Ghanian whistle

Whilst researching the music of Erwan Bouvier I came across of a video of him playing in a group with a guest musician playing an unusual bamboo whistle. The musician was Dela Botri, and the whistle was the atenteben. Atenteben is a bamboo fipple flute from Ghana; it was previously used in funeral ritual music, but back in the 50s was adapted to the diatonic scale and popularised with a wider repertoire.  Musicologist and composer Dr. Ephraim Amu was important in this process, and it seems as if atenteben may have even adopted a place in school music that the recorder did in the UK.

Dela Botri is a very popular exponent of the atenteben, and he demonstrates its versatility in this short kwela-like clip (unfortunately I am prevented from embedding it here).

In this video, Begine Owuo Kebibaya explains the ‘mechanics’ of the atenteben:

Six holes on the front, and an enigmatic (octave?) thumb-hole on the back; essentially a diatonic whistle where a pennywhistler’s “E” fingering plays the tonic.

Another exponent of modern atenteben is Professor Emeritus J. H. K. Nketia who is credited with composing the two following, contrasting performances:

In the next video, we’re shown some parts of the process of making atenteben – from collecting the bamboo to cutting the fipple in the workshop:

And to hear what Dela Botri is doing with atenteben in Ghana, listen to him and Hewale Sounds:

Canadian exponent Isabelle Vadeboncoeur plays an impromtu ‘kwela’:

In this excerpt, Hawale Sounds play a tribute to Kanda Bongo Man’s “Zing Zong

And last of all, Ohia Beye Ya (OBY) Band:

Lemmy Mabaso and Shell Spirit

As Al G pointed out in a comment to an earlier post about Lemmy Mabaso, Lemmy played on the soundtrack to a short film by Geoffrey Jones called Shell Spirit. This film can be found on YouTube (probably not for long though, as the film is part of a BFI compilation called ‘Rhythm of Film‘ that can be bought for £20).

It sounds to me as though Lemmy, on Bb whistle, is accompanied by banjo and babatoni (tea-chest bass). Whereas the banjo remains steady and Lemmy’s whistle is characteristically lyrical, the babatoni is positively acrobatic. And talking of things ‘positively’ – Adam Keelan from Positively Testcard had some more information about Geoffrey Jones and mentioned that Positively Testcard had made some recordings for him – but, presumably, still unreleased.

The Magic Garden (The Pennywhistle Blues)

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.

Details of this film can be found on the IMDB, and you can also read a review from the New York Times from 1952.

Come Back Africa

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?

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: