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.

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: