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:


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?

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.

Inkomo Zodwa

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.

Inkomo Zodwa whistle part, played by Spokes.