Sophiatown and South African Jazz: Re-appropriating a Cultural Identity

David B. Coplan

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‘African jazz’in Johannesburg developed as part of a tenuous effort to establish social institutions, and settings for the creation of community in a segregated context. For performers themselves there were both opportunities and dangers involved in playing the cultural broker – their mediating role in the ‘argument of images’that defined black identities in the over-riding context of social conflict and accommodation, and their ambiguous relationship to their audience as they attempted to secure their status as professionals. The brief 60-year lifespan of Sophiatown illuminates such issues both because of what it was and what it symbolised as an organic community that allowed a freedom of action, association, and expression available only in ‘freehold’areas. Sophiatown set the pace, giving urban African culture its pulse, rhythm, and style during the nineteen forties and ‘fifties. Noisy and dramatic, its untarred, potholed streets ran by the communal water taps and toilets and the rectangular jumble of yards walled in with brick, wood, and iron. A new synthesis of urban African culture sprang up here, shouting for recognition. Materially poor but intensely social; crime-ridden and violent but neighbourly and self-protective; proud, bursting with music and literature, swaggering with personality, simmering with intellectual and political militance, Sophiatown was a slum of dreams, a battleground of the heart in the war for the city’s, and even the country’s suppressed black soul.
The role of performance in the social world of Sophiatown was of course conditioned by the relations between the urban African community and the white power structure. Opportunities for property ownership, family and neighbourhood life, and relative freedom from government interference attracted the growing middle-class. African professionals like Dr A. B. Xuma, MD, President of the African National Congress from 1939 to 1949, built impressive houses there and made the suburb both a symbol and a centre of efforts to gain entrance to the dominant society. Indeed the district itself was multi-racial, and its white, Asian, and Coloured residents and shop owners were generally accepted as members of the community. Shebeen society, primarily a working-class institution, flourished among all of Sophiatown’s varied population. Some drinking houses – Aunt Babe’s, The House on Telegraph Hill, The 39 Steps, The Back of the Moon – became genuine nightclubs where the elite of the African business, sporting, entertainment, and underworlds came to talk, listen, and dance to recordings of the latest jazz. Yet the Sophiatown Renaissance was defined as public culture more by people who earned their living outside the community’s mainstream: the writers, intellectuals, musicians, gangsters, sportsmen and shebeen ‘queens’who created a fringe culture, largely centred around these legendary watering-hole ‘salons’. Due to the power and distribution of the new black print media, this fringe culture took centre stage and came to define not only Sophiatown, but urban African life more generally in the period.
Apart from the shebeens, there were frequent backyard parties organised around a wedding, celebration, or spontaneous get-together. Here neighbourhood musicians entertained, often imitating popular foreign and local performers in the hope of one day appearing on concert and dance hall stages themselves. Frequently, middle-class sponsors hired established bands and vocal groups for their parties and fund-raisers. The musicians’professional competence, behaviour, and appearance not only reflected new urban cultural ideals but also helped to define them. Their increasing mastery of orchestral jazz gave African listeners a sense of connection with a kind of mythic world black community, and expressed modern African identity through the smooth blend of technical brilliance and African musical resources.
American and British magazines and musical entrepreneur Wilfred Sentso’s local publication African Sunrise kept African jazz enthusiasts informed about overseas musical trends and personalities. They could see and hear black performers like Lena Home, Bill Robinson, Cab Calloway and Ethel Waters in films such as Stormy Weather, Cabin in the Sky, and Black Velvet. These productions electrified the cultural atmosphere of black Johannesburg and permanently influenced local speech, dress, and stage shows. Impressed by these films, the top bands brought to the Sophiatown stage the first female vocalists to front major African orchestras. The role of female ‘songbirds’as they were always called, in the artistic development and commercial advancement of African jazz, as well as in the national image of Sophiatown culture during the nineteen fifties is hard to overestimate. The flight of the songbirds into the heady upper atmosphere of urban black performance culture, where they became national icons, effectively begins with Dolly Rathebe’s appearance at just nineteen years of age in Jim Comes to Joburg in 1949. Known for her sultry, sensual stage renditions of African jazz compositions and African cover versions of American jazz favourites (in local languages) such as Into Yam’(‘My Thing’) sung in a smoky contralto, Dolly was Sophiatown’s most glamorous star. Rathebe (her married name) did not come from an elite background, and her celebration of Sophiatown’s African/Black American hybrid culture and shebeen society helped define this urban space as a social location in its own right. Black popular culture was no longer the unstable, residual social category that so worried both the white regime, with its apartheid definitions of ‘traditional’Africans, and the African elite, with its controlling concepts of cultural ‘respectability’. Vital to this innovation was the emergence of the cinemas and community halls that provided for performance rather than liquor as the primary commercial attraction, and gave women performers the social space to professionalise.
Dolly was soon joined in the constellation of black show business by Bulawayo’s young Dorothy Masuka, the first woman to achieve stardom principally as a recording artist, although she appeared with numerous bands, vocal groups and stage companies in her illustrious career. Dorothy re-oriented vocal music toward a more local, African musical direction, and was soon followed by such well-known songbirds as Mabel Mafuya, Susan Gabashane, and of course the illustrious Miriam Makeba and her own songbirds, the Skylarks. The songbirds’power as icons occurred at the intersection between the politics of race, class and gender. Their status as glamorous celebrities defied Apartheid notions of the role of black women in town as domestic servants, and they became a focus for racial pride. In addition to their leadership in this politics of images, many of their songs featured an explicit political rhetoric. Vocal jive had the advantage of lyrics, most often in local languages, referring to current events and addressing issues of common concern, reflecting realities of township life and allowing township dwellers to recognise their own experiences, interests and priorities. In the nineteen fifties atmosphere of government suppression and mass politicisation of black people, these songs had tremendous commercial appeal. In 1956 Troubadour Records allowed Dorothy Masuka to record songs such as ‘Chief Luthuli’, in praise of ANC President Albert Luthuli, and ‘Dr. Malan’, a song critical of the Prime Minister, which sold well until it was banned. In 1960, her tribute to the hero of Congolese independence, ‘Lumumba’forced her to flee South Africa, to which she did not return for thirty years.
The destruction of Sophiatown and the removal of its people to Meadowlands and other new parts of Soweto provided (sub)texts for a number of such songs, the most famous of which was ‘Meadowlands’, composed in 1955 by Troubadour ‘talent scout’Strike Vilakazi and sung unforgettably by songbird Nancy Jacobs. Relying on a direct, unannotated translation, the government believed the song supported their removals programme. Black record buyers, however, thought the opposite, and ‘Meadowlands’became a protest anthem against the Sophiatown removals 16. Other examples include the Skylarks »Lets Pack and Go’and ‘Sophiatown is Gone’. Once in exile, the Skylarks’Miriam Makeba left no doubt as to how the songbirds and indeed all black Johannesburg felt about the enforcement of the Group Areas Act in her stirring testimony before the United Nations in 1963.
In Sophiatown’s wider youth-oriented culture, the dominant element was an obsession with the United States in general, and African-American achievements in particular. The Chevrolet convertible, driven by elegant gangsters, became one of its dominant symbols, and not inappropriately so as gangsters exercised physical control over the streets and expressive control over fashion, performance, and other trends in popular culture. The leading gangs sported names such as the Americans, Green Arrows, Vultures, Spoilers, and Berliners taken from the American popular media. African men readily adopted ‘zoot suits’and American slang, and English-speaking Sophiatown residents proudly referred to their community as ‘Little Harlem’. The hybridities of jazz reconciled the cultural contradictions of the post-war period: it was home-grown but cosmopolitan; indigenous but not ethnically divisive; black but urban and not impoverished or parochial; rooted in American English but infected by vernacular rhythm and slang.
The urban African schools promoted black American models of cultural modernisation. Teachers were among the most enthusiastic transmitters of American popular performance traditions. They encouraged record collecting and used their limited formal training to help student ensembles master the latest American jazz vocals. Close-harmony groups like the Boston Stars performed regularly in the schools. At semi-annual school concerts, student performers imitated the most popular local African singers, dancers and theatrical comedians, most of whom had begun their careers in the same setting. For school Africans, there was a clear association of African-American performance culture with urban cultural autonomy. The founder and manager of the Synco Fans company, Wilfred Sentso, tried to keep all phases of performance production in African hands. In the mid-nineteen thirties, Sentso founded a performance school in Johannesburg, the Wilfred Sentso School of Modern Piano Syncopation, where many musical styles and instruments as well as stage dance were taught, making a huge impact on the world of ‘concert and dance’. By 1938 the school had produced the Synco Fans variety troupe, backed by the Synco Beats band. Over the next twenty-three years, some of black Johannesburg’s most talented performers, including bandleader, composer and saxophonist Mackay Davashe, were associated with one or another of Sentso’s many ensembles. As long as they played within the African community, the performers’approximation of black American models seemed good enough. Inevitably, though, they began not only to compete more actively with imported recordings for the African market, but also to struggle against their isolation and restricted opportunities by seeking a wider national and international audience. Comparison with their American counterparts and the choice of an imported cultural solution to problems of modernisation became serious issues, and revealed contradictions that have troubled cosmopolitan Africans ever since.
The Second World War dramatically increased an ‘international’consciousness among urban African performers. Bands such as the Jazz Maniacs, Merry Blackbirds, and Synco Down Beats played regularly at European nightclubs in Johannesburg, and one white observer enthused that an engagement by the Pitch Black Follies had ‘done more for your people during these two weeks than many politicians have done for years’. H.I.E. Dhlomo wrote rather too hopefully that ‘art can, is and will continue to play a great part in solving our problems’. Perhaps it was less a matter of appealing for rescue to liberal whites than the struggle of artists sucked down by the swamp of racism to fill their lungs with fresh cultural air.
While African stage variety concerts and jazz (‘jive’) dances continued to attract working-class as well as middle-class patrons, the majority of urban Africans were less Westernised than their school-trained entertainers, some of whom, like the Merry Blackbirds depended on the patronage of white audiences. For working-class Africans, Sophiatown represented a struggle for things more basic than inclusion in the wider society; a fight for survival amid high rents, poverty, overcrowding, wage slavery, victimisation, and police harassment. Africans in Sophiatown developed a strong community identity. Entertainment played its part, and more than anything else it was the backyard shebeens and dance parties that gave expression to this new proletarian identity. By the nineteen forties, the latest popular working-class dance music combined African melody and rhythm with American swing, jitterbug and even Latin American rumba and conga. Developed by black South African bandsmen, the new style was built on a dance rhythm called tsaba-tsaba, the dance for working-class Africans at a time when American jitterbug, locally known as ‘jive’, and large dance orchestras dominated the dance halls. Dance competitions were as gymnastic as the displays at Harlem’s Roseland Ballroom. Tsaba-tsaba was associated with the rough social atmosphere of the occasions where it was most often played. Middle-class musicians and jazz fans, despite their developing cultural awareness, were ambivalent towards it. The literate professionals who specialised in American swing generally considered themselves superior to the tsaba-tsaba audience that provided their most regular source of income.
Walter M. B. Nhlapo, musical journalist and talent scout for Gallo records, urged performers and audiences of his own class to understand that it was the ongoing process of creative syncretism rather than the imitation of American performers that held the key to the development of an authentic and internationally recognised urban music and dance:
Everybody spoke of Tsaba Tsaba… There were no radios to broadcast it all over; but everybody sang it. There were no printed copies of it, but some dance bands played it; it had the spirit of Africa in it… Regardless of torrents of scathing abuse, it swept the country… In bioscopes we’ve seen Harlem dance the Big Apple, the Shag, and Africa’s creation. La Conga… and these dances have not been recipients of abuse as Tsaba-Tsaba… Europeans measure our development and progress not by our imitative powers but by originality… A friend or not it (Tsaba) is an indispensable part of our musical and dance culture.
Nhlapo viewed class division as an obstacle to African creativity, and wondered why tsaba-tsaba and other township styles could not be ‘polished and given to the world as the La Conga from Africa?’47. His suggestion was prophetic. In 1947, August Musururgwa and his Band of the Cold Storage Commission of Southern Rhodesia recorded the classic tsaba dance tune, Skokiaan as the Bulawayo Sweet Rhythm Band (Gallo GB11 52.T). It soon became an international success, eventually topped the American Hit Parade as ‘Happy Africa’in 1954, and was published as sheet music in 17 countries.
Back in Sophiatown, street music – a part of Johannesburg’s popular culture since before the turn of the century – remained a focus of communal sociability. Special occasions brought some of the best mission-trained Batswana and Bapedi brass bands down from Rustenburg, and no Christian location wedding was complete without a sparkling uniformed ensemble leading the procession from the church to the reception. If two bands crossed paths in the streets, competitions often resulted, each band listening politely to the other. Untrained Bapedi groups from Sophiatown bought instruments second hand and imitated the Rustenburgers, collecting coins from onlookers or accompanying a stokfel parade. When two such bands met, they tried to blow each other off the street. Captain Marcus Roe of the Native Military Corps trained and led an African brass band during the nineteen thirties, and during the fourties and fifties the City Engineers and Non-European Affairs Departments formed their own African bands to perform at hostels, parks, beerhalls and other public places.
As Pretoria and Johannesburg’s locations grew rapidly on the back of industrial expansion, African boys took up the inexpensive six-hole German metal flageolet or ‘pennywhistle’and home-made drums and marched the streets in Scottish dress. African boyscouts'(Pathfinders) drum and bugle bands too added to the colourful parades, including Sophiatown’s Phalanzani Scots Band, with 35 pennywhistlers and two drummers, dressed in Scout hats, kilts, tartan sashes, and neckerchiefs. The Alexandra Highlanders (Scots) from Alexandra Township, another other important freehold black township near Johannesburg even larger than Sophiatown, included the young Aaron Jake Lerole, Ntemi Piliso, and Willard Cele, all of whom later became musical luminaries.
During the nineteen thirties and forties, these ‘Scottish’or ‘MacGregor’pennywhistle bands paraded the location streets at weekends. They enjoyed the playing, the public attention, and the coins thrown by passers-by. If money were the primary object of a performance, they invaded the ‘white’city and suburbs, where takings were considerably better. Many could play the latest jazz hits from America perfectly. By the nineteen fifties pennywhistle music and dance parties had become a major recreational activity of young urban Africans, spurred on by the recordings of Little Lemmy Mabaso’s Alex Junior Bright Boys and Spokes Mashiyane’s Big Five. Like other popular musical styles too, it generated a distinctive dance form – patha patha (‘touch touch’) – later made world famous by Miriam Makeba’s recording of the song of the same name. This was an individualised, cheerfully sexy form of jive dancing for young people in which partners alternately touched each other all over the body with their hands, in time with the rhythm. The dancers often shouted the word kwela (Zulu: ‘climb on’, ‘get up’) as an inducement to others to join in. Kwela soon developed from an improvisational ‘street music’to a staple of the South African recording industry – the first distinctively South African style to achieve international recognition. The young kwela musicians had suffered from the low reputation of the pennywhistle, and worked hard to gain some respect for their instrument. New Africanist journalists like Walter Nhlapo, however, emphasized the connection between the pennywhistle and rural reed-pipes, and so promoted the idea of the pennywhistle as an African instrument, just as the acoustic guitar and concertina had become ‘traditional’for the migrants. Ultimately, though, it was its international status that saved kwela from elite black condemnation. In the wake of overseas success, black nationalist solidarity triumphed over class cultural division, and the elite put aside their chagrin and applauded the kwela boys. From this perspective, kwela was African but not rural or tribalist: it was pure ‘Joburg, Sis’. By the end of the ‘kwela craze’around 1958, the style had become truly an international as well as inter-ethnic ‘ambassador’for South Africa.
In the realm of musical politics, kwela performers also responded to the Defiance Campaign and the Feedom Charter, the Alexandra bus boycott, the Treason Trial, and other landmarks of resistance during the period. Kwela bands like Spokes Mashiyane and his Big Five played fundraisers for the trialists, while a group called the ‘Alex Casbahs’issued a recording called Azikhwelwa (‘We Shall Not Ride’), a tribute to the 1956 Alexandra bus boycott. The lyrics are in isiZulu, except for ‘They [busses]are not ridden'(in Sesotho), and in English they read:
When you walk down Louis Botha [Avenue], you see wonders.
Shoes are worn out.
People are takng 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 kwela era came to an end as the National Party became secure in its arrogance and determination to extend apartheid to its absurd conclusion. Police now harassed street performers for ‘public disturbance’, while pass laws and regulations on liquor, group areas, and ‘separate amenities’made travelling and playing at night nearly impossible. Among the most symbolic and indeed heart-braking applications of this policy was the expulsion of Spokes Mashiyane and his pennywhistlers from Zoo Lake, where white and black teenagers jived together under the shadow of disapproving authorities and the Immorality Act. The destruction of ‘black spots’like Sophiatown, the removals to Soweto, and the sequestration of white audiences destroyed kwela and to some extent even big-band jazz.
Politics and music mixed in an atmosphere of general social resistance and submerged desires for freedom. While few musicians were prepared to risk formal political activism, groups like Ntemi Piliso’s Alex All Stars overtly supported and played for ANC, while Spokes and his Big Five did benefits for the Treason trialists. And whenever there was an event of moment involving blacks, musicians sang about it on record, with the collaboration of the record companies, who found that topical issues enhanced sales. Jack Lerole commented, referring to the spoken introductions regularly featured on kwela recordings: ‘Not to say we were protesting, but we are reminding them of our day by day life…I have seen lots of sad things happening around me. I compose music that fits in that situation, but I don’t say – I’m just protesting silently but in music’.
Simply by virtue of crossing the colour bar and the international boundary, kwela had political effect in defiance of apartheid. Since the African jazzmen were the original heroes and the big bands the models of the young pennywhistle groups, it was inevitable that kwela and African Jazz would begin to merge as their exponents met in the recording studio. This African jazz was suppressed and driven into exile because it was a music of equality and cosmopolitanism, black unity, and not ‘tribalism’. Then too, jazz was the music of oppressed black Americans, and South African exponents were quick to express the parallel 84. Politically, African jazz was in the mass audience tradition, shadowing emergence of the ANC as mass based political organisation in early nineteen fifties. Localised jazz also validated the black consciousness that was promoted to overcome class division among blacks at a time of rapid expansion of African urban working class and the trade unions. ‘New Africanism’advocated pride in and incorporation of indigenous features in black urban performance, and African jazz provided an ideal example of an alternative ‘African’modernity 85. This was a sound that helped create as well as secure an urban identity, one perpetually in flux because the system repressed the black elite and forced common cause with the workers and the poor. This was musical politics in its most profound counter-hegemonic sense. With the help of Spokes Mashiyane and his comrades, as well as international exposure, musical assertions of creative humanity were used to advance political consciousness. Kwela too was a hopeful rhythm amidst the hell of the nineteen fifties, and part of the Sophiatown Kofifi spirit. Kwela represented both individual aspiration and black communality, it was African yet citified, South African and African-American. Created in the location streets for the world at large it was, as Ntemi Piliso called it, an African answer to the blues.
The Sophiatown gangs were culturally sophisticated, and greatly admired professional jazz musicians, who expressed their urban lifestyle. Gang leaders often controlled local cinemas and concert halls, where they sponsored shows. Bands counted specific gangs among their local followings, and certain venues became the ‘strongholds’of particular bands. The Jig Club in Western Native Township, where Nelson Mandela learned to dance for example, was hospitable only to the Jazz Maniacs and Harlem Swingsters; it was a courageous group of players who consented to perform there in their stead. Top bands like the Maniacs and Swingsters, and vocal groups like the Manhattan Brothers and African Inkspots were considered great rivals, and their appearance on the same bill could cause a near riot.
Gangsters often pressed their friendship on popular musicians as a means of enhancing their own prestige. Zuluboy Cele, murdered in 1944, was only one of numerous performers who suffered from involvement with gangsters. Female vocalists were particularly vulnerable. Miriam Makeba recalled in a 1962 interview ‘the nights when thugs would invade dance halls and « claim » them as girlfriends for the greater glory of appearing in public with them’99. While Makeba was never actually kidnapped, other nationally popular performers such as Dolly Rathebe, Thoko Thomo, and Susan Gabashane were all victims of kidnapping or assault during the early fifties. Ordinary working-class and middle-class concert-goers began to stay away out of fear of knife-wielding tsotsis. Major shows regularly failed to make a profit, and musicians went unpaid when tsotsis chased dancehall patrons or forced bands to play at knifepoint until 6 am. While violence was destroying concerts and dances in the locations, the police made it increasingly more difficult for Africans to use concert halls in the city centre. Apart from the BMSC and white clubs, well-supervised venues were no longer easy to find.
At the root of these difficulties was the government’s relentless effort to destabilise urban African society and to deny Africans any hope of permanent identification with the city. The Group Areas Act of 1950 enforced residential segregation, shifting large numbers of black people into separate living areas. The Western Areas Resettlement Act of 1953 signalled the end of African hopes for social recognition. Sophiatown was to be destroyed and its residents moved to the new government townships of Soweto (an acronym for ‘Southwest Townships’), there to be divided according to language group. Johannesburg Africans put up stiff cultural resistance to this policy. Despite the disruptions, jive dancers competed aggressively at a multitude of venues every weekend. The constant changing of band names and personnel 100 actually reflected the splitting and shuffling of band members to cover multiple bookings. Disregarding the dangers, large numbers of followers travelled twenty or thirty miles to hear their favourite bands at outlying townships. While the Manhattan Brothers were a Pimville troupe and the Jazz Maniacs a Sophiatown band, every location had its own favourite soloist or ‘hero’on each of the solo instruments. Jazz skills brought prestige, solo improvisation was encouraged, and widespread musical literacy helped bands to bridge the social gap between their different audiences. In the early hours of the morning, musicians would put away their written orchestrations ‘bring it back home’ with African jazz (mbaqanga) and hot solo choruses. These torrid displays gained the bands and players their ranks of loyal followers. Audiences based their judgements on local compositions with African musical features, displaying their approval with fierce excitement. These late night ‘do or die’sessions also helped forge mbaqanga, the people’s own jazz, an expression and celebration of their new cultural identity.
The sense of glamour and excitement that pervaded the Johannesburg black entertainment world in the nineteen fifties was largely created by African journalists like Todd Matshikiza, Walter Nhlapo, Can Themba, Stan Motjuadi, Casey Motsitsi, Henry Nxumalo, Mike Phahlane and others writing for Drum, Bantu World, Zonk, and the Golden City Post. Their evocative and penetrating commentary on the Johannesburg cultural scene helped give black communities a dynamic, resilient self-image and a positive sense of achievement despite the government’s tightening stranglehold on everything they valued. Without these writers no coherent, authentic account of Sophiatown’s culture would be possible. August 1949, for example, saw the appearance of Zonk!, the pioneer pictorial magazine aimed at an urban African readership. Coinciding with the release of Jim Comes to Joburg, female lead Dolly Rathebe’s photograph appeared on Zonk! making her South Africa’s first African cover-girl.. The Sophiatown Renaissance man and woman were local and African but also cosmopolitan; indigenous but not ethnically divided, inheritors of black rural tradition, but urban, well-heeled, and sophisticated.
By the mid-1950s, the bebop styles of Charlie Parker and Dizzy Gillespie were exerting a powerful influence on local musicians. Led by jazz enthusiast Cameron ‘Pinocchio’Mokgaleng, the Sophiatown Modem Jazz Club sponsored a series of well-organised Sunday ‘jam sessions’at the Odin Cinema, Sophiatown. After the initial session, ‘Jazz at the Odin’involved white as well as black musicians. The series was a milestone for jazz and creative interaction across racial lines in South African music. This new music was not well understood by the urban African population as a whole. Yet the prestige of jazz and of black American performance culture drew in the most urbanised people of Sophiatown. To appreciate jazz was a mark of urban sophistication and social status, even among tsotsis and gangsters; and by the late nineteen fifties a genuine appreciation of the new styles had taken hold. The Odin Cinema was Sophiatown’s answer to the elite Bantu Mens Social Centre, not only showing the latest African American musical films, but also hosting mass political meetings, and providing a platform for a range of musical styles from swing and African jazz to classical concerts, to vaudeville and variety shows. The Odin institution that was to play the greatest part in nurturing the development of young musicians was the talent competitions held every Tuesday night. Songbirds Dolly Rathebe and Tandie Mpambane Klassens initially honed their skills on the Odin stage. It was not an easy place to start, for the Odin quickly acquired a reputation for the most demanding and rowdy audiences on the Reef. The ‘Jazz at the Odin’series led to the formation of historic ensembles such the be-bop stylists the Jazz Epistles (Verse 1, Continental 14.ABC18341), who established an influential ‘main stream’modern jazz movement that claimed national attention among urban black South Africans during the nineteen sixties. The Epistles included such future jazz legends as Dollar Brand (piano), Kippie Moeketsi (alto), Jonas Gwangwa (trombone), Hugh Masekela (trumpet), Johnny Gertse, (guitar) and Early Mabuza (drums).
In the Johannesburg of 1959, the multi-racial collaboration on the stage musical King Kong represented at once an ultimate achievement and final flowering of Sophiatown culture, a typically sturdy South African ‘hybrid’that the devotees of racial and cultural purity and separation were determined to root out. The white suburb of Triomf rose where Sophiatown had stood, its final days immortalised in Lionel Rogosin’s brilliant, searingly political film Come Back Africa. The African jazz epitomised by Miriam Makeba’s cameo performance in the film died out or escaped into exile with Miriam, Dorothy Masuka, Hugh Masakela, Jonas Gwangwa, Dollar Brand, Letta Mbulu, Caiphas Semenya, and so many other leading lights.
With the possible exception of Orlando, begun in 1932, there was as yet no feeling of community in Soweto, whose endless rows of identical brick ‘matchbox’houses reflected the authorities’view of the urban black population as mere ‘temporary sojourners’in the towns. Urban Africans lost, at least temporarily, the sense of direction and identity once embodied in Sophiatown and its way of life. Africans protested against the destruction of Sophiatown far more strongly than they had objected to removal from the slumyards, because its streets, houses and institutions seemed so much more truly their own. As Father Huddleston lamented, ‘When Sophiatown is finally obliterated and its people scattered, I believe that South Africa will have lost not only a place but an ideal’140. Even as government bulldozers were levelling its houses, Sophiatown generated a cultural efflorescence unequalled in the urban history of South Africa. Even as a memory, Sophiatown serves as a symbol; a legendary point of reference for black writers and artists of every sort. Today, a number of African performers and organizers are renewing the quest for artistic and professional spirit that Sophiatown embodied.

Lara Victoria Allen, Representation, Gender and Women in Black South African Popular Music, 1948-1960 Ph.D. dissertation (Cambridge) 2000, p. 73.
Lara V. Allen, « Pennywhistle Kwela: a Musical, Historical and Sociopolitical Analysis. MA (Natal-Durban) 1993.
Christopher Ballantine, Marabi Nights. Johannesburg: Ravan Press, 1993.
Andre Proctor, ‘Class struggle, segregation and the city: a history of Sophiatown, 1905-1940’, in B. Bozzoli, Labour, Townships, and Protest. Johannesburg: Ravan, 1979.
Bantu World newspaper, Johannesburg
David B. Coplan. In Township Tonight! South Africa’s Black City Music and theatre. London, New York, and Johannesburg: Longman, Ravan.///Article N° : 5743


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