Sophiatown

Music and culture as forms of resistance

Music

Music was a central feature of the urban culture that developed in Johannesburg and in Sophiatown in particular. It was here that the most important developments in indigenous jazz took place.

Early beginnings

In the 1920s and 1930s the urban culture of the slumyards, centred in Doornfontein in Johannesburg, was known as marabi, possibly derived from the township of Marabastad in Pretoria. Marabi reflected the way of life of the people living in the slumyards. It was centred on beer-brewing and shebeens. The marabi dance parties became centres of community life and gave the African working classes a new sense of identity. This is how Wilson "King Force" Silgee, a famous jazz saxophonist, described Marabi:

Marabi: that was the environment. It was either organ but mostly piano. You get there, you pay your 10 cents. You get your share of whatever concoction there is - and you dance. It used to start from Friday night right through to Sunday evening.

Music was fundamental to the new culture of the yards. It created the vivacity and the energy of the shebeen parties. The sound of marabi music was original and improvisational.

Black Music and Musicians of the 40s and 50s

With the removal of the slumyards beginning in the early 1930s and ending during the second half of the decade,  the focus of African community life shifted to the freehold areas of Sophiatown and Alexandra. Shebeens and dance-parties continued here, but the music began to change. Gramophones, the introduction of American jazz to the townships and the start of radio were also important to the development of black professional musicianship. Black musicians in South Africa were able to hear the music of Duke Ellington, Count Basie and Louis Armstrong, and these made a strong impact. Township music was also heavily influenced in the 1940s and 1950s by American music and American movies. Hollywood's two all-Black musicals in the 1940s, Stormy Weather and Cabin in the Sky were hugely popular with Sophiatown audiences and the local musicians thus had full exposure to the music of black American musicians.

Local groups began performing American swing. Such groups included The Manhattan Brothers, the Gay Gaieties and the The Synco Fans. The Jazz Maniacs, The Pitch Black Follies and The Merry Blackbirds, following on American tradition, began to front their bands with female vocalists. It was in this way that Dolly Rathebe, Dorothy Masuku, and Miriam Makeba began to gain their reputations.

At this point, African musicians in Sophiatown developed their own new sound, called "Tsaba-tsaba". It combined African melody with American swing and jazz. Tsaba-tsaba was essentially a working class form of dance music. Walter M.B.Nhlapo, a music journalist of the time said of it:

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. (Source: Quoted in D.Coplan, In Township Tonight!, p. 154)

Tsaba-tsaba eventually evolved into "kwela", which began as street music based on the penny whistle. Younger, juvenile musicians played the pennywhistle, and drew on and extended tsaba-tsaba and other African jazz styles in new directions. They blended indigenous music with American musical elements, producing a new form of street music. The term "kwela" means "pick up" and "kwela-kwela" was often the name given to the police vans that roamed the streets, looking to pick up pass offenders or illegal street corner gamblers. When a van drove past, all evidence of gambling would disappear quickly, and somebody would haul out a pennywhistle and begin to play innocently. By the 1950s penny whistle music and dance parties were a major recreational activity of urban Africans. Kwela generated its own dance form, called the phata-phata (touch-touch).

During the 1950s studios used professional jazz musicians to back the penny whistlers, adding saxophone and piano to kwela instrumentation. Innovators in the filed of kwela music were Ntemi Piliso and his Alexandra All-Star Band as well as the Jazz Maniacs, who recorded "Majuba". At this point all music in this style became known as Majuba until the term "Mbaqanga" was coined.

The destruction of Sophiatown was accompanied by a parallel attack on these musical forms and the musicians expressing them. Many of the musicians left the country, mainly during the late 1950s and early in the 1960s, resurfacing as exiles. They include Mirriam Makeba, Hugh Masekela, Letta Mbuli, Caiphus Semenya and Jonas Gwanga. Members of the Manhattans also left the country and many ended up in London and other Western capitals.

Having been mindful of the role that musical forms played as forms of resistance, the authorities took control of the industry. The 1960s were marked by the expansion of public broadcasting from state controlled radio stations collectively known as Radio Bantu. It is inevitable that artists whose songs were aired on radio stations had to be approved by the authorities. This form of control was maintained until the late 1980s and early in the 1990s, an observation that raises questions about the resistance content of musical forms of the 1970s and 1980s.

The Movies

One of the major contributors to Sophiatown culture was the cinema. Movies of the time informed much of the behaviour, language and dress patterns that emerged, particularly amongst the tsotsis of Sophiatown.

There were two movie houses in Sophiatown. Balansky's was the lower class, rougher movie-house while the Odin Cinema was more up-market. The Odin was the pride of Sophiatown. It was owned by a white couple, the Egnoses, who were knows as Mr and Mrs Odin. Not only did they provide much loved entertainment, but also made the Odin available for political meetings, parties and stage performances. Some international acts played to multi-racial audiences at the Odin.

The tsotsi (gangsters) of Sophiatown derived their own sense of style and culture from American gangster movies of the time. Humphrey Bogart, Richard Widmark (known to Sophiatown as "Styles"), James Cagney and Edward G. Robinson were revered idols.

Street with No Name, a gangster movie starring Richard Widmark, had a cult following.

henever it played, the movie-house would be packed with tsotsis. When the supposed heroes, the FBI, were on screen, the tsotsis would jeer; but as the scene moved to the gang's hideout, there would be a hush from the audience. When Richard Widmark, the gang boss, would appear, the whole audience would shriek, "Styles! Go it, Styles!" Styles wore a long overcoat, sniffed a Benzedrine inhaler and occasionally bit into an apple.

His henchmen wore belted raincoats with slits at the back. At the time of the film's release, all the tsotsis wore their raincoats, sniffed Benzedrine and munched apples. (Source: Sophiatown, Programme notes, Junction Avenue Theatre Company)

Gangsters of Sophiatown not only adopted the styles of gangsters in American movies, but also used the language. Lines from movies were incorporated into the slang of the day - tsotsitaal. For example, "Remember guys, I'm de brains of dis outfit!"

Other favourites among the Sophiatown movie-going population were movies starring black actors like Dorothy Dandridge and Sidney Poitier. Many of his movies promoted themes of racial integration, and this served as a source of hope for the movie-goers. A particular favourite in Sophiatown was Cry the Beloved Country, starring Sydney Poitier. Parts of the film had been filmed in Sophiatown and the residents, filled with pride, watched the movie over and over again.

Last updated : 15-May-2017

This article was produced for South African History Online on 16-Mar-2011