1001 South African Songs You Must Hear Before You Go Deaf

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Archive for the tag “Kwela”

Ace Blues – Spokes Mashiyane

Ace Blues – Spokes Mashiyane

Ace Blues – Spokes Mashiyane

Born Johannes Mashiyane in Mamelodi, Spokes became a name synonymous with the pennywhistle kwela sound that emanated from the townships of South Africa in the 50s, 60s and even into the 70s. His life had simple beginnings, but he went on to be a special star in our culture and he did so by taking the simple pennywhistle and doing something special with it.

‘Ace Blues’ is just one example that showcases his prowess with the tool of his trade. A bouncing somewhat tinny guitar underpins the weaving magic of the pennywhistle with its bright and breezy sound. It takes one on a journey, skipping through the rural beauty of the land. And perhaps this was what gave the music its appeal as it took people out of the daily hardships of township lives and, just for a few brief moments, let them run free.

When it came to the pennywhistle, Mr Mashiyane was the ‘spokes’person (sorry) for the instrument and he let the instrument do the talking. It is small wonder the Mango Groove, years after Spokes’ death in 1972 included the song ‘Special Star’, a dedication to Spokes, on their debut album. Spokes and his pennywhistle is an integral part of South African music history and it there was a South African Hall of Fame, he would undoubtedly have been inducted into it.

Where to find it:
King Kwela – Spokes Mashiyane (1991), Gallo records, CDZAC50


Tom Hark – Elias & His Zig Zag Jive Flutes

Tom Hark – Elias & His Zig Zag Jive Flutes

Tom Hark - Elias & His Zig Zag Jive Flutes

Tom Hark – Elias & His Zig Zag Jive Flutes (image from 78RPM Collectors’ Community)

Perhaps the most famous kwela song to emanate from South Africa, ‘Tom Hark’ is a bouncy, joyous, pennywhistle driven tune that peaked at Number 2 in the UK charts on 24 May 1958 and stayed there for 4 weeks, being kept off the top spot by Connie Francis’ ‘Who’s Sorry Now’.

The leader of the band was Elias Shamber Lerole a leading kwela artists of the time. He had also been the leader of Black Mambazo in the 50s (I don’t think this was the group as Ladysmith Black Mambazo). Elias and his brother Jack started playing pennywhistle when Elias was 10 and Jack 7 when their uncle gave them each one as a Christmas present. Elias went on to compose over 300 songs. ‘Tom Hark’ is erroneously attributed to R Bopape on the record label, but he was apparently only the producer of the record, it was Elias who wrote the song.

The word ‘kwela’ comes from the Zulu and means get up. ‘Kwela-kwela’ was township slang for a police van and when you listen to ‘Tom Hark’ before the music starts, you hear someone saying, ‘hier kom die kwela-kwela’ and some think that this was how kwela music got its name.

Such was the appeal of this simple ditty that it has been covered by various artists including Ted Heath, Georgie Fame and The Piranhas in the UK and even gained popularity in the West Indies where Millie Small (of My Boy Lollipop fame) recorded a version with lyrics and a group called the Dynamites had a version that went under the titles of ‘John Public’. In South Africa it’s been covered by Mango Groove (in 2000) and The Zig Zags (in 2010, as Footie Footie). It is also a popular tune for football chants in England.

‘Tom Hark’ does seem to live in the shadow of Solomon Linda’s ‘Mbube’ which was used in the myriad of versions of ‘The Lion Sleeps Tonight’, but it is an instantly recognisable tune which has been as accepted by the world as ‘Mbube’ was.

Tom Hark - Elias & His Zig Zag Jive Flutes

Elias Lerole (Thanks to Thembi Lerole for the picture)

Where to find it:

Cafe Africa – Various Artists,  (2010) Not Now Records, NOT2CD376


Elias & His Zig Zag Jive Flutes:

The Piranhas:

Millie Small:

Georgie Fame:

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