Sophiatown – the unfinished business

heritagedayThe excellent thesis by Vusi Mchunu about The relationship between the Harlem Renaissance and the Sophiatown Renaissance was donated to the Sophiatown Cultural and Heritage Centre on Cultural Heritage Day September 25th . Vusi Mchunu pictured above enjoying the dancing good times of Sophiatown has presented an astonishing piece of work that has even enjoyed translation into German. Much valuable information about Sophiatown is readily gleamed and provides further illustration how in the short space of 11 years Sophiatown did more for South African popular culture than any other location or influence of all time.

The comparison between Sophiatown of the 50’s and Harlem of the 20’s was very strong so much so that in many instances Sophiatown was referred to as ‘Little Harlem.’ The thesis illustrates that this comparison is also celebrated from an American perspective as it is confirmed by the John F Kennedy Institute lectures in African American history, sociology and culture.

Vusi Mchunu writes, “Harlemites threw “rent parties.” Sophiatonians threw “stokvels.” It was here that marabi was born.

Marabi was a musical culture that defined Sophiatown. Life and death danced with a reckless abandon alongside the best of times and the worst of times as it was often quipped. Marabi was the sound of yin and yang and Sophiatown the host of these opposites. On one hand a cultural haven for self actualisation and on the other hand a violent, flea infested shanty town. Marabi music was the meeting of these opposites, an African identity with an American certainty. It moved with the migrants: from the marrabenta of Mozambique and then hit up alongside the ragtime of the Capone brothels and minstrelsy of the slavery blues.

Popular culture was preserved in the brilliant urban magazine of the time, Drum Magazine.

“Drum wasn’t so much of a magazine as it was a symbol of the New African cult, adrift from the tribal reserve – urbanised, eager, fast talking and brash.” wrote Lewis Nkosi in Tasks and Masks – themes and styles of African literature

Vusi Mchunu writes, “Most Sophiatonians in the 50’s lived in corrugated iron shacks with no electricity, no running water. Drum journalists were poor, yet took pride in their little rooms and gave them funny names like “House of Commons, House of Saints and Can Themba’s ‘House of Truth.’ Themba’s best friends were singers and performers. He reported on a-capella groups like the Manhattan Brothers, the Cuban Brothers, the Midnight Kids, the Harlem Swingsters, the Jazz Pioneers and variety shows like the African Jazz Parade, songbirds like Dolly Rathebe, Thandi Mpambani, Miriam Makeba, Thoko Thomo, Susan Gabashane and Dorothy Masuko.” And Drum magazine documented, recorded and preserved this era, exactly as it was. It was an era rampantly urbanising, rampantly awakening. The glamour of urban life was well depicted. Casey Motsisi’s column in Drum was called “If bugs were men,” where he documented the lives of Sophiatonians.

Sophiatown provided a togetherness of culture. When the pioneering film “Come back Africa” directed by the American Lionel Rogosin was set in Sophiatown … it brought some of the best creative minds together in the spirit of culture and the shared purpose of social upliftment.

Bloke Modisane recalls … “for the scene we assembled Can Themba, Lewis Nkosi, Morris Hugh Lestwalo and I; Lionel Rogosin provided the liquor, Matha Maduma played the shebeen queen and we also got Miriam Makeba.”

“The most stimulating scene was the alienation of the rural african, the confusion of being in the midst of black intellectuals – whom Nimrod Mkele describes as displaced intellectuals in search of a morality – listening without understanding, but being stimulated.”

Vusi Mchunu writes, “This excellent film went a long way to display the concern by some Sophiatown intellectuals to bridge the gap with the laboring classes. Mayibuye iAfrika meaning Come back Africa was an ANC song.”

Other initiatives added fuel to the fire of passion of this era …

“The African Jazz and Variety Show produced by Alfred Herbert was a large cast with a lot of stars and offered dance, song, music, clowning and dramatic sketches. They toured the whole country carrying the cultural message of Sophiatown, carrying the seeds of fermenting Sophiatown all the way to Central Africa.

“A royalty award ceremony in 1953 for Solomon Linda proved the occasion for the creation of the Union of Southern African Artists. Their original aim was to protect African amateur dramatics and music from exploitation. They offered free legal advice, art lectures and workshops or skills to their members. They even promoted a series of jazz concerts in the townships,”

Vusi Mchunu writes … But there was one initiative that was very symbolic. And that was the All African jazz opera, King Kong – a musical from the Sophiatonian experience. King Kong is the story of a well known Johannesburg boxer Ezekiel Dhlamini. Through rivalry with a gansger for a women he looses his career, he looses the woman and eventually takes his own life in jail. Vusi Mchunu writes, “The script for King Kong was evolved by Clive Menell of Anglo American; music student from Cambridge, Stanley Glasser, classic ballet choreographer Arnold Dower, journalist Pat Wiliams, lawyer Harry Bloom. Todd Matshikiza wrote the music and Mankwenkwe Davashe conducted the orchestra. King Kong absorbed the black artistic talent in Johannesburg; the Manhattan Brothers, Miriam Makeba’s Skylarks; Mackay Davashe’s Jazz Dazzlers; Victor Ndlazilwana’s the Woody Woodpeckers, the Katzenjammer Kids, the Crazy Folks, the Chord Sisters, the Saints, the Swankey Spots, the Queens pageboys. It was episodic, unified in an associative manner and carried forward by song, dance, the use of mime, little dialogue.”

But somehow in the midst of a cultural renaissance that held the principles of eternity. Sophiatown was demolished and destroyed and in its stead rising from the ashes were broken dreams and broken hearts. And this leads Vusi Mchunu to call his conclusion Sophiatown – the unfinished business …

It is on the back of such passionate research that we assemble the broken dreams, the forgotten legends and the overlooked information and we begin to repair, resolve, revolve and re-create the foundations for which the renaissace was real and rewarding !


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