By Siemon Allen
Majuba, msakazo, or what is more commonly referred to as African Jazz is a quintessentially South African sound. Originally it was a big band sound that took American swing and indigenised it with elements of marabi. From its hey-day in the 1950s it was created by and produced some of the key figures of South African Jazz, including Ntemi Piliso.
By 1958 majuba jazz had split: one avenue taking a 'highbrow' approach with the influences of bop to become the sound of the Jazz Epistles and The Blue Notes; while another, some would say, 'lowbrow' approach took the music in the direction of sax jive. By 1964 sax jive had become mbaqanga.
The early roots of the majuba sound, can be traced back to some of the dance bands of the 1930s and 40s including Sonny Groenewald’s Jazz Revellers, Peter Rezant’s Merry Blackbirds, but most notably Solomon 'Zuluboy' Cele’s Jazz ManiacsJazz. The sound at that time was American swing and Cele wanted to bring a more African flavour to the music. Cele, before forming the Maniacs in 1935, was a marabi pianist and he integrated elements of that style with the music. According to David Coplan, the Maniacs popular song Majuba gave the style its name.
But accounts about this history vary. For example, in his 1957 Drum article Jazz comes to JHB Todd Matshikiza wrote about how the Harlem Swingsters gave birth to this new style of music:
"We [the Harlem Swingsters] took him [Gray Mbau] with us to Potchefstroom on another trip, where African Jazz was reborn. The original product – Marabi – had died when American swing took over. Gray [Mbau], Taai [Shomang], Gwigwi [Mrwebi], and I recaptured the wonderful mood over an elevating early breakfast of corn bread and tea in the open air after heavy a drinking bout the previous evening. Gray put the corn bread aside and started blowing something on the five note scale. We dropped our corn bread and got stuck into Gray’s mood. And that is how some of the greatest and unsurpassed African Jazz classics were born. “E-Qonce”, “E-Mtata”, “Majuba”, “Fish and Chips” were born out of that combination of the Harlem Swingsters whose passing remains today’s greatest regret. We invented “Majuba” jazz and gave jive strong competition. We syncopated and displaced accents and gave endless variety to our ‘native’ rhythms. We were longing for the days or Marabi piano, vital and live. Blues piano, ragtime piano, jazz band piano, swing and modern piano had taken it away from us. And here now we are seedling it again with new blood in its veins. It was Tebejana’s [a famous marabi pianist] original material, but treated freshly with a dash of lime.” (Chris Ballantine, Ian Jeffery)
Coplan goes on to say “by 1954 even penny whistlers were described as performing in ‘Majuba tempo’.” But he also points out that it was Gideon Nxumalo with his popular SABC radio show This is Bantu Jazz that was “principally responsible for the wide distribution of a new term for the majuba African jazz—mbaqanga.”
By the late fifties and early sixties the popularity of majuba began to wane. 1958 marked a watershed moment in its unraveling when Spokes Mashiyane, famous for popularising kwela on the pennywhistle, took up the saxophone at the suggestion of Strike Vilikazi. The result Big Joe Special was a punchier, faster jive that satisfied younger consumers. Michael Xaba, trumpeter for the legendary Jazz Maniacs is said to have coined the phrase mbaqanga, or cornbread, to describe this new style of music. Some have interpreted his comment as a pejorative, but I wonder if it could be viewed in a more ambiguous light… given that we all have to eat!
The realities of majuba’s decline however saw really successful bands like the Sharpetown Swingsters, go by the wayside. The group, discovered by Rupert Bopape, was signed to a five-year contract in 1955. In that period they recorded 22 tracks for the Columbia label, many of which were major hits in the late 1950s. By 1960, their contract with EMI went un-renewed.
But the majuba sound never did really die. It continues to be re-birthed. This is the sound that is revisited in the classic 1967 LP Mannenburg from 1973. Rob Allingham has even pointed to a critique by Lulu Masilela that Mannenburg was simply a slowed down version of 'Bra' Zacks Nkosi’s Jackpot, a 1960 classic majuba track. After listening to both I think I disagree. Cultures build on their roots and this appropriation, if you want to call it that, does transform the original into a significant new animal that rightfully pays homage to its past.
One of the key contributors to the majuba style, Edmund Mtutuzeli Piliso or 'Bra Ntemi', was born in Alexandra in 1925 and passed away in January 2001. His obituary in City Press reveals that he received his first instrument, a clarinet, in 1947 as a donation from a local Alexandra resident. In the early 1950s he played with Gwigwi Mrwebi’s Harlem Swingsters. Though Molefe in the obituary does say that Taai Shomang led the Swingsters. Piliso formed the Alexandra All Stars in 1953 after leaving the Swingsters and with this group put out some of the most memorable tracks in the majuba style. Remarkably these early recordings by this famous group included the band personnel on the label, which is rare. The group at this point included Edmund 'Ntemi' Piliso as the leader on tenor sax, David 'Boy Masaka' Mope and David 'Bra' Sello on alto sax, Shadrack Piliso (Ntemi’s older brother) on trumpet, Fortesque 'Edgar' Mazibuko on bass, S. 'Booikie' Mokone on drums and Aaron Lebona on piano.
In 1975 Ntemi formed The Members with his brother Shadrack and African Swingster’s Ellison Temba and they released a number of albums with long form single-sided tracks in a style that was by then called bump-jive. Bump Jive in many ways has its roots in the majuba sound of the 1950s as is discussed at length in Rob Allingham’s excellent notes on the CD reissue Bra Ntemi (Gallo, CDXU1). In 1981 Ntemi Piliso founded the African Jazz Pioneers, a very successful band that brought many of the sounds of the 1950s to a new generation. (Molefe, Allingham, Bergmeier)
ALEXANDRA ALL STAR BAND
78 Revolutions Per Minute - Majuba Jazz from Mra to Bra — a three volume history of Majuba Jazz, including Ntemi's Alexandra All Star Band, can be viewed at Electric Jive, spread over two posts:
Volume 1: Swing to Majuba (1953 - 1956)
Volume 2: Majuba to Sax Jive (1957 - 1961)
Volume 3: Sax Jive to Mbaqanga (1962 - 1967)