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The Rebirth of Cool

Sophiatown, the swinging birthplace of South Africa's signature township sound, was silenced under apartheid rule. Sixteen years after Nelson Mandela's historic election, the beat goes on.

Author Steve Knopper


Image – Jurgen Schadenberg/Getty Images

DANIEL MELETSKE, A DAPPER 72-YEAR-OLD GENTLEMAN IN A PLAID SUIT COAT, has just handed me a gigantic palm frond, which I’m holding as we walk arm in arm. It’s Palm Sunday. He leads me down the street with a crowd of 40 or so other celebrants to an outdoor service in an empty lot.

We’re a few blocks from the Christ the King Church in Sophiatown, a suburb northwest of Johannesburg. A minister says a few words about the glory of God and then, on this cloudless South African morning, the singing begins.

I’m no hymn expert, but this is some of the most beautiful music I’ve ever heard. An elderly woman thumps out a slow beat on a hymnal. Meletske and the other men call out the deep verses; the women respond with high harmonies. It sounds like American gospel music, but there is an extra ingredient I can’t place, a rhythmic, distinctly African quality that frames the floating voices. Then the group, holding the tune, becomes a procession, walking slowly along the streets of Sophiatown to the church. Still carrying the frond, I fumble for the iPhone in my pocket and, trying not to distract Meletske, manage to record for 13 minutes.

We arrive at Christ the King, a wide, short building of red bricks and shingles. Inside the sanctuary, the clergymen and choir stand in front of a mural depicting Sophiatown history—Zulu tribesmen in masks, 1950s gangsters in suits, a modern kid in a backward cap. The congregation has swelled to some 150 people.

It’s hard for a visitor to tell today, but Sophiatown is the historic epicenter of African jazz, the Soweto sound and the “township jive” that came to America in Paul Simon’s 1986 album Graceland and the performances of Ladysmith Black Mambazo, and which continues to reverberate in the music of indie-pop darlings Vampire Weekend. It’s some of the most joyous and soulful music in the world. But nearly all evidence of its origins here have been erased. In 1955, during the early years of apartheid, the government began displacing the residents of Sophiatown, bulldozing their homes, and rebuilding the town as a whites-only enclave. Where music once spilled noisily into the streets from homes, churches, bars and schools, a suburban quiet settled in.

Now Sophiatown is free again, and former residents have returned to live here, but it’s still strangely quiet. I came to find out where the music went.

PICTURE A SATURDAY EVENING IN SOPHIATOWN IN THE EARLY 1950s: Some kids are playing pennywhistles on street corners. Others are hiding tubs of umqombothi, home-brewed beer made of sorghum and mystery ingredients, under grass and sticks, just in case the cops show up. It’s a rough neighborhood, to be sure, known for its dandyish gangsters, dressed smartly in fedoras, pin-striped suits and two-tone Florsheim shoes imported from the U.S. Stompie Manana is waiting at the Odin Cinema to see the Kirk Douglas flick Young Man with a Horn about the American jazz cornetist Bix Beiderbecke—which will inspire Manana to pick up the trumpet himself and make it big. People are filing into the 39 Steps, a shebeen, or social house, on Good Street, where one of South Africa’s first music stars, Dolly Rathebe, is belting out a few songs.

Back then, music was all over Johannesburg, especially the townships. But Sophiatown was the place to be. African-inflected jazz was everywhere, and clubs were crowded with soon-to-be-discovered African jazz and jive greats. A beloved singer named Ma Joel performed with a percussionist on the street for pennies. Jazz record collectors were everywhere, and a young Dorothy Masuka would sit for hours in her friend Kwembo’s house, listening to Ella Fitzgerald and Sophie Tucker records. Weddings and funerals took over the town for hours, with hired brass bands playing dirges as though it were Bourbon Street. By the late 1950s, young Johannesburg talents such as Manana, fellow trumpeter Hugh Masekela and trombonist Jonas Gwangwa were appearing at the Modern Jazz Club on Sundays before movies at the Odin.

“It was a din,” recalls longtime resident Victor Ntechane, 76, with a smile. “It was only when you went elsewhere that you realized how quiet it was compared to Sophiatown.”

The way some describe Sophiatown in those days, it was like New Orleans in the ’30s, Harlem in the ’40s and Memphis in the ’50s, all rolled into one. Founded in 1897 when a property owner named Tobiansky created his own suburb and named it after his wife, Sophia, the town was home to both blacks and whites, all of them poor. By the 1940s, writes author Don Mattera in his 1989 book Sophiatown: Coming of Age in South Africa, “it was inhabited by an estimated 200,000 people of different ethnic backgrounds who lived tightly knit, mixing cultures, traditions and superstitions in a manner perhaps unique in Southern Africa. Every conceivable space was occupied by a living thing—man or animal.” To outsiders, Sophiatown wasn’t romantic at all, just a crowded town full of brick-and-iron shacks. “Some of the best-dressed people lived there, and some of the most educated people lived there,” says trumpeter Masekela, now an international star. “But it was still run-down.”

WE’RE LOST. EMMANUEL, A TAXI DRIVER, FLAGS DOWN a sunburned, white-haired man walking on the side of the road. Does he know how to get to the Trevor Huddleston Memorial Centre in Sophiatown? The man looks confused. “Oh!” he says suddenly. “You mean Triomf.”

Triomf. In Afrikaans, it means “triumph.” It’s the name the apartheid government gave to Sophiatown after the bulldozing ended in 1962. Promising safe, affordable housing, the government brought in whites to live literally atop the rubble of the old town. “It’s the worst name ever!” declares singer Abigail Kubeka, who spent much of her childhood in Sophiatown. “Triumph over people—the lives people had built here.”

At 70 years old, Kubeka, with dangly earrings, a black fedora, a tiger-print dress and a commanding presence, is still a star in South Africa. She’s sitting at a table in the Huddleston Centre, a tidy brick bungalow named after a renowned white bishop who campaigned actively against apartheid. The center is part meeting place for artists and musicians and part museum, its walls covered with photos of the jazz singers, politicians (including Nelson Mandela) and journalists who once congregated here. In 2006, the post-apartheid government changed the suburb’s name from Triomf back to Sophiatown.

The change was symbolic, but hugely important for the musicians who hung around Sophiatown back in the day, including Kubeka, who as a teenager regularly confronted discrimination as she sang professionally throughout Johannesburg (and who eventually would become one of Miriam Makeba’s Skylarks). “During that time, there was the curfew law,” she recalls. “Blacks were not supposed to be in town after nine at night. So the police would wait for you outside. You’d leave the club, they’d take you to the police station, then you’d sleep over and go to court the following morning and pay the fine. You’d go back again to the club and do the same thing. It was a way of fighting the regime. We fought the system through our music—and through our persistence.”

In the late ’50s and ’60s, as former Sophiatown residents dispersed into Meadowlands and other parts of Soweto, the African jazz of Masekela and Makeba drifted there too, evolving into a funkier, more rigidly rhythmic style known as mbaqanga, or township jive. Paul Simon tapped into this style on Graceland, collaborating with South African musicians such as Ladysmith Black Mambazo. From there, just as American funk morphed into hip-hop, township jive went electronic, first as bubblegum, then as kwaito.

One Saturday evening, Mduduzi Thusi, or Mdu, a 26-year-old Huddleston Centre tour guide who lives in Sophiatown, agrees to offer me a glimpse of how this music has evolved. We begin in Newtown, a rising Joburg neighborhood in which hip bars have opened in abandoned factories. An upscale restaurant here is actually called Sophiatown, and a wall mural inside depicts kids playing horns and pennywhistles. Outside, a plaque enshrines local jazz heroes such as Gwangwa and Masekela.

As it happens, there’s no action in Newtown tonight—the Bassline club, which draws live rock and reggae bands, is closed till Monday, and the venerable Market Theatre is showing a play. So Mdu and his friend, Mpho, who drives a car with doors so rusted he describes it as a “moving sculpture,” take me to Soweto. This township is home to almost 900,000 residents, mostly black, who settled here during the apartheid era, when the government seized Johannesburg and the suburbs for themselves. We stop briefly at Vilakazi Street, where Nelson Mandela lived in a tiny bungalow in the ’60s (it’s now a museum). Just down the street is Desmond Tutu’s former home.

We pass shacks and shanties, house parties spilling into the streets and street-corner food joints, eventually arriving at News Café, a dance club in a strip mall on the edge of the township. Some 150 people are here, drinking and dancing to the thumping house music of regional acts like Durban’s Finest and Black Coffee. I am the only white person here, and one of the few older than 25. Mdu and his friends grab a table, then haul me to the dance floor. Soon Mdu is clapping in my face, like a dance instructor, and a dozen clubgoers are demonstrating impossibly twisty steps and insisting I not deviate from “the beat! The beat!”

This goes on until 2:30 a.m., by which point we are all drenched with sweat. Afterward, Mdu asks if I’ve found what I’m looking for. And while I’d actually pictured something more like a Hugh Masekela trumpet solo, the answer is definitely yes.

Rolling Stone contributing editor STEVE KNOPPER has traveled everywhere from Nashville and Harlem to the Mississippi Delta, but he’s never come across a place like Sophiatown.

AFRICAN BEATS

A PRIMER ON THE SOPHIATOWN SOUND

THE BEST OF MIRIAM MAKEBA: THE EARLY YEARS (2002)

Before the late Makeba became an international superstar, railing against apartheid everywhere she went, she sang with a variety of South African groups, from the Skylarks to the Manhattan Brothers. Her “Sophiatown Is Gone” is heartbreaking.

VARIOUS ARTISTS, TOWNSHIP JAZZ N’ JIVE (1997)

This is a great sampling of early African jazz, including Andrew John Huddleston’s Jazz Band’s rock-solid, briskly melodic, American-influenced “Ndenzeni Na?” (featuring young horn players Hugh Masekela and Jonas Gwangwa).

VARIOUS ARTISTS, NEXT STOP…SOWETO (2010)

Focusing on mbaqanga jams from the 1970s, “Next Stop” is a worthy successor to the 20-year-old “Indestructible Beat of Soweto” series, some of which is out of print. Check out how African jazz from the 1950s morphed into the funk workouts of Zed Nkabinde and Mahlathini and the Queens.

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