One lunchtime I went out to buy some food and to see what was happening in the streets of Johannesburg. Nothing much. Then I heard the sound of a saxophone playing Satchmo’s ‘Down by the Riverside’.
I walked towards the sound. There was a group of people standing around an old man. He was blowing on something that looked like a cross between a pennywhistle and a Coca Cola tin on a stick. But the sound coming out of it was the sound of a saxophone.
PENNIES IN A HAT
I waited till the old man stopped playing and the crowd around him started to move off. Some people threw a few pennies into the old man’s hat. When everyone had gone, I spoke to the old man.
The player of the strange musical instrument agreed to tell me his story. So he picked up his hat – it was made out of leather. He emptied the money out of it and put it on his head. And off we went back to my office.
When we got to the office, the old man sat down on a chair and took out his tobacco. Then he said, “Can I get some paper to roll a cigarette?” I gave him a piece of paper, and, as he was rolling his tobacco, he started to tell me his story.
A HOMEMADE CIGARETTE AND A HOMEMADE SAXOPHONE
“My name is Jake Khotle and I am a musician,” the saxophone player said.”1 was a good musician in my time. I played before lots of people. I played at smart clubs where one got free beers, ousies, alles! But that was a long time ago.-
“Now I play music on street corners ‘piece jobs’ I call it,” Jake said as he puffed on his homemade cigarette. His smoke was blowing into my face, so I looked aside. And there was Jake’s instrument.
When Jake saw me looking at his instrument, he quickly started to talk about it, instead of himself. “I call these tins ‘sound boosters,” he said. “They make the sound of the instrument louder. And they also change the sound” Jake picked up the instrument and he started playing. The tins really made the sound louder. But then Jake put a new tin on his instrument and it sounded different. First it sounded like a tenor saxophone, then it sounded like an alto saxophone
“OK, now let me tell you about my self,” said Jake. “I was born in Kroonstad, in the Free State. My father was a good musician. Everyone in town knew him. They used to call him “Klavier” which means piano in Afrikaans. He also used to sing in a big voice. So you can say that music was in my blood.
“I started playing jazz back in 1948. I played with a band called the ‘The Kroonstad Giants’. Then in 1959 we came to the Transvaal to play for the people.
“After a few shows, a record company called Trutone Records came to us. They said we were good and and they wanted to help us make a record.”
Jake started laughing as he thought of those days … 78 speed records!
JAKE’S BIG BREAK.
Then Jake went on, “The first record we made was called “Seisoville Kwela”. I liked it very much because it was my first record. But I also liked it because I played with very good musicians – guys like Strike Vilakazi, Allen Kwela and Ray Sithole on double bass.
“Ntemi Piliso was another musician I liked very much. And I played with him too. We even made a film. Ntemi, another guy by the name of Lenny Special and I played in it. We were going to be famous. But now I still wonder what happened to that film. I have never seen it!
“We had some good hits of our own in those days. Hits like BT 410 and Maokeng Special. But we also loved to play the songs of other people like Johnny Hodges, and Satchmo very much.”
A ONE MAN BAND
But today Jake is a one man band on a street corner. With his different tins, he makes his pennywhistle sound like different types of saxophones.
Jake’s shoes are full of holes. His feet get more fresh air than they need. But the magic is in his socks. That is where Jake keeps his ‘drums’. Jake’s drums are made out of polish tins with little stones in them.
As Jake plays, his foot hits the ground. And that gives Jake the rhythm that he needs. Then Jake thinks he is in those big clubs again.
A LONELY SOMEBODY
Bra Jake is not married and he left Kroonstad a long time ago. He does not see much of his family these days. He lives in someone’s back yard – in a shack in Sebokeng.
When Jake speaks of the good old days, he is like my father. They always speak of the good old days when things cost a tikkie or a few shillings. And the music and dancing was good. Not like today with this funny breakdance.
Life has been hard on poor old Jake. Today he drinks a drop too much and he is poor. He no longer gets free dops on the house, and he has no friends who love his music.
Now when Jake plays, some people pass and some people stop and listen. People do not know Bra Jake. But he plays for them and they throw pennies in his hat. And Jake just hopes that he will make enough money to eat at night.