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Our kind of jazz

Who is the father of our kind of jazz? Why, Bra Zacks Nkosi, of course. He was the man who could make a saxophone talk.

He did not have a Mercedes Benz or a big double-storey house. He never wore fancy clothes. Bra Zacks lived in an old brick and mud house, ate dombolos and liked to wear amahiya in the traditional way.

Last month Bra Zacks was remembered by a group of his loyal fans, the famous and the not so famous. They met in Alexandra on a Sunday morning to pay their last respects to a son of the soil. They came to put a tombstone on his grave to honour his name.

Outside the house where Bra Zacks used to live, Ntemi Piliso and the Jazz Pioneers brought back memories of Bra Zacks as they played some of his songs. The dust flew as some old toppies jived the tsaba-tsaba, just like old times. It was a day to remember.


Isaac Zacks Nkosi was born in Ingogo in Natal in 1925. Later his parents moved to Alexandra where he grew up.

Like so many other musicians of his time, Bra Zacks began his career by playing a pennywhistle and a paraffin tin guitar.

Then one day his sister Minah bought him an old organ “to keep him off the streets.” The organ changed his life.

“He fumbled with it until he got it right,” remembers Aunt Minah. “Then the other kids started coming over and before we knew it we had a band playing in our house.”

Zacks learned to play almost every instrument he could get his hands on. But it was the saxophone that became his biggest love. With this instrument he did not fumble!


Bra Zacks started playing music at a time when many other jazz musicians were playing American jazz. But he believed in our own music, mbaqanga.

Many people then thought mbaqanga was old-fashioned and not for city people. They believed this music belonged to the ‘Jim comes to Joburg’ types — the people from the farms.

But they had not heard Zacks playing. His music did not sound like Charlie Parker or Duke Ellington, but it was sweet to the ears. This was jazz with a new township beat — our own kind of jazz.

In 1940 Zacks joined a big time band called The Jazz Maniacs, and played alongside such greats as Zuluboy Cele. The young Zacks played at halls throughout the country.

“The forties and fifties were a good time for him,” says Aunt Minah. “He played with many bands like The Havanas, which he started himself, the Boogie Woogies “and the City Jazz Nine. People were crazy about his music.”


Mr Mike Mazurkie Phahlane, jazz critic and former editor of Zonk magazine, says Zacks’ death in April 1980 was a blow to South African music.

“He was a great musician and music writer. The man’s fresh talent can be heard from his old hits. ‘Alex Township Jive’, ‘Zavolo Blues’ and ’10th Avenue’ are still the country’s best ever jazz hits.

“If they had given prizes to the best musicians of the forties and fifties, Zacks would have taken them all. No one can fill the gap that he left.”

Bra Zacks may be gone but his music is still with us. He will always be remembered for making us proud of our own music and roots — mbaqanga.

NEW WORDS tombstone — the stone on top of a grave fumble — to do something in an unsure way former— something that happened in the past a music critic — someone who writes about music gap — a hole, an empty space


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