It’s nearly midnight on a Thursday evening in Hillbrow, Johannesburg. Under the light of the moon and the street lamps, a small crowd is gathered around a tall man. He is blowing his horn, playing music from the 50s. In the crowd, toes start to wriggle, hips to wiggle. Fingers start clicking. Soon everybody is alive with jive….
The tall man with the saxophone is Vincent Nyembe — better known to music lovers as just “Sparks”. In the 50s and 60s, Sparks and other musicians thrilled fans all over South Africa with their kwela and pata-pata records.
Kwela sounds continue to live on through musicians like Sparks. Even though he is no longer a big star, Sparks still manages to keep the memories of the marabi jive alive. And he keeps on winning the hearts and souls of his fans with his street concerts. You know what they say: “It’s hard to keep a good man down!”
FOLLOWING A DREAM
Bra Sparks was born in 1938 in Newclare, a “coloured” township near Johannesburg. His father, Gabriel Nyembe, was a very active member of the ANC until it was banned in 1960.
Soon after Sparks was born, Gabriel and his family were forced by the Group Areas Act to leave Newclare and move to Orlando East in Soweto. Later, the family moved to Natal where Sparks passed his Standard Six. At about this time, the young boy began to develop a love of music, especially for the sounds of the king of the penny whistle, Spokes Mashiane.
Sparks remembers: “As soon as I came home from school, I would go straight to the gramophone to listen to Spokes blowing on the penny whistle. I dreamed about owning a penny whistle so that I could learn to play like my hero. I saved every cent that my parents gave me.”
It was some years before the boy was able to achieve his dream. He had to wait for a visit to eGoli — the City of Gold — in 1952 before he could buy his very own penny whistle. But when he got it, there was no stopping Sparks.
The young boy practised morning and night. He would put one of Spokes’s records on the old gramophone and practise until he got it right. This is how he taught himself to play the penny whistle.
“THE SPARKLING BOYS”
Some time later, the family moved again, this time to Durban. Sparks formed his first band, called “Sparks and his Sparkling Boys”. There were two guitarists, one drummer, and Sparks on the penny whistle. They played at school concerts and at community functions. “We got paid five pounds for each performance. In those days, it was a lot of money!” remembers Sparks with a laugh.
Sparks left school in 1957 and settled in Alexandra. He formed a new group but kept the old name: “Sparks and his Sparkling Boys.” By now, his ambition was to make a record.
He started to record with the True-Bar-Dour Studio in Jeppe Street and it was there that he met other great musicians such as the singers Mabel Mafuya and Dorothy Masuku, the saxophonist Dixie Ngwangwa and the Alexandra All Star Band.
His first record was called ‘Dogs love kwela’ and it sold well. But his real hit was a song called ‘Kwela Sparks’. “There were no LPs in those days, only seven singles,” he says.
A BIG STAR
In the meantime, Sparks taught himself to play another instrument — the alto saxophone. When the penny whistle went out of fashion in the 60s, he concentrated on the saxophone. In years to come, Sparks would teach himself many other instruments, including the flute, guitar, base guitar, organ and piano.
Sparks’s group was doing well, even though the competition was tough. The “Sparklings” were invited to tour in Newcastle, Durban, Vryheid and Zululand. The group was welcomed everywhere they went. “I was a big star, a well-known musician,” says Sparks. “Wherever I went, the halls were full.”
But the “Sparklings” were not making as much money as they should have. In those days, some recording studios did not pay black musicians any *royalties from the sales of the records — they only paid them *a flat-fee for recording the tune. Sparks left the True-Bar-Dour studio in 1961 and joined Trutone Records. Again, he felt that he was being exploited and so in 1961 he moved to EMI studios.
“At least EMI paid royalties. At the other studios we were only paid flat-fees. We made recordings and performed at shows but what we got was peanuts,” he says with bitterness in his voice.
At EMI, Sparks met many other groups from Alex. There were the Dark City Sisters, Boy Masaka, Zakes Nkosi, Jack Lerule and Mahlathini who was known as “Isilwane se mbazo”. Sparks stayed with EMI until 1966 when he left professional music.
He started to do “gigs” at night clubs, weddings and parties. Later, when South Africa got television, he starred in a film called “Sparks Nyembe”. The film was later banned. Sparks also taught guitarists Winston Nyanda and Lefty Khanyile, two musicians who are internationally known.
A SWINGING TWOSOME
Nowadays, you can find Sparks at his favourite music spots — on the street corners in Hillbrow and the city centre. “This is where the people are,” he says, “and this is where I love to play. I am always surrounded by a crowd.”
From the coins he gets, Sparks has supported two wives and four children. His first wife, Ma-Radebe, died some years ago, leaving two children: a son, called Steven and a daughter by the name of Nokuthula. His daughter has followed her father’s love for music and is a backing singer with Pat “Electric Man” Shange.
After his first wife died, Sparks married Malevuno. The couple are blessed with twin boys. The family share a flat with Sparks’s music partner, Jotham Cele.
Sparks remembers how the two met. “I was blowing my horn one night in 1988, when I saw a man carrying his guitar. He asked me if he could play with me. ‘Come on,’ I said. And guess what? We matched and have been together the past two years.”
Like Sparks, Jotham is also a self- taught musician. He started playing as a young boy in the rural areas of Zululand while he was looking after the cattle.
Jotham came to Johannesburg in 1961 and worked as a cleaner in the flats. When he met Sparks, he stopped working and now makes his living from playing on the streets. Together these two musos make sounds that keep the crowds tapping their feet and clapping their hands.
While they play, Sparks and Jotham dream a little. They dream about once more becoming big recording stars. “The energy is still there,” says Sparks, “and I want to record again. I am just waiting for a chance to sparkle again!”
* If you would like Sparks and Jotham to perform at your functions, contact them at 401 Claridges Apartments, corner Claim and Van der Merwe Streets, Hillbrow.
CHECK THE MEANING royalties — people who make records or write books get paid paid some money for every record or book they sell. This money is called royalties. a flat-fee — when people agree to be paid a one-off payment for making a record, they get a flat-fee. They don’t get royalties as well.