“Guga mzimba sala ntliziyo” (The body is old, but the heart is still young)
William “King Force” Silgee is 74 years old. He lives in a small house in Dube, Soweto. He lives a quiet life with his wife Irene. But life was not always quiet for “King Force”. In the 1940’s, the townships jumped and jived to his music. He was the leader of the Jazz Maniacs after “Zulu Boy” Cele died.
The Jazz Maniacs were a big band. Sixteen people played in the band. The people in the townships loved the Jazz Maniacs. The Jazz Maniacs played music that touched the hearts of the people.
Last month, “King Force” and his saxophone came alive again. He played in Gaborone, Botswana. He played with Dollar Brand, Hugh Masekela and lots of other musicians.
“I really enjoyed myself” says “King Force”. “Hugh Masekela, Dollar Brand and the other guys were young when the Jazz Maniacs played. But they have learnt a lot. Now they are better than we were. They are better because they live in America. Many bands play in America. So the competition is tough. Musicians need competition.”
“King Force” says people like Masekela, Gwangwa and Dollar Brand still play South African music. “They live overseas but they still play our kind of music. South African music is in their hearts. They keep it there”.
“King Force” has played music for most of his life. He was born in Vrededorp in 1918. When “King Force” was still a baby, his family moved to City and Suburban. They lived in a small house in Anderson Street. In those days black people still lived in Johannesburg.
His father was a preacher. His mother was a teacher. His mother and father loved music. They both sang in the church choir. They sent “King Force” to piano lessons when he was 10 years old.
“My parents told me to go to piano lessons,” says “King Force”. “I did not enjoy piano lessons. But today I’m glad I went to lessons. These lessons taught me a lot about music.”
“King Force” went to the Albert Street School. When he was twelve years old, his father died. His mother had no money for the rent. The family moved to Doornfontein. His mother did piece-work. She washed clothes for white people in Yeoville and Kensington.
The Silgee family had little money. But “King Force” did not leave school. He helped his mother with the washing. “King Force” and his friends made carts out of old boxes. They fetched and delivered washing in these carts. Sometimes young “King Force” and his friends raced their carts. They raced down Harrow Road.
“King Force” finished standard 6 at Albert Street School. Then he went to Adams Training College in Natal. He stayed there for 3 years.
“King Force” finished standard 9. Then he came back to Doornfontein. Johannesburg was alive with music at that time. Piano players and jazz bands played allover the place. The saxophone was popular.
“King Force” got a job. He was a clerk in a warehouse. The work was boring. He began to learn the saxophone. He soon played the saxophone very well.
One day in 1935 the municipality came in trucks to Doornfontein. They moved the people to Orlando. “King Force” and his family went to live in Orlando.
There were many halls in Orlando. The people went to the halls for concerts and dances. “King Force” loved the music and dancing at the halls.
“My favourite band was the Jazz Maniacs,” says” King Force”. “They played hot music. “Zulu Boy” Cele was the leader then. When they rested at concerts, I some times jumped on the stage and played the saxophone. The band soon knew me well. In 1936 the band asked me to join them.”
In 1939 “King Force” married his first wife. The band got more popular. In the Second World War, the band played for soldiers. Young Wilson Silgee became “King of the Forces”. People began to call him “King Force”.
In 1944 “Zulu Boy” Cele died. The Jazz Maniacs asked “King Force” to be the new leader. “King Force” was still a clerk in the day. At night he played music until 4 o’clock in the morning.
“We didn’t sleep much in those days” says “King Force”. “Life was fast, man. Sometimes we played two concerts on one night. Then we went to work the next day. We rushed all the time. But we were young then. We enjoyed life.”
The band traveled allover the country. People from allover South Africa loved them. In 1945 they went to Port Elizabeth. In Port Elizabeth “King Force” met a woman called Irene. When the band went home, Irene followed him. She lived in Johannesburg with her sister. A few years later “King Force” left his first wife. He married Irene and they moved to Dube.
In the 1950s, the people in the band started fighting with each other. The Jazz Maniacs split up. But “King Force” did not stop playing music. He started a smaller band. He called the band “King Force and his Forces”. They played mbaqanga music. People liked them. They sold many records. “King Force” made records until the late 1960s.
“King Force” does not play his saxophone much these days. He is getting old. His lungs are weak. But he does not forget. “1 often think about the old days” says “King Force”. “Sometimes I cry when I look at the photographs. I say to myself “Guga mzimba, sala ntliziyo” (The body is old, but the heart is still young.)”
In Gaborone last month the great old “King Force” was young again. And the people still loved him. They will always love him. They will never forget the man who played music that touched their hearts