top of page

The story of “Zulu Boy” Cele

The man who learnt music in the shebeens

Many old people remember the name “Zulu Boy” Cele. “Zulu Boy” was the leader of a band called the Jazz Maniacs. “Zulu Boy” and the Jazz Maniacs were famous about 40 years ago. The Jazz Maniacs played music in Orlando and other black townships. People loved to listen and dance to their music.

“Zulu Boy” was born in January 1914. He was born in a house in Grahamstown Street, City and Suburban. This part of Johannesburg was called Estakanini. Estakanini means “too many people in one place”.

When “Zulu Boy” was young there were no locations or townships for black people. People lived together in the city. They lived together in places like Doornfontein, Vrededorp and Prospect Township. These places were called the slumyards. The slumyards were very crowded.

Life was very hard in the slumyards. Many people didn’t have jobs. And wages were low. In the slumyards women made beer. They sold this beer to make extra money. The first shebeens started in the slumyards.

“Zulu Boy” lived with his mother. His father left the family when ‘Zulu Boy’ was still young. ‘Zulu Boy’s’ mother was very poor. She washed clothes for white people to get money. ‘Zulu Boy’ was a good son. He wanted to help his mother.

The young ‘Zulu Boy’ loved music. He wanted to learn the piano. But ‘Zulu Boy’ did not have piano lessons. They were too poor for piano lessons. ‘Zulu Boy’ learnt to play the piano in the shebeens.

In those days the shebeen queens gave parties. The people danced and drank the whole night at the shebeen parties. The music in the shebeen was called Marabi.

‘Zulu Boy’ listened to the piano players in the shebeens. He learned from them. Sometimes ‘Zulu Boy’ played the piano after a party

‘Zulu Boy’ loved music. But he did not give up school. He completed Junior Certificate. Then he got a job in a bicycle shop in Hillbrow. But the job was boring and the pay was bad. ‘Zulu Boy’ wanted to play music. He left the bicycle shop.

He started playing the piano in shebeens. People liked ‘Zulu Boy’s’ music. Many people went to listen to ‘Zulu Boy’ play the piano.

Shebeens were not healthy places. People drank liquor from Friday to Sunday night. Women sometimes sold themselves for “ngogo” or 25 cents a night. But people needed Marabi. They needed Marabi because life was hard in the slumyards. Marabi helped them to forget their troubles.

‘Zulu Boy’ also learned to play the saxophone. He soon played very well. In 1933 he called some music friends to a meeting. They began to play music together. They called themselves the Jazz Maniacs.

At this time Orlando was built. People were moved from the city to the new townships. Their old homes were broken down and factories were built there.

The people were unhappy in Orlando. Food was more expensive. Women couldn’t find piece-work because the township was far from town. And transport was expensive. The police stopped shebeen and Marabi parties in the townships.

‘Zulu Boy’ played with the Jazz Maniacs in the township. They also played in Sophiatown. And sometimes they played for a men’s club in town. The club was called the Bantu Men’s Social Centre.

Most people loved the Jazz Maniacs. They liked them better than the Merry Blackbirds or the Harlem Swingers. Sometimes the Jazz Maniacs played in two places on the same night. The Jazz Maniacs did well. “Zulu Boy” made some money and helped his mother.

One night in February 1944 “Zulu Boy” went to visit some friends in Pimville. “Zulu Boy” did not come home that night.

The next day, somebody found Zulu Boy’s body on the railway line at Pimville station. “Zulu Boy” was dead. He was only 30 years old.

Nobody knows how ‘Zulu Boy’ died. Some people say he was stabbed in a fight. Some people say he was robbed. Other people say a jealous musician killed him.

‘Zulu Boy’ is one of the fathers of black music in South Africa. Many black musicians still play Marabi music. People like Kippie Moeketsi, Dollar Brand and Hugh Masekela use Marabi tunes in their songs.

‘Zulu Boy’ Cele died very young. But his music will live forever.


If you would like to print or save this article as a PDF, press ctrl + p on your keyboard (cmd + p on mac).

bottom of page