The people in the hall looked at the nine well-dressed madalas on the stage. They could not believe their eyes. What were these ou toppies trying to do?
They were in for a big surprise. The old men finished tuning their musical instruments. Silence fell over the hall. Ntate Molefe “Levay” Moshoeshoe picked up his trumpet and blew the first note. Ou Lenkie Bessie joined in with his soulful alto saxophone. Then the whole band followed.
The Sharpetown Swingsters were rolling — and the room was filled with the sweet sound of Jazz.
THE OLDEST BAND
The magic of the Sharpetown Swingsters from Sharpeville is not new to the ears of music lovers in this country. The group has been around for 37 years. They are the country’s oldest band.
They have lived through a lot. They have played side-by-side with greats like Hugh Masekela and the late Zakes Nkosi. And they have been down and out, playing with the not so great and anybody else. But they are still jamming, just like in the old days.
Ntate Molefe Moshoeshoe, who is 67 years old, told Learn and Teach how the band began: “In Sharpeville at that time the only school was at the Methodist Church. Most of us were scouts at school and we learned to play the bugle. After school we played pennywhistles and other instruments that we made ourselves.”
TWO OLD SAXOPHONES
Ntate Molefe says he was luckier than the rest. “My uncle had two old saxophones and a cornet. I learned to play them when I was very young. My friend Somfumfu Mpongozi used to come to my home and we played the instruments together.
“In 1943 we were joined by another schoolmate, Sol Ramosone, and we started a group called the Sharpe Youngsters. Later we asked a classmate, Ishmael Molefe, to play with us because he had a set of drums.
“We used to play at Stokvels for ten pence. We wanted more instruments but we had no money to buy them. Then a chap from Malawi came to see us. He offered us instruments — so we formed a group under him and called it the Mac Milos.”
GOING IT ALONE
“We were joined by our teacher, Mr Mofokeng, who was playing the banjo, and by two other classmates. We played marabi and kwela music. We also played some jazz songs by American jazzmen like Harry James and Joe Louis, the famous trombonist.
“That was when people started to know us. We got invitations from far and near to play at weddings and concerts. Our favourite place was the Orange Free State. We had a lot of support there. But that group did not last long because this chap from Malawi robbed us.”
Molefe and his friends then played for a short time in a group called His Majesty’s Band. But they were tired of playing in other people’s bands. They decided to buy their own instruments on hire purchase. With their new instruments, they were ready to go it alone.
THE BIRTH OF THE SWINGSTERS
The Sharpetown Swingsters were born in January 1953. The first line-up was: Lenkie Bassie and Isaac Mogale on alto saxophones, Ishmael Moleko on tenor sax, Simon “Paps” Mokhomo and Molefe “Levay” Moshoeshoe on trumpets, Mofoko Masilo on lead guitar, David Masuku on drums and Steve Lepere on double bass. Andrew Lekau was the singer.
“It was not long before the people in Sharpeville were dancing to our music. These were the days of ‘tsaba tsaba’, and a time when a new style of African jazz was born. There were many good, new groups. The black man was waking up,” says Molefe with a smile.
“People loved us wherever we played. We shared many concerts with other great musicians like Miriam Makeba, Hugh Masekela and Abdullah Ibrahim (Dollar Brand). We travelled the country, high and low!”
THE BIG BREAK
“We got our big break in 1955. A chap by the name of Rupert Bopape came to see us. He was a long time fan of our music and talent scout for the EMI recording company. He signed a five year contract with us to record with his company.”
The first Sharpetown Swingsters record was a big hit. Songs like ‘V Blues’ and ‘Sharpetown Special’ swept the country like wildfire. Both these songs took the group up the ladder of fame and brought them many fans.
In 1958 the band made their next record. This had well-known songs like ‘Maliepetsane’ and ‘Archie’s Jump’ on it. Bloke Modisane, the late, great Drum writer, wrote that the record was “very good jive music”. The young musicians from Sharpeville were here to stay.
“TWO BAND SHOWS”
1959 was a big year for the Sharpetown Swingsters. They brought out the hit songs ‘Amajali’ and ‘Iza Levay’. These two hits wore out many dancing shoes.
The Swingsters followed with other good records like ‘Rhumba’, ‘Donkey Party’, ‘Caly Boy’ and ‘Toloza Baby’. The music of the Sharpetown Swingsters reached the sky in the sixties. They were always busy playing ‘two band shows’ with groups like The Merry Blackbirds and other big names.
HARD AT THE TOP
But the Swingsters found it was not easy to be at the top. They were once attacked in a Sharpeville hall by The Russians’.
These gangsters were against the “azikwelwa” bus boycott which happened at that time. The Russians thought the Swingsters were playing for the azikwelwa people. So the thugs attacked everyone in the hall.
But other gangsters liked the sound of the Swingsters. Many times the band was forced to play until the early hours of the morning. The jazz-mad gangsters of the Reef townships just didn’t want the music to stop!
But sad times were ahead for the Swingsters. They too lost friends and loved ones in the Sharpeville massacre of 21 March 1960. Molefe Moshoeshoe came close to losing his life that day. “I was there in front with all the peaceful demonstrators. Those were the days when I used to drink a lot. Somehow, I felt like getting to a shebeen for a quick beer and then coming back again.
“I walked a few blocks away. When I came back I saw bloodied bodies lying there and people running in all directions.”
The band put their instruments away for two weeks. This was to show their respect for their fallen friends and neighbours.
But times got still harder for the group. The government did not want blacks to feel they belonged in the cities. They wanted blacks to think only of the “homelands”.
The SABC, as always, helped the government with its evil plans — they started Radio Bantu.
Radio Bantu only played music like Umcelo Wo Maskandi (ethnic music) and mbaqanga. In this way the SABC helped the government to divide the people. The message was: black people belong to different tribes, and not to one nation.
And the record companies only wanted to make money. They needed the radio stations to play their records. Then people would hear the songs and buy the records. Because Radio Bantu did not play jazz, the record companies were not interested in making jazz records.
So there was no more recording money for jazz bands like the Swingsters. But the Swingsters kept on playing, at weddings and at halls in the townships.
The band suffered another blow when their singer, Andrew Lekau, left them. He went overseas with the famous musical, King Kong, and he did not come back. Other members, like Zakes Skade, left the group and went to work. Sydney Mabhena was shot and killed by a policeman. Zakes Makhale left and became a priest.
But these losses did not kill the group. Other musicians joined them in place of those who left. Some of the jazz- men who joined in the sixties are still with the Swingsters — like drummer Dutch Kopa, tenor saxophonist Titus Ngalo, pianist Daniel Kholoane and lead guitarist Steve Mokhele.
The Sharpetown Swingsters just kept on going. In the seventies they played at weddings and music festivals. In 1985 they went to a big festival in Botswana where they met their old friend, Hugh Masekela.
“A FAMILY THING”
Steven Mokhele spoke about playing for the Sharpetown Swingsters: “We are all friends and we treat each other like brothers. It has become like a family thing to me — even though I am still young in this group.”
How long has he been with the group? ‘Twenty one years,” he answered, without smiling. “Let me remind you that some of the members have been with the group for 37 years. Lenkie and Molefe are 67 years old — and I am only 57.”
But the ‘ou toppies’ in the Sharpetown Swingsters do have a real youngster in their group. He is 24-year-old bass guitarist Joseph Ramatlotlo. He has learned to play all the old songs. “I started just playing with them,” says Joseph. “But I decided to stick with them for the love of their music.”
A BAND OF THE PEOPLE
It is the same with the band’s fans all over the country. Like Joseph Ramatlotlo, they too stick with the Swingsters because of a deep love for their music.
But there is also another reason why people love the Swingsters so much. The Swingsters give people more than just beautiful music. Ever since they began, they have been a band of the people.
“On Christmas Day we used to hire a horse cart,” remembers Molefe. “We would ride around and play for the people in the townships. The people followed us around and threw money, oranges, brandies — everything!
Sometimes we used to get about four to five hundred rands.” But this money was not for the Swingsters. The band gave it to those who needed it — like old-age homes, schools and centres for the disabled.
Today the Swingsters are still riding around playing for the people. Just last month they played at Women’s Day festivals in Johannesburg and Pretoria. They are always there to answer the call — and to bring a swing for all.
NEW WORDS invitation—when you get asked to go somewhere favourite—something you like best talent scout—somebody who looks for people who are good at something—like singing, dancing or acting massacre—when a lot of people are killed at one time ethnic music—music that is made for people from different tribes and races