/ 25 April 1997

Remember Joe Mogotsi?

Fifties jazz stars, The Manhattan Brothers, are being reclaimed in a new documentary. GLYNISO’HARA recalls the days of King Kong and kwela

MEETING and listening to musicians active before the rock’n’roll era is a pleasure rarely savoured in this country. Peter Rezant, the leader of the Merry Blackbirds, formed in 1929, and active into the Seventies, is still with us and still under-appreciated, as are a raft of similar music stars.

Some names, like those of Dorothy Masuka, Dolly Rathebe, Ntemi Piliso (African Jazz Pioneers) and Peter Makonotela (Elite Swingsters) have become more familiar to whites and young black people through the now defunct Rosebank Shebeen.

But for most people, mention the Forties and Fifties and the only names they’ll come up with will be Miriam Makeba and Hugh Masekela.

They definitely won’t know who Joe Mogotsi is. And in a way, who can blame them? Joe has been out of the country for 36 years. Since leaving for London with King Kong in 1961, he hasn’t released a single record here and, perhaps most important, it was a case of “out of sight out of mind” for the music industry.

But Joe was a member of the Manhattan Brothers, once the most popular male vocal group in the country and the first South African group to have a record in America’s Billboard Top 100, Lovely Lies, at No 45 in March 1956.

“In the early Fifties, Masuka, Rathebe and the Manhattan Brothers were at the pinnacle of local showbusiness,” says Rob Allingham of Gallo. “The Brothers found Miriam singing with a smaller outfit and brought her on board. She was catapulted to the heights of the local scene. Obviously she was a tremendous talent and may have made her name anyway, but they were instrumental in assisting her career. They worked together for two years before she left to join the all-girl group The Skylarks.”

The Brothers also worked with a top class band – including the great bandleader, composer and saxophonist Mackay Davashe, sax player Kippie Moeketsi, General Duze on drums and Sol Klaaste on piano. “It was one of the finest in the business and went on to become the Jazz Dazzlers with Hugh Masekela and Jonas Gwangwa,” says Allingham.

But back in the late Fifties the group – singers and musicians – were cast in the musical that changed lives forever, King Kong.

Late group leader Nathan “Dambuza” Mdledle took the title role of the boxer while Joe played Lucky the gangster. The other two members, Rufus Khoza and Ronnie Majola Sehume, were part of Lucky’s gang. Makeba took the lead female role.

Sadly, Mdledle died about two years ago in London, never once having returned home, says Joe, who has been back a few times, in 1972, 1990 and 1996, when he did a concert in Cape Town. Now he’s back for the making of a documentary on the Brothers for Britain’s Channel 4.

The documentary is being directed by Virginia Heath, who was also responsible for a groundbreaking Channel 4/SABC co- production on neglected South African artist Gerard Sekoto. At the launch of the film, titled Memories of Sekoto, she recalls meeting the members of the Manhattan Brothers: “They were the sharpest dressers in the room. It’s taken three years since then to get the film off the ground, which I hope will be a tribute to the extraordinary contribution these musicians made to South African jazz of the Forties and Fifties.”

“We came from a ragtime base,” explains Joe (72), but looking much younger, sitting in a Melville B&B’s sunny breakfast room, his residence during the TV shoot. “We decided early on we were not going to do mbube (the style of Ladysmith Black Mambazo), but we built up our own African repertoire.” They’d do things like take The Inkspots’ Pork Chops and Gravy and write an African lyric for it. “So it became Bodolomsopo (Pot of Soup) and it said `get a plate and dish it out yourself’.” They weren’t translations, he says, but new lyrics, and they also wrote original material in that style, increasingly Africanising the sound.

Indeed, one of their compositions, Komponeng, has been discussed in these pages recently, in the controversy over the authorship of Tom Hark, a kwela hit that Elias Lerole says he wrote and regarded as the origin of the term “kwela” for pennywhistle jive music. Mogotsi says Komponeng contains the melody of the song, while Lerole says Tom Hark is his composition. In the meantime, it is actually registered at the South African Music Rights Organisation to producer Rupert Bopape.

Before King Kong, the Brothers had tried a few times to perform outside the country, but the State had never allowed them out. “We were victimised because we refused to perform in the Van Riebeeck Festival in Cape Town,” says Joe.

But once they were in London and the show closed (after a run of about a year), they decided to stay. “We had been flogging ourselves in Southern and central Africa for many years. It was time to try other places.”

It was tough though. “People don’t know how difficult England was for a black performer. In America, there are a lot of black people. But in England we’d hardly see a black person in the audience.”

Mdledle acted “a bit on film and stage as well,” says Joe, but he unfortunately became diabetic in later life”. Ronnie left after a while and got a day job and was replaced by Walter Loate.

They worked with the help of Pearl Connor Management, which catered for Afro/Asian artists. Eventually Joe and Pearl married and they’ve been together 25 years. The group toured England, often performing in working men’s clubs, and much of Europe, going as far as Israel. He also appeared in the German production of Porgy and Bess and was understudy in the London production of Showboat – “for the role of Joe, who sings Old Man River.”

In later years, he supplemented his income with public relations for an American engineering company.

“The young ones today don’t know who I am. Miriam and Hugh had a better time of it. When things got really tight I tried to find them through Harry Belafonte’s office in America. I asked if they could include us in their shows, we had included Miriam after all, but it was like writing to no one. We never got replies at all. It’s a pity, it would’ve helped build up our music, South African music, stateside.”

Joe wasn’t married when he left, but he was separated from three children. He wasn’t allowed back into the country when his son died, killed and thrown from a train on New Year’s Eve in the Sixties, nor when his father died. “But in 1972 I had a chance and I went to look for my father’s grave. The graveyard had been cleared, there was nothing, no tombstones, nothing. So the poor old chap was nowhere to be found.”

On a more cheerful note, there’s a Manhattan Brothers reissue in the offing, perhaps out later this year. And Joe is scheduled to sing at fundraising dinner (R25 000 per head) for former political prisoners on May 2 at The Bay Hotel, Cape Town.

Dolly Rathebe and the Elite Swingsters will be there too and Peter Rezant will be Master of Ceremonies and a host of Fifties figures will attend.

“Some of these people are very old and it’s time we paid tribute to them,” said publicist Merle Falken. “The idea is not to be too formal, to have a reunion of old friends. Channel 4 will be filming the event as will Jurgen Schadeberg for the SABC, so there’ll be some kind of record as well.” At the same time, they hope to raise R1-million for the fund.