Sophiatown’s living heritage grooves into the future

The Afrikan Freedom Station, an initiative by filmmaker Steve Kwena Mokwena, sits in the shadow of the Melville Koppies and the iconic Sophiatown, to the west of Johannesburg.

For Mokwena, setting up shop near the site of old Sophiatown is informed by both the familial and the sentimental.

“Both my parents were born in Thula Ndivhile, the colloquial name of the native western township adjacent to Sophiatown.” The township, created after the influenza pandemic of 1918, was also where Mokwena’s itinerant grandfather, saxophonist Jacob Madumo, used to blow his horn for an ensemble known as the African Rhythmers. These musicians were instrumental in developing the template for modern South African music. About this grandfather, Mokwena was told, “your grandfather left on the back of a horse-drawn cart playing the sax and headed east”.

Mokwena is keen to stress that we have to move away from the maudlin sentimentality that attends the old Sophiatown myth to stare fixedly at the present.

“The worst thing you could be is nostalgic about the greatness of the past, forgetting that there is a lot of innovation taking place today,” he said. “People need to see [heritage] as dynamic, living and moving ­forward”.

The venue was recently used by Sifiso Ntuli and Sbu “Da General” Nxumalo (of the House of Nsako fame) to launch their latest venture, the Jazz Meander, a roving jazz experience. The concept will be rolled out in Johanneburg initially, before the conscious party commissars — the two gave us the memorable slogan “the people shall groove” — take the jazz experience nationwide.

The Melville restaurant, Wish, the Afrikan Freedom Station and ­Nambitha’s in Soweto are some of the venues that will host the likes of bassist Herbie Tsoaeli and horn men Sydney Mnisi and Feya Faku.

The Jazz Meander will launch on June 16 at Nambitha’s, 6877 Vilakazi Street, Orlando West, Soweto, from 12pm to 6pm. Artists include  Feya Faku, Herbie Tsoaeli, Sydney Mnisi and Deep Fried Man. For more information, phone 072 223 2648.

The Afrikan Freedom Station is at the corner of 5th and Thornton avenues, Sophiatown. Pianist Nduduzo Makhathini and others will play from 7.30pm on June 16 

Percy Zvomuya
Percy Zvomuya is a writer and critic who has written for numerous publications, including Chimurenga, the Mail & Guardian, Moto in Zimbabwe, the Sunday Times and the London Review of Books blog. He is a co-founder of Johannesburg-based writing collective The Con and, in 2014, was one of the judges for the Caine Prize for African Writing.

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