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King Kong : All African Jazz Opera

"It would not only present the music, but the colour and effervescence—and the poignancy and sadness—that make up the peculiar flavour of township life." Harry Bloom

King Kong is the story of a well known Johannesburg boxer Ezekiel Dhlamini. Through rivalry with a gansger for a women he looses his career, he looses the woman and eventually takes his own life in jail.

Vusi Mchunu writes, "The script for King Kong was evolved by Clive Menell of Anglo American; music student from Cambridge, Stanley Glasser, classic ballet choreographer Arnold Dower, journalist Pat Wiliams, lawyer Harry Bloom. Todd Matshikiza wrote the music and Mankwenkwe Davashe conducted the orchestra. King Kong absorbed the black artistic talent in Johannesburg; the Manhattan Brothers, Miriam Makeba's Skylarks; Mackay Davashe's Jazz Dazzlers; Victor Ndlazilwana's the Woody Woodpeckers, the Katzenjammer Kids, the Crazy Folks, the Chord Sisters, the Saints, the Swankey Spots, the Queens pageboys. It was episodic, unified in an associative manner and carried forward by song, dance, the use of mime, little dialogue."

Sylvester Stein recalls in his memoires ... "King Kong, story of a heavyweight township boxer, was nothing less than Drum set up on stage. Music, dance, sort, politics, crime, shebeens, sex, township life … the complete Drum cocktail. What’s more not only Todd but many other ex‐Drum men were in the company, even Gwigwi Mwerbi, the circulation manager finding a slot as saxophonist in the orchestra. All were taking the chance of freedom and cherishing hopes of fortune and lifelong fame."

The vibrant golden era was given a symbolic ending with The King Kong All African Opera composed by Todd Matshikiza. This was South Africa's first jazz export and a major achievement in taking our unique sounds to the West End. King Kong was a classical theatrical piece played out in a real life situation of far grander cunning, daring, danger and survival. Nathan Mdledle of the Manhattan Brothers was chosen as King Kong, Miriam Makeba (singer with the Manhattan brothers and skylarks) was cast as the heroine and Joe Mogotsi as the gangster rival. King Kong was a major achievement in taking the SA jazz story to West End. King Kong conspired to offer 'black' full time musicians a one way ticket out of South Africa in 1961. King Kong started the musical exodus of musicians to foreign pastures to spread the message while a number of great musicians stayed behind to keep the music alive at home.


Sylvester Stein writes in his memoires ... "I switched to another subject, sitting down next to Dam‐Dam— Nathan Dambuza Mdledle the singer who played King Kong in the show, that human gorilla—to talk to him about the big gumboot dance he did on stage and its origins at the Durban docks, where the whaling station workers would meet in the vast flensing shed and despite the turgid smell of whale blood and blubber, dance in wonderful unison on the greasy floor, doing their gumboot adaptation of the traditional barefoot Zulu war‐dance. It produced a still greater slapping, stamping noise than did the original, it was very stirring and strangely flamenco in feeling, from Spain rather than Africa. Or perhaps where Spain first got it from was Africa?"

Mona Glasser recalls in her memoires ... "At the home of Clive Menell and his wife, Irene, who were to give endless help and encouragement to the project, Harry Bloom and Todd Matshikiza, now joined by architect‐painter Arthur Goldreich, would meet. In the romantic atmosphere of a lovely studio‐room with its striped woven curtains, easel and points, records and piano, they would visualize (and act out) many of the separate scenes, characters, sequences, and facets of the story they wished to produce, and the aspects of the black man’s life they wished to portray."

"There are a few composers who are not forced by society to earn a living in other ways and Todd was no exception. In turn he had been
bookseller, messenger, waiter, and journalist and was currently a salesman for a firm selling razor‐blades. All this time, however, he continued to develop his musical talent. Music flowed from within, and his varied experience enabled him to appreciate the struggles of
King Kong, and to translate them into melody."

"The only available stage in Johannesburg with sufficient facilities to handle King Kong was the Great Hall of the University of the Witwatersrand, an ideal launching place for such a project since it is one of the few venues in the country where, appropriately enough, a
mixed audience could enjoy the product of a mixed creative team. The hall was booked for February 1959 and many tentative arrangements made with players and artists."

"Spike was impressed by Todd’s music, and thought that the various numbers showed a wide range of musical emotion and imagination.
There was a variety of idioms, all of them, however, natural to the South African scene. ‘The title song King Kong’, said Spike, ‘is an excellent mutation of the African idiom and the American musical song. Very often, as in “The Earth Turns Over”, there is a natural and original construction of form. “The Death Song” has proportions of magic opera greatness, while “Back o’ the Moon” has undertones of a leading South African urban dance rhythm. “Sad Times, Bad Times” is an instrumental piece of the most sad and serious nature, and could have been written nowhere but in South Africa.’"

King Kong – our knot of time and music by Pat Williams

The iconic 1950s King Kong all African Jazz Opera comes back to life with a new book and production.

At the age of 85, author Pat Williams is one of the last survivors of King Kong, the African Jazz Opera that became a smash-hit in 1959 and South Africa's most popular musical of all time. At the age of 23, and a journalist on the Rand Daily Mail, she had the tremendous fortune of contributing the lyrics to the production.

Her book is a collection of personal memoires, amusing stories, disappointments and quotations on the topic from other sources.

Pat Williams Interview

Eric Abraham the producer is the lynchpin of the whole show opened every single door that has brought the show to where it is now, but he had several tries before and putting things together which for one reason or another didn't work – because that is show business.

He suggested I write the book because I was saying some people have just disappeared from the story and some things are not as I remember them – so he said write a book it will set the record straight. I said I can't write a factual documentary type book because it is too complex and I don't have the resources to go and do all that research, I'll write a memoire. With every time it looked as though the show will go on I would pick up the book and write some and then it didn't go on. And I would stop and then wait a year and then it would look like it was on again so I would pick it up again, so I wrote it in bursts in between. From burst to last burst was 6 years.

It is very hard to write when you are at 86, one should get writing early.

King Kong is an extraordinary experience to be given that young. If you asked anybody connected with the show they would say the same thing. For every single person was an absolutely unique experience. And also it was this shared collective experience and full of life lessons and energy from the start. It was a phenomenon that was almost impersonal. We were very lucky to be the people who were there at that moment when it could happen and did.

I continued as a journalist and wrote a couple of pseudonymous books which are still pseudonymous because they were novels and I decided they could go out under another name. And then I trained as a psychotherapist because I had always been a science. On the Cape Times when I was young I had a science column because it was a way of educating myself about science which I knew nothing. I always had that thread of interest in my life. And I was interested in psychology and I come from a medical family anyway. At a certain point I thought let me think about this because it is also something you can do into your 90s, at home sitting down.

King Kong is the most astonishing story because it just keeps going which all real stories do. I was director of the College of Storytellers for about 10 years which was an organisation designed to be temporary to kickstart the story-telling tradition again in this country. I learnt an awful lot about stories and how important they are and the moment we got language when we were in te caves the first thing we were doing was telling stories to each other. And I learnt as a psychotherapist how stories are diagnostic and also therapeutic. I teach workshops all over Britain and outside called ‘How to tell stories that heal,' for psychotherapists and social services people – police doctors ad all sorts of people like that. If a story contains a pattern which overrides a less adaptive pattern in the brain and you tell it in the right way you can actually influence somebody and affect them for the better without invading their privacies. It is quite astonishing.

And of course now that you have asked me the question I can see that King Kong was this extraordinary story and it was a healing story. Look what it did for our society, amazing. It brought us together in a non-political way for the first time publically. It is the most powerful story. In this new production nearly 60 years later you will see how powerful it is – it goes on and on.”

I have written a few songs. I wrote with Stanley Meyers and we were going to do a musical together about the Suffragettes but it didn't work.

It is in your mind that this is how it should be. We couldn't work together very much because of apartheid. The melodies were tape recorded and then I would drive around in the car trying words out and singing the. It was really the words for me were there to reflect something about the story. Back of the moon was reflected how in this really difficult society you could let go and enjoy yourselves. By day you were called ‘boys,' what white people called black people in those days and by night, “Make a noise boys and be a man.” That was the thought. It is yours.

And the death song as well I was thinking what it would be like being there if you had lived this life and then I thought this would be your destiny and everything would have shrink away leaving you with the strongest thing which is 'I have been true to myself.”

We had a rapport very easily. I loved his music – who wouldn't – it is fantastic. But we didn't discuss the lyrics at al. I would always go away and write what was in mind and he would say, “Yes Patty that is great.” We were very harmonious and close. Even though he was such a marvellous writer he just left the lyrics for me to do and I would bring them back to him.

Anything that had anything to do with it has never forgotten it. It is just a very strong part of one's experience. Not everybody will have the chance to have an experience as groundbreaking and strong and informative as that in a group of such strong people. Apart from the creative people and these fantastic musicians, there were all the enablers. It was a glorious time for music in the townships.

Eric Abraham the producer who is the lynchpin of the new production. And then Irene and Clive Menell – they made the whole thing possible. Eddie Joseph another business man who raised the money for it and was very helpful in many ways. Robert Loder who worked for Anglo-Vaal – he too played an enormous part. There we disparate sorts of people as well as the creative team – the musicians, actors and dancers. It was huge and involved an awful lot of people.

My life took me here to London. My parents and maternal grandparents were British. And I have friends here and I came here young enough to establish a life. My husband is British. It is too late to come back to SA now as much as I would love to. When I come to South Africa, the soil, the earth, the smell of the air, the land, the sound of the language the accents and the site of all these marvellous people grab at me and claim me immediately. South Africa is my first love and always in my heart.

I didn't even know that the show was coming to London. I didn't know what had happened to it and it was just by accident that I was talking to someone and found out that the show was on its way. I had hoped that it would because as Todd and I thought we might make 60 quid out of it each. I really didn't know.

I am toying with the idea of dong another memoire called the rest of it, all the bits that didn't go into it. If I do then those travels will form part of it. I was taking in different experiences the whole time looking after myself and seeing new things and making new friends and contacts and having all sorts of adventures. I was so busy with the experience I didn't have time to soul search but I was being effected all the time.

Jonathan Mumby the director is brilliant. I know his track record and what he is capable of, so I know he will have done in the Fugard will suit the Fugard. He is a brilliant and subtle director and probably everyone is having a wail of a time working with him.

King Kong – Our knot of time and music
Quotes from the personal memoir of South Africa's legendary musical by Pat Williams

“Seeing ordinary life in South Africa safely enacted for the very first time in song and dance … joined ordinary people together in friendship and celebration.”

“Most people who had seen the JHB production were a little disappointed by the London one and the noticeable watering down of the music.”

“London reviewers felt that the political edge they were hoping for was lacking. Having lived in a free society, they understand that King Kong's very existence was a political statement in itself.”

“In the very month that KK opened in London, that anticipation was reinforced by the British PM Harold Macmillan, in his famous ‘wind of change' speech, in which he said that Britain could not support SA's racial policies.”

“He also told me of a different kind of friendship, created through the unbreakable bonds of tribal initiation.”

“I vaguely wondered whether the King Kong experience we were all sharing was in its own less gruelling way also an initiation of sorts.”

“Music poured from him tumbling out of him like water.”

“He was unusual and extraordinary, possessed enormous intelligence and generosity of spirit, and inspired affection and admiration.”

“Love is the element that catches the heart, rendering the music unforgettable.”

“Perhaps our more edgy perception of the story and its music wasn't yet saleable.”

“We felt ignored, our work thoughtlessly and peremptorily brushed aside.” “Over the years Todd would repeatedly speak resentfully of the heavy white hand that had descended on his music.”

“Lost control of the content.”

“That's show business.”

“We wanted a large proportion of the profits to go to the African Medical Student's Trust Fund.”

“The material that was beginning to come out of the townships was energetic, immediate, vibrant and uninhibited.”

“He virtually ordered the judge to sentence him to death.”, which, when facing its death, finally finds its voice and sings its heart out. King Kong's speech to the judge was his swan song.”

“His story had echoes of the legend of the swan.”

“Trevor Huddleston fostered and nurtured the exceptional musical talent pulsing through his students at St Peters School from which the Huddleston Jazz Band was born. Huddleston's farewell concert held at the Bantu Men's Social Centre raised enough money to form the Union of South African Artists and rent premises at Dorkay House, a former textile factory on Eloff Street.”

“At Dorkay House Ian began a programme to find, train and present African musical performers to white audiences. And by the time casting for King Kong begun, the majority of performers would come from Dorkay House.”

“The Spoilers, Alexandra township's most feared and vicious gangsters and killers, heard that part of the story we were telling onstage was modelled on them, and decided to stop us.”

“Members of our cast were carrying the heavy baggage of risk and humiliation and hardship on top of their daily work and time consuming nightly rehearsals.”

“When Miriam's mother who had never been to the theatre before, saw her daughter being strangled on stage, she let out a horrified cry, and her frantic screams of “My child, my child.”

“Come Back Africa remains entwined in my mind with King Kong, because it too drew its energy from the extraordinary high octane and sadly short-lived optimism of the times.”

“I arrived in London with a heavy heart, high hopes of a new start, and virtually no money.”

“Audience dancing in the streets outside, imitating the moves of the kwela or patha-patha. It was the first time anyone could remember any London audience dancing in the streets.”

“Interesting irony that Ezekiel Dhlamini, who could never fulfil his dream of coming to London, was enabling our cast, players and musicians to live out that which had been utterly beyond his reach.”

“Lionel Rogosin had financed and backed Bloke's escape from SA and his transition period in London, where he wrote Blame Me on History.”

“District 6 brimmed with the ‘more' that results when people of different backgrounds of race and culture mix and nourish each other.”

“Like paper riding in the breeze …
Like pennwhistle melodies.
Like birds that fly
Across a sky they know.

“The miracle of King Kong – it was a compound of the time, the place, and a group of people representing the best of SA culture and talent.

 

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