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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?"


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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.’"

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