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The Pennywhistlers of South Africa

The penny may be out of fashion, but the pennywhistle lives on. Pennywhistle is a uniquely South African instrument that gave birth to the sounds of kwela and the jazz jive of South Africa. This music created many international hits in the mid to the late 1950's.

Today there are still a few great pennywhistle players that are making a powerful contribution to the contemporary sound of Southern African music and are experiencing a revival in interest and support. 

Barney Rachabane, now in his 69th year is one of the original members of the famous pennywhistle kids known as Alexandria All Stars. Barney is doing a nationwide tour in the major playhouses during the second half of this year with a big band, the Mzanzi Music Ensemble. Barney started performing professionally at the age of 8 years when the pennywhistle generation came to the fore. He was pictured at this tender age in Drum magazine.

The pennywhistle era was overtaken by the saxophone in the late 50's and that trend continues to this day with the saxophone being a bigger and more powerful sound on the band stand. Pennywhistlers such as Barney, Mdu Magwaza and Moses Sefatsa, like Morris Goldberg, all play saxophone

Pennywhistle was brought strongly back into fashion in the late 90's by Mdu Magwaza of Mango Groove.  Dave Matthews fell in love with the instrument and invited a star performer Big Voice Jack Lerole to perform with him on a massive show.

Mdu continues to show the versatility and improvisational quality of this instrument with his performances with African blues maestro Madala Kunene.

Another musician who has played pennywhistle throughout his career is Elias 'S'dumo' Ngidi from Kwa Zulu Natal.  Also in his late 60's, Elias plays guitar and vocals to accompany his pennywhistle performances.

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Drum magazine covered the pennywhistle era with striking photography and articles published between 1957 and 1958 ... Here are some of the highlights of their publication on this topic … ( Drum Magazine is situated in the trendy Maboneng district, there marvellous archive is preserved).

Leading names they included were Spokes Mashiyane, Strike Vilakazi. Lemmy Special Mabaso (who performed with the Alexandra Junior Bright Boys) and Elias and his Zig Zag Jive Flutes (they had a hit with Tom Hark). The Basement Boys (1956) included Albert Ralulimi, Specks Rampura, Simon Majassi, and Sam Hlongwane. 

American clarinetist, Tony Scott invited by the Witwatersrand University Jazz Appreciation Society, visited South Africa in 1957 and created a recorded catalogue of some of the finest musicians of the year.

Scott recorded the famous Spokes Mashiyane track, Odlha-Dlha  with the Alexandra Dead End Kids which included four youngsters from Alexandra township: Shakes Molepo, Benjamin Masindi, Joseph Mahlatsi, and Sophonia Namini. Shakes also plays with Peter Macontela.

Drum November 1956

Matshikza quotes a colleague, Dale Quaker:  "Shucks, once you hear one penny whistle, you've heard the rest. Like what Rezant said the other day, you go to a concert and after hearing the first number, you can go home ‘cause the rest will be the same'” .

Drum March 1957

Trutone's Envee label and Troubadour records were producing pennywhistle albums, an advert for which can be found in Drum, March 1957.

March 1957 Todd Matshikiza wrote in Drum:  "I feel strongly now that the string band must try to be different from the past five years. They must put up the same struggle as the flutes are doing so gallantly. First, one man recorded the flute. Then a duet. Then a trio. Now there are six, seven and eight flutes with rhythm accompaniment available on record. Sometimes with a sax, piano and drums into the bargain." 


Drum April 1958

Nathaniel Nakasa writes an article on the penny whistle groups in Drum April 1958 titled "Penny Whistle is Big Time Now"…

Shakes Molepo “ — he's five foot, no more—couldn't manage school and the whistle at the same time. One of them had to suffer, and it wasn't that silver pipe.  [...]  They made two discs with Tony Scott, the American jazzman, when he was here. The dough bought neat togs."  [...]  The Dead End Kids led by Shakes Molepo, are another bunch of boys who make the penny whistle tick. They are loud and always exciting entertainment for their audience. But they lack the showmanship that rocketed Lemmy Mabaso into fame

"If the man in the street had his way, Lemmie Mabaso, of Alexandra Township, would be declared the greatest flute player we've got. This lad, who says he's 12, is a showman with dazzling personality. When he blows his silver rod with his Alexandra Junior Bright Boys men and women go wild." 

Drum , September 1958

The Scott recording with the Solven Whistlers ( Ben Nkosi along with Peter Macontela lead this very successful group) is reviewed by Bloke Modisane… “This is a real gasser. There are things happening here, The wild frenzy is taken out of the quell. This is cool, with a modern alto and clarinet playing melodic lines over the harmony of a penny whistle ensemble. A big winner.”  


Ben Nkosi,  Drum , April 1958, Shakes & Spokes Mashiyane in front of Trutone House,  Drum , April 1958. Photo: Peter Magubane.

Barney Rachabane Drum archives , Tony Scott with Kippie Moeketsi,  Drum , October 1957

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