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Interview Fitzroy Ngcukana
I was born in Langa township. My father's father comes from the Eastern Cape. His nickname is Boboy. Boboy is a bird, that beautiful bird with the crest. He had a shop in the Eastern Cape but he was involved in politics, so to avoid harassment he came with my grandmother to Cape Town. They stayed in Ndabeni and they were moved to Langa township.
I see that the whole of South Africa is going to the renaming of streets. I don't know how it happened with Langa township that the streets were named after South African heroes. Where I stayed in a family house in Langa is called Moshoeshoe after the Sotho king. I regard him as a South African because he ended up in the mountains resisting the settler colonialists. So they had to go to the mountains so they can be able to throw stones at them at Thaba Bosiu . He is a South African, he came from around Bloemfontein. Let's leave that one.
There was a street Makanda after Makanda, there was a street Sigcawu after one of the kings, the Xhosa kings. That is where I grew up.
My father is the pioneer in the family in terms of getting involved in music. He would never have gone as far as he went without the complete support of my grandmother. Her name is Alice. Ezra wrote a song for her. My father influenced my brothers but certain things they learnt around. There was a Salvation Army where Duke, Bucs Gcongo and other guys, Louis Moholo were influenced. That was where they were able to get instruments. My father by the time he went to manhood, training, he was playing the trumpet. He was rehearsing it in the bush. When he came out of there, the main guy who brought jazz to the Western Cape is a guy by the name of Temmy Hawker. This man was born in Graaf Reniet. Temmy Hawker was light in complexion. Temmy Hawker could play coloured: the surname also. He was working at the docks. Whilst working at the docks it was during the World War 44-6. Then he saw these guys coming from the war ships with their musical instruments. He negotiated with them to sell him the musical instruments. That is how they came about in South Africa. He is the one who formed the big band, starting putting together guys in the Western Cape. They formed the Merry Macs and there were other guys who were there, older guys and my father ended up joining this big band and played under Temmy Hawker and the Merry Macs. It is a similar thing happening throughout the whole world. You find the youth is with older guys and the youth are having other ideas about what direction the music should go. The direction, radio was not able to pick up everything, but everything they would get from the movies. Dress style, the music and they would listen to it and go and interpret it themselves. Sometimes they would get LP's and listen to it and play. My father loved it. You can see by him naming his oldest son, Duke, after Duke Ellington because he liked the big band stuff. And then my brother who comes after Duke he named him after Coleman Hawkins but he died at age six months. Then it's Ray. With Ray, he saw the name in a movie. It was Rayman, but they heard it wrong and called him Raymond. Me; I was named after a big band leader in Australia, Fitzroy's big band. So, everything my father did circled around music. Growing up we never had a chance for him to stay long in the house because promoters would take him to Port Elizabeth, to Durban, to Johannesburg and you would find that everything does not work out as it is supposed to and the promoter runs away and they have to look for gigs around there, in that area so he can raise money and come back. There was that animosity between him and the sisters. His grandmother was favouring him. He was a ‘non-worker' and things like that. Growing up, I could hear all these bars about the entertainment industry being like this. Duke, my eldest brother, he formed a band. He first had a vocal group, they called themselves The Semitones along with Ntobeli Guma , and another gentleman called Branch. They would do a quartet just like the High Lows and all those groups from abroad. Duke was playing trumpet and sometimes would put up a band or do it acapella. Then Ezra, growing up, he liked Cannonball Adderley. He started on flute and then on alto and then liking Coltrane and other streams. When my father came around he would show them, he would use the diagram, the cycle of fifths and draw it for you and start you on that. Even during the 50's, if he was forming a band he would put guys together and ask you which instrument you like because he used to have instruments. One would play drums and then he would check him out and then he would change them around. If he can't crack it on drums, put him on bass. If he can't crack it on bass put him on trumpet, and then he would teach them. His right hand man during that time, because he knew he would leave and go and play gigs in other places was Cups n Saucers who was a family friend and they used to be at the same school with my mother and my father.
With me, when did I start getting interested in music …. From a young age, six, lower primary school I would be called by the teachers to come and sing for them during lunch time. Of course, what I get out of there, I would get food for them and sing the popular artists from the radio. I would sing Elvis Presley songs not knowing the lyrics; songs like Jailhouse Rock and all those kinds of things. When I grew up I studied at Thembani Lower Primary School in Langa, then the higher primary school was Zimasa and then Langa high school. I studied there and then there were the 1976 riots. There was a lull in studying for two years because of the rioting and then I ended up at the University of Western Cape. Before that, whilst there was the uprisings, I put together Amampondo, they used to play in the church, marimba's and do poetry and I acted at the People's Space in Long Street in Cape Town. It used to be called the Space and then it closed down and then Rob O Mata opened it and it was called The People's Space. When I got to the University of Western Cape I had financial problems so I put up musicians that used to play with Winston and Ezra. They used to be called Skuif. So I put together the younger guys and we rehearsed some music and I got an audition at a nightclub and we got a gig there. It was a short stint. These guys of Drive had been playing for a long time in Athlone with Ezra, so they wanted a leave, so they said we must come and audition there. We auditioned there and we had a three months stint there. From that three months stint we went to Rosy's pub in Elsies River and that is where we played about six months. Whilst playing there we were using somebody else's instruments. This guy was a drug dealer. I didn't know about that, I just thought that he was a shebeen guy. One day he came to the club and said, “Fitzroy I got Iets daar by die speakers”, which means he had hidden something. Somebody was questioning how he made money and that is the reason why he bought instruments for us, we were the cover up. When we got to Rosy's pub and he was ill treating us I went to a music shop to find out about hire purchase and we got that hire purchase agreement, so what we did, the money we were supposed to pay him, we took all of it and went to pay the deposit for the instruments. When the guy came to get his money I said there are your instruments there. The younger guys didn't believe it that I stood up to this gangster guy, drug dealer. When we were outside they tried to beat us up but the fans at the pub defended us and chased them away. That was in '78 up till 1980. That was the pop scene there. After that pop scene, the guys I was working with, these musicians were ill disciplined, from the point of view, when they have got money, they wouldn't be coming to rehearsals, thinking that this money would be around there for a longer time. What I did, I called them to a meeting and said guys I am leaving now but if you want you can take over the instruments. There was nobody to take that responsibility so the company that was selling instruments came to pick them up. For a short period I was still around Cape Town trying to arrange means of coming to Johannesburg. And I tried to jam one day with my brothers. As I was jamming with my brothers they stopped the song in the middle and they said no Fitzroy you must go and rehearse. I was singing in another key.
Then I came to Johannesburg and hooked up with Ezra's friend who was playing with Mahlatini and the Mahotella Queens. His name is Teaspoon and he is from Durban. He was killed here in Hillbrow. We played and did smaller gigs. And out of that I was able to hone my experience. That was in 1981-3. In between I was shooting movies doing advertising. Then I ended up forming a casting agency where I was organising jobs for artists and voice overs because my brother Ray was working for an advertising agency. I started supplying them.
Then, 1989 I got into politics. In 1972 I had gone to the funeral of Robert Sobukwe, was hooked up with the politics and joined the PAC. And was secretary for sports, arts and culture for the PAC and after the elections I went to the musicians union, fighting for the rights of musicians and things like that.
All these years at the back of my mind, I was interested in the administrative side of artists, the lack of respect artists get. I was always interested in terms of them getting a better share of the pie. Also trying to find means and ways of how it can be done. That is why I ended up with the musicians union. All I have seen is musicians are only interested in the performing side, they are not interested in how to get better out of what they do and be able to plan ahead and form partnerships: partnerships with people who have skills, whether it is publicity. All they want is to look for a manager, simply from the point of view that he wants to be sitting there and that butler person looking for gigs for him. That is basically what I have been trying to fight for. The saddest part of the South African music industry is before 1994, the musicians were self-reliant. Duke's concept was “Uptown”. He would call his brand Uptown quartet, quintet, sextet. He was working. With whatever money, he would book the horn a month in advance and talk with the guys and rehearse. My brother Ray was a good artist so he would do the banner and when he would do the banner it would take him three weeks. He would come with a nice banner because he would take maybe Miles Davis's album Live Friday and Saturday night and he would draw Miles in that album and put the poster. After two days it would get stolen by somebody who is looking at it as a piece of art. Ray was friends with Allen, the one who wrote the jazz book. He used to sleep at my place. He has a book where he has got shots during the 60's toward the 70's. Ray was friends with him so would get the LP's and get direction, “This is what my brothers are playing.” He also wrote lyrics.
When I was young my father asked me what I wanted to play. I said I wanted to play piano, but we didn't have piano in the house. He went to a friend of his where he was going to teach me. The unfortunate part is one day while we were rehearsing I arrived earlier and waited for my father outside. This thing of rehearsal was disorganising, so I decided to leave. I never told him because they were his friends and that is how I stopped getting involved in piano.
Coming to that self-reliance, that is what is lacking in South Africa. That is why I have been telling musicians ever since the advent of the internet, there is going to be downloading and things like that and record companies are going to die, so you must learn the skills of putting up your shows but you must plan them so when you put up a show you must hire the best sound and look for a venue that has got nice acoustics. You record everything in different channels so that when you get to the studio and want to mix everything nicely and do overdubs it can be done. Your musicians, you will only pay them for performance and the fee for recording your album. You pay them for only one session. If they don't take that, they become partners in that butler business. As a business model it can be able to make it. I was telling them also don't shy away from small gigs, rehearse, come up with good music. And at that venue come out with a video, at least one song that you can put out there, in the internet and it can be able to advertise you worldwide. I have even asked them because I have got equipment. We can go on the road and form a partnership. Since the record companies have died, all the guys who used to promote music have no work anymore.
There is another site which I have seen, that man of Sheer Sound, I always thought he was not good for the business. He has put on that Russian site, all the products that he did with his artists, which means there is some money he got from those guys. All the sites there are primarily for gambling, people who are hunting for prostitutes. There are pop ups whilst you are checking the music. I know that he will say that is not true. If you check Zim, it is there. If you check any artist that recorded with him, it is there. Because he has closed down the company now, he is part of Gallo. Because Gallo is going down, so they merged together. But, he has not given them publishing. Even with the advent of the internet, we have not gone out of our way to be able to have technical know-how or link up with somebody to be able to exploit ourselves throughout the whole world.
Coming to 1994 we depended too much on the government, but all I can say is the government of Mandela and Mbeki did their bit to send our artists abroad. During Pallo Jordan's time, I took artists to Belarus, to Italy. I have travelled wit the Pioneers to France, Japan and I was amazed how much people from outside were so receptive to our culture. We have rejected our style of music which is unique. Bheki Mseleku proved it. He put the African style within straight ahead jazz and at that level. In terms of rhythm and approach it has always been there, the South African style – whether in a chant form, it becomes different. That is what is lacking.
When I was old, I left Cape Town and my band, NightCruiser. I came here to Johannesburg and I wanted to write a book. I first interviewed my father on South African music history. All that was a tragedy for me, because my sister unknowing to me, took my cassettes. She had a boyfriend who was a Rastafari and she recorded on top of the cassettes. There were two things my father told me about. At that time he was frustrated because he was not working anymore. I suggested to him that he must go to the Ciskei because he has got friends there in the police force and he can teach the police force to have a brass band. So, he taught them to play.
Cape Town was an informal music school because he took people who could not play anything from scratch, who had just a love to play. When I visited Port Elizabeth, his nickname was Mra, taken from the word “My Bra.” People would say to me, “You are Mra's son? That man taught me music.” Durban also: he taught people music and in Johannesburg. That is why you find Hugh Masekela and Caiphus Semenya, when they went abroad they tried to play American style of music, but the Americans said no, you can't play this here, you must bring what you have from home. The only way they could bring what they had from home was to play the songs they heard from the composers at home, Ndlazilwane's music. Caiphus was a student of Ndlazilwane. Ndlazilwane had an acapella group before he had the Jazz Ministers. He started using those songs. Gumnandi Baye … They were big bands and orchestra's. They were working around Cannonball Adderley. Hugh Masekela did my fathers' song, and also Caiphus did my father's song and put lyrics on the song ‘Mra'. He taught a lot of people. When I was talking with him he said there are two people in South Africa who have changed the style of music, who came with something. Ndlazilwane showed the world that Xhosa music can be played in the jazz format, using Xhosa influences. Whether you would use Shangaan influences into jazz, which Moses Molelekwa did with Venda influences; you can use other influences to bring another dimension. He told me that Kippie Moeketsi plays a very good alto saxophone but there is no one who can play clarinet like him anywhere in the world. Have you listened to Kippies Kwela, with the clarinet? Kippie has got a song called Clarinet Kwela. When I arrived here at Dorkay House to check out Kippie, I had an appointment with him. They said he was not there, he had gone to the clinic. And then he died about two days after that. I was wanting to deal with the history of South African music. After that I went to a tenor man called King Force Silgee. I went to his house in Dube and I arrived there in Dube. When I arrived there in Dube he was not interested in an interview, he said where is the money. I had no money I had only a R20 with me that he just took it like this and then he told me about South African music history and things like that.
After I became an actor, during the Mbeki years, people didn't know Mbeki. At that time we were doing a concept. People did not know Mbeki, even the premiers were not known. So, we had this show, ‘Night of the premiers'. Victor Ntoni would write the music. And then I would put together the band whether it was five horns and rhythm section and voices re-enacting the music of the Manhattan brothers and all that story of the music from the whole of South Africa and where it comes from. The last show I did was a tribute to Cape Town jazz legends. I went and talked to Cups n Saucers Nkanuka to re-enact the music of the 50's. The music they used to do and I put all the old guys together. Because others were rusty, we did a month's rehearsal. Before I went there, I bought 20 tuxido's at a second hand shop and I gave all the guys who didn't have tux's. They looked nice that gig. I was given money by the arts and culture to do that. The tragic part of the whole thing was the technical side of it, the PA system and things like that. I have got the visuals but no music coming out. I don't know who sabotaged it that night. Out of the money that I made while I was doing all those other shows, I bought equipment, so I could be self-sufficient and that is when I found out when you do a project, if you have no drum kit and a piano, you must have a good piano. I bought an RD700. I have guitar amps, bass amps, monitors front of house, so this is it.
What is your vision going forward?
Going forward there is no other way. The only thing I can do is risk here at my house. I have got a shop next door. I have seen other venues that are thriving, they are smaller than my shop. I want by next year March to have at least a working place. I am going to start it smaller, and do a Chisa Nyama. I will put bands here, smaller groups.
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Ezra called the unique sound of South African music Xhosa Africa Cape Jazz ?
They are there at the SABC. There was a song around Port Elizabeth. There was a man Koyana who was oppressing the people. My father would do those songs, political commentary songs. Even Mra, the original title Izwe Lifile, the land has died. It was composed in the 60's when all the political parties were banned. What was the impact to the entertainment. It meant that there were no longer those shows at night. People could only do shows in the day, calling them afternoon spans. By 5 o clock it is over because of the state of emergency and things like that.
Oh, it was called the United Artists. It was not a union as such. But it was called United Artists. The artists were trying to group themselves because during that time of the 60's artists were regarded as vagrants. That is why the owners of Dorkay House gave it as a home to musicians. They called it United Artists.
I was an administrator at the Musicians Union of South Africa. At that time it was there at Newtown. It was where the SciBona is today. They chucked us out and they didn't tell us they had those plans of SciBona. They wanted to give us another building. When I got into the building it was about 5 o clock and it was peak hour on the bridge on top. So I said this thing is too noisy. And also the windows were broken. They had not told me that they were going to improve it. If I had taken that building, maybe the musicians would have had a home. The mistake they made is they went to go and look for a space inside COSATU. I said they can't do that; they must keep the musicians independent of any politics. At COSATU there are meetings. A musician's union official must be there at the meeting; even if the meeting has nothing to do with the arts. And even if an artist visits them, he must go through the security gates. How we were operating; it was open, as we were dealing with grievances of musicians. The leadership is not doing anything for the artists. The leadership are checking what gaps they can get in jobs, like Oupa – they are in the department of trade and industry.
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