Home to the Story of South African Jazz
Interview Mr Brookes
Mr Brookes had a Cuban band in the golden era of the 1950's. Here he tells of the vast influence his father's generation had on Cape music:
There was the black cat gang. They didn't cut knives. Those days they used to fight fair fights on the Woodstock beach. My dad always used to win. This skollie of the Rad gang used to irritate sailors so my dad cut him up. They couldn't convict him because he was under the British. Most of these niggers were gunners they were very brave. They put him in prison. My dad ripped the door out. They couldn't use the white man's church and they couldn't play the white man's instrument, hence the banjo. They had to make their own instruments to entertain themselves. And they had to make their own rhythm instruments. Their own language was Creole. What I am telling you is what I was told. Every day every night after supper dad would tell us stories about his country. Hence the Spanish we speak is not the Spanish Spaniards speak, it is the Spanish Cubans speak, Aruba.
Him and Mr Freeman and Mr Butler, Mr Mall and Uncle Toby they went looking for the gold that people talk about. They went to Worcester and there they saw my mother, she was a boeremeisi, Ani Conradie and she fell in love with him and he made arrangements and he was bought out of the navy and he stayed in Diep River. I asked my dad to tell me about his music because I wanted to start a band and call ourselves the Cuban Boys. You couldn't buy the maracas, the cabessa (head in Aruba is soukou). Only now you can buy the congos and bongos. But forty years ago I had to make the instruments. I made it with a pocketknife and hammer and so on. The banjo my dad bought me from here. I learnt to play the banjo, I made music. My dad taught me some songs in his language. And I made my first record for Gallo in Woodstock, we went to Mowbray town hall. The one was a lullaby, tum tum. We got about 50 pounds. Then we played for foreigners and doctors and we saw that we were very popular because people didn't know then about Latin music. Luckily I studied a little Russian music. Then I got landed; married, and I stopped playing music. Our music is almost like jazz because we can make music and dance the whole dance and play the whole music without melody; played only with the rhythm.
I went to learn music so when I was on the road I could write it down. The first song I played was when I used to go up and down to Hout Bay. I had a girlfriend there. I didn't worry with the girls because I was a boxer and I became a South African lightweight champion and I was known as the electric left. My dad said I was the St Louis Tiger and I was the best. I boxed for the Wanderers. He said you don't have a girlfriend, and in those days kids were very subservient. The first song I wrote was, 'In the bay of Wood.' I made a beautiful calypso, a song with a story. My heart was there in the bay of wood. I used to walk from Athlone to Hout Bay. My next song was for the Hollywood tunes, ‘Maryana', a rumba. They took my song and took another band to make a record and then they told me I didn't copywrite it and they never paid me. I stopped that and I just made music for my dad and myself. My dad sings. My father was a baby slave until a teenager when he ran away from St Louis. He ran to a river. He swam and went to Portsmith and joined the Royal Navy. They were called ‘coons'.
He says, “When we had our minstrels on New Year's Day we kicked New Year right from the beginning to the end of the month. We throw bundles of shit on the stoop of the slave master because their stoop is right around, so that they can watch them working on the plantations. They can't recognize who it was so we dress ourselves up in the clothes they wear when they go to parties, tailcoats and high hats and paint our faces black and put gloves on.”
Mr Freeman started the Wild Americans in South Africa. The ‘coons' means a stinky little animal like a raccoon. South African roughians joined the coons, so, we fell out. It was started in Rose Street and the others in Family Town, and Athlone where we stayed. Only they had a banjo and bones (ribs of a cow, they make it nice and smooth) and guitar. And they had drums like they got in New Orleans. The roughians took over. It is alleged that it is started by the Malays. It was started by the slave people from Venezuela, Cuba, Jamaica and Bahir.
Jimmy Adams said they must come together and start a carnival in Rosebank show ground in 1955 and he called it a jubilee. The sort of music my father was playing was rumba and djonga (jungle like Ossibisa). You here coo coo coo like wild birds and other sounds like lions. The drums must work in you. If you take a cracker and throw it on anything wild, those animals will run away. That is how they will chase the animals away from their establishments.
That is how my wife and I had to give an exhibition in the Woodstock town hall 1952. Rumba is a slower dance. They've got sticks called claves. I made my own out of rose wood. I made my own maracas out of the shell of a coconut. I made pandero (tambourine). We had another thing called the cigar box which is a typical Cuban instrument. The best cigars are made there. We put a goatskin over the box. The drums are supposed to be tensioned with dry heat. The rassa rasso makes that scratchy sound.
And there are all the various rhythms. The guera is the horn of the ox. When eating the bullock's head they thought this sounds very nice so they made the guera. They got the Spanish castanets, but they put a plank between. Bolero is a very romantic thing. It is when the girl dances there and you work her dress like that and you wear high heels with tapping plates underneath. You fall with the beat of the music and you take the beat with the feat and shake the top of your body. You are very serious. And you lift the girl and you swing and you throw her that side. My wife and I did it the way my dad said we should do it, not like Dorothy Diamond. The dance of Cuba and Havana is a dance that you can look at and sit in awe. It is not the dance you can learn. If everybody danced the same how can you judge that? My wife and I did it differently. Everybody got off the floor and let my wife and I dance. We had black and white collar.
My wife was my famous leading lady in dancing. We did the jive also, because our Latin is almost like the jive when you lift the girl up. I made a record for Troubadour. In that period it was ballroom, tango, jive and Latin.
I got someone to teach me three places G, C, E and F and after that I taught myself. I bought myself a clarinet and harmonica also. I play Hawaiian guitar. Our Cuban music was very well received, youngsters wanted to join. I wanted my son to have a Cuban band like me instead he made the Black Noise (hip hop band). He is Worro (my fathers name). I also sent my son to the school of music.