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Yours Pianotively : A tribute to Theo Bophela ...

Theo Bophela's 80 th Birthday Celebration


In 2010, as part of his 80 th birthday celebrations, Theo Bophela hosted a tribute concert to the legends of jazz music in eThekwini.

S'dumo Ngidi took on the challenging task of representing the pennywhistle. The pennywhistle kind out of went out of fashion fifty years ago because compared to the other instruments like saxophone you don't quite get enough sound to stand tall on a band stand. S'dumo Ngidi is known as a jazz father and a tremendous guitarist.

Sitting outside throughout this four hour show of epic proportion, Bra Jes Dlamini was playing his one stringed bass guitar to a small audience. He is a master entertainer! The audience included Kariem who has played goema with Mac Mackenzie in Cape Town and Holland with The Genuines.

South African Jazz has not only a spiritual and ancestral way of evolving but in many cases is dynastic too, being passed on from father to son. The Mkhize family is a musical dynasty. Afrika Mkhize is son of Themba Mkhize. Afrika Mkhize, joined the stage to perform with Bheki Khoza. These two gentlemen are based in Johannesburg and this was entirely evident by their demeanour. They performed as if they were heavyweight champs of the world. What was really exciting was the manner in which Mkhize led the band with his eyes widened doing the guiding and his hands doing the playing. He was playing keyboards, interplaying between resounding crashing chords in all octaves and gracefully twinkling melodies.

The trust that was born on stage was so great that when the drummer and the guitarist took their solos the horn section would gather round listening intently like gents perusing a game of chess.

These guys sounded. So much so, that to cool the proceedings down a young songstress was sent to stage to join them. She dipped into a very gentle jazz standard with immediate effect. The song drifted along wistfully for a few moments and then the young pianist Afrika Mkhize's eyes started to sparkle. He picked out a few melody lines almost miraculously from the keyboard and communicated them to the horn section. And a unique sound was actually born. The band sung as one.

They paid tribute to Bheki Mseleku in an orchestration of power and dignity. And they ended off in a typical Brotherhood of Breath kind of Big Bang with all the instruments hooting and tooting. And then silence. Then the cheers and applause. And then the excited chatter of hearts and minds racing at speeds unaccustomed.

Nothing could follow that but Theo Bophela himself. He was joined on stage by his big band Umkhumbane that blend mbaqanga and jazz in an eThekwini jazz sound that keeps the body moving in circular motions. Through the re-orchestrating of his 50's classic Uhambi into a sound that melted into a liquid clarity with the sounds of the horns, Theo created a sense of class and contentment within the listener. One cannot be quite sure what transpired for Bheki Khoza to appear on stage to take over the piano playing. So melodic and harmonic and simply inspired was his playing that saxophonist S'thembiso Ntuli took time out from his post on the horn front line and wandered over to the keys to watch what was going around. From Mannenberg to Jingle Bells, all sorts of melodies came racing out from his dancing fingers.

And the old man Moses Sefatsa hardly left the stage the whole night. He can barely walk. He was first on stage. He set his stance adjacent to the microphone like a cricket batter to the bowler and played. He blows like the flickering of a candle. Heart wrenching to see how his cheeks are withered to the breath. Moses Sefatsa stood tall and powerful in his bright green and yellow striped shirt. That's why they say if you can breathe you can blow! The real action was on the stage, all the horns were doing their Zulu dancing between phrases in some kind of perfectly natural unison.

There was yet tribute to be played to Winston Mankunku and when the horns commenced with the melody of Yakhal Nkomo there was a humungous and powerful sound that could move the heart and soul into forgiveness, courage and awareness. For, as our jazz legends have died new jazz legends are being born. And so as the sound of South African Jazz took an exile of and from itself, it is home, only now, are we truly home.


Interview Theo Bophela



So impressed by this remarkable show hosted by the Bat Centre, I made my way down to the harbor front venue where Theo holds down his regular teaching post. We chatted whilst he enjoyed his lunch. This is what he said.


Regarding becoming a musician, he said:


What brought me into being a musician was the first job I got working for a radio station. Inside the station there was a guy from Australia he loved jazz so whenever he was testing radio he would use a record with a lot of jazz. That's how I got into music. I told this guy I would like to play piano too and he knew somebody who played piano. So I managed to get somebody to teach me piano and since then I was playing piano. Some of the big bands of the time started gunning for me. There were lots of big bands at that time influenced by Glenn Miller and Duke Ellington. Visiting negro guys brought LP's, so we got a lot of them. It was the time when jive was the thing. We had band competitions, dance competitions and so on and so on. The most popular place was YMCA. And there was this curfew going on you can't be late at night and walk about. The most popular bands were Tom Damas Swingsters, Chromatics jazz band, Sundown jazz band from location Lamontville, the Shange brothers, they were brother musicians; drummer trumpeter, saxophonist, tenor saxophonist, bassist, guitarist all in one. They were all musicians except the sisters were not musicians but I believe they could sing well.

There were no teachers because teachers were there, but not for Africans. I suppose the fact that I worked with this European chap from Australia, got me a teacher. I could not walk through the front door for my lessons. I walked through the back door and through the kitchen and when I finished I went out through the back again. There were a few white musicians, Boris Cohen played trumpet. He in fact gave tuition to the Swingsters jazz band.


After the Second World War we had some visiting musicians. I don't know who was sponsoring them. Like this famous teacher who wrote a lot of books in the States, John Mehegan; he came here and gave us some workshops and that is when I first heard that jazz music has its own biography, own literature and own way of doing things. I learnt that from him. I had never heard that before. It was a common thing in the States. Johnny Dempworth came into town. He was a big band leader in London, very famous. The pianist Teddy Wilson from clarinetist Benny Goodman's trio came in. We had a session with him in Umlazi. We shared the stage with him. For him to be here and see him perform was quite an event.


I first came across Theo Bophela's music at the SABC archives Western Cape. There is an early recording of Umhambi there which featured on the Archive Africa compilation. Umhambi is legendary composition by Theo Bophela. Regarding 'umhambi' he said:


I wrote it when I was in African Jazz and Variety show. African Jazz and Variety show had so much to do with me. It was my first time to go to Joburg. When I got to Joburg I stayed with a friend who was on the show. What did I know about staying in Pimville! The old Pimville and on the very day when we arrived at his home he sent a child to go and buy something for us to eat for supper. The child went to buy the stuff and he came back running and crying. We said what's the matter. The child said they had robbed him of the money he was going to buy the stuff with. My friend who I was going to stay with immediately changed from a nice guy and he went chasing out. Three minutes later he came back and I could see he was a changed man. He was known around this place for what he was. He was a musician but he was a rafian in himself. That was the first experience I had in Joburg. And then what happened next time around I went to Joburg again, I didn't stay with him so I went to stay with somebody else and of all places it was a shebeen and they had a room for me. I could stay on my own. Whilst the shebeen business was going on I was in another part of the house. Where I was staying they had an acoustic piano, a beautiful thing, brand new. Where did you get this brand new piano like this? I was told the boys brought it there. The boys were gangsters. I don't know where they got it from. Anyway a piano is a piano whether it's stolen or not. It is a piano. I used to play a lot on that piano and that is when I started missing my piano at home in Durban. I said to myself hey I have a piano at home that is good and I am so far away. Umhambi means a guy who goes around; who is never stationary. I was remembering I left my piano at home, my wife and a I had a kid already and all of a sudden I felt homeless again. I was still young enough not to care about watching kids and things like that. That is how I wrote Umhambi in that shebeen, I was missing home.


Regarding uMkhumbane, he said:


uMkhumbane was in Cato Manor. It was started with migrant workers coming to town and it boomed during the Second World War. People were coming to town and getting jobs in the sheep yards and a lot of employment because of the Second World War. They first lived in uMkhumbane in these shacks because when they knocked off of work they could go and sleep. A lot of people came into town and eventually grew up which lead to the need for schools to be built and churches and all that is called for to make up a nation or a settlement. It was a very special place because there wasn't anybody worthwhile who was not there. You found everything in uMhkumbane. You found school teachers, you found lawyers, you found all professions, gangsters, shebeen queens and anything that you can think of was there. There was robbing of one another. Most of our KZN musicians stayed there. I was there myself. I started my first year education at uMkhumbane government school. The government decided to build a location there. It was called Chesterville. It was named after the guy who was working in the pass office in Ordinance Road. And so we grew up in Chesterville. Chesterville grew up to Kwamashu. There are musicians who come from there. Besides myself, there was Dalton Khanyile and even Madala Kunene came from there. We started in the times of early Chesterville. I was picked up by African Jazz and Variety show when it hit Durban in 1955. I was born in 1931. I started my schooling when I was about seven or six or thereabouts. It is all early thirties stuff. YMCA is Young Man's' Christian Association and everything was going on; boxing and dancing. Alfred Nokwe was working at the municipal offices in Ordinance Rd. His wife was a singer. She was taught by a European lady. That lady organized tuition. Alfred Nokwe's whole family became musicians through that lady. His wife was singing classical music, some of his sons and his daughters are professional musicians to date, Tu Nokwe, Marilyn and some others.

Alfred Nokwe put on a play about Durban called uMkhumbane. It was written by Allan Paton. He became famous for writing the book 'Cry the Beloved Country'. Todd Matshikiza did the music for the play. We all took part. I was involved in rehearsing the show using the piano and practicing with the choir individuals. I still wish that they could show that play. It had a lot to say in those days. It went down well during the struggle. It was run here at the City Hall. I can't remember how long it lasted. Todd Matshikiza came over weekends on Saturdays to rehearse and then he would go back to Johannesburg again. He used to leave things to me. He was busy there as a writer. There was a venue in town called the Durban International Club in Ploughwright lane, upstairs somewhere. As it says Durban International Club, it means as soon as you walk into that club forget about color immediately; walk down and go to


Ploughwright lane you are back to square one again. Needless to say it was pulled down by the then government. It was all over the world they had these clubs so you had a lot of visitors coming to the Durban club.



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The Auto Biography of Theo Bophela : Durban fieldwork


I offered to help Theo with his auto-biography. It took him many years to trust me. He even came over to watch me perform one note one day at one of the Ukusa end of year concerts. And then one day I got the call. He asked me to meet him at the Bat Centre. He says to me, hows your trumpet playing? I say alright. He asks me can you hit the top C. I say 5 times out of 10. He asks me can you hit the top D. I say seldom. So, he says he wants me to play trumpet on his 85 th birthday bash which will feature all the luminaries of SA jazz and Quincy Jones. I saw it as a roundabout way to get me to write his auto-biography. But to be honest I had no idea how roundabout this was going to get. So, I agreed and we set off on our journey together.

Day One

"God will be funding this project," Baba Theo proudly announced from the home of his wife, Gogo Rita, the woman behind the Masizane Community Centre in Inanda and Bophela home. I could handle that, I am writer and write proposals to God in the form of musings to myself, all my life. But what I could not handle was that Baba Theo was all upbeat about the fact that he had cast Sarah Kearney as my leading lady!!! Sarah had a story to tell herself with her three gorgeous mixed race daughters. She calls it 'Love in the time of Malaria.' But I could not see anything romantic about it. In fact I started a countdown right then and there, just praying for the end of the project.

Baba Theo was wanting to get me married and I was wanting to create a living library of his work and an archive of his music, memories, compositions and teachings. I believed this project to be important not only to add a musical educational component to the Bophela Inanda homestead but to serve as a foundation for the documentation of a largely untold story, Durban jazz music (a topic which I am deeply passionate about).

But, Sarah Kearney, my leading lady was a topic I became less and less passionate about. Maybe that is true love in the jazz world, brutal statistics. Sarah was like a forty something geriatric. At some points whilst driving her mind would become so clouded by regret that her car would slow down to a bicycles pace. This must have made Theo feel younger.

Our hopeless trio made our way to Chesterville where Theo grew up. He wanted us to meet his childhood friend Joe, who is an elder to Theo at the age of 87. Joe is fresh and well attired. This is apparently his style as Joe was once a dress maker and styled clothes for Theo. Joe is also an amateur pianist and still plays at church to this day.

Theo had once got drunk and got into an altercation with Joe, which Joe said he was so over that one even wondered why Theo was bringing it up! I wondered if there was more to this relationship than met the eye?

This is what Joe had to say …

“I am Joe Javan Msongo. I stayed with Theo, we grew up together way back in the Second World War time of 1939. I was younger then. Now I am 87. I was born in 1928, so I am older than Theo. I went to school, he wasn't going to the school himself. He was still young. After that he went to school. I can't remember all but gradually we stayed in our township Chesterville, it used to be called Balckhurst township before. For some reasons it changed from Blackhurst township to Chesterville. At those days our hope was music. I noticed this young man, far younger than me. He wanted to be an artist, draw pictures and all that and he decided to go overseas, at least to go to draw pictures. Maybe he would do it and be successful in it. I don't know how it came about, but I heard him talking about jazz. Jazz! This jazz, there was a friend of him and was a friend of mine too, that was Alpheus Nkosi. He was playing. He liked to take the tin and shape it nicely as a guitar and put four strings and play good harmony and so on. After a long time he bought a guitar then and he was working class. He started hearing music. They were talking about somebody overseas, they used to listen to his records, that was Nat King Cole trio. He told me about it and Theo was there too. Theo chose playing the piano. He told me one day that he wants to go and learn the piano. He went somewhere in Smith street to that place called Playhouse and there was somebody next to the Playhouse in that small lane, the teacher, Mr. Herbert who had a school of piano, taught him music so he could start reading music. He started music in the right way to get the right fingering. A lot of guys here, some of them playing the piano, couldn't read but then he went to the teacher to learn to play music in the right way. He got the right fingering when he went to Mr. Herbert, because he could play. We called it Raabies, like that kind of old, jazz, allright. He started from there. After that he decided to go to Joburg because here in Durban we were still little bit low in music but in Joburg, we used to get surprised when people from Joburg come to Durban to play some music. Groups like Manhattan Brothers and like the other bands and all that, he used to like the way they played. From there he get along alright. After sometime again I heard him talking about going overseas. He went to Australia. He met somebody from United States, I am forgetting the name of that artist, a famous artist. He played with him. When he came here he said I think I am getting along with him because this man from the United States was getting alright, so he realised he was doing something that at least he could be recognised by somebody…

Are you a musician?

He used to go for the shows and all that. Myself, I used to stay at home. I am not known by anybody except the local boys and local people I grew up with. I can't say I am alright or in his class. I can't say I am that sort of a person. In life. He wanted to paint. After that he wanted to go and do that over-seas. That was earlier days. He couldn't get the permit to go there, so he turned to music as it is now.

Sarah, had a few prepared questions which she asked … How would you describe Theo's personality?

He is a good man. I know his family. I know him when he grow up. He didn't go to jail. He's been a man, working class. Whatever he puts his hands too, things materialised alright. As it is now I here that Inanda … when he came to me and said lets go and see what I am doing with my wife where they stay. I went there. There is a place for the elders, they come there for lunch, all these needy people. He provides them, I don't know how they do it. So, him and his wife have done that sort of thing to the public in so much that he was given a vehicle, one of the big ten seaters, a new one that helps him to go and collect the elderly people and bring them for lunch, all those who are needing. The last time I went to his place, he invited me. There were nurses, all class of people. They were gathered there to tell us what he is doing to the public. There was music, we could have something to eat. He is that sort of a man. Where he is; he wants people to be happy. And does not just stay doing nothing. Who encourages that is his wife. She played a big role in putting him in this way. He is in his place now, he is not worried. He si nt doing all those things to get rich. He is an ordinary man …

Sarah says, There was a time he was drinking. Rita said she helped him to stop. He put a bottle of Gin on his dressing table and said he would never touch alcohol again, so he did go through that dark phase in his life. Did you know him then?

That was a wonderful thing that happened because he was not staying here in Chesterville where I stay. I am not going anywhere much now as I stay at home for health reasons. There was a time when things didn't go very well with his family. He told me about the time he would drink and so on. That was a bad time. I don't know how his wife managed to bring him back to life as he is now. That was a terrible time. There was a period when he recovered again. When he started drinking it was a band thing. When he started to reform again, it was good.

Where did you start playing piano?

I started playing way back in the 1940's. I used to play. I didn't go to school of piano. There used to be these gatherings, they call it here they gather people to come and entertain themselves and then I go and play the piano as long as they can dance and so on and I became that kind of a pianist. After that I joined the Catholic Church. In the Catholic Church in the cathedrals they have pipe organs and so on. In our private churches here and there I played organ. I am still doing that now.

Sarah has another prepared question, how would you describe Baba Theo while he is composing, practicing and playing his music?

In earlier days he used to play piano and sing at the same time, like this song ‘I am getting Sentimental Over You.' That was played by one of the American artists. He translated it into Zulu and played it in Zulu, hell man. When you feel bad you listen to it, it goes right down saying What a Wonderful World. He liked playing and singing at the same time to make that good combination. The piano doesn't explain exactly what is going on but when he sings, like he is singing this new composition he is composing, he is thinking of this new composition to be like a national song for the funerals because it goes mostly into that Zulu tradition. He talks, he sings about when he leaves the world to the other world. He is preparing himself.

Did he perform as a youngster?

Yes, he was performing in Beatrice Street times. We used to call it the Bantu Social Centre. Sometimes back he joined a band lead by Thomas Ndaba, the Swingsters Orchestra with trumpet, saxophone, rhythm section. There was a motion picture that was to be done. They wanted a pianist who can read the music. I don't know how they came to know about him so someone came here and said ‘Theo Bophela, we have come to know that you are the one who can do this thing.' We want a pianist that can read the music? So, he went to play in Johannesburg on that motion picture, I am forgetting the name. “Jim comes to Joburg,” early 50's. They wanted him to come and play most places. If they need a good pianist, they take Theo Bophela. He came here early last year on Sunday. I went to church and came back and saw him knocking on the door. “What are you doing?” I said No, I am drinking a cup of tea, I am tired, I am from the church now. He said lets go to Pinetown, there is a centre there, The Rainbow an and there are people from Italy and he played jazz with them. I saw the pictures, so I said, lets go. We went there. There were people from there playing in the band and he was one of them playing the piano and playing this African style of music. You can see. That picture is there in Italy as it is now and I went to witness that and so many other things.

Sarah asks a question off tangent, was his music affected by apartheid?

In my opinion Apartheid helped him from changing to that drawing he wanted to do first. Maybe he wouldn't have gone for music, so for that reason, because he wanted to go overseas like Rembrandt. Remember that man the famous painter who painted Mona Lisa. Apartheid changed somebody to something else, something that he is in now. That is why when somebody died and when somebody is here, instead of crying we were given something that will console all of us even when you are crying. When you sing it helps you. So, to describe music now, I think music is the way of happiness. It is the way of healing too, when we pray we must sing too, so it goes altogether.

Sarah asks, did the white teacher from Ridge Rd. have a profound impact on him?

I think it is Herbert, I don't know, it is an old man. I think he is the man who has done all this. When a man goes to school and be taught how to wrote and start writing and so on and maybe it takes a couple of years, it doesn't happen in a short period. After that he took me to Berea Rd. There was a place used to be called Mackay brothers used to sell pianos, they were somewhere in West Street, they came back and got another place in Berea Rd. He showed me the new piano that was displayed by marked sold. He told me he was buying that piano. It was 200 pounds. That means this man knows what he is doing, that is what I know about him.

Blackheath is where you grew up, was that Umkhumbane?

When my father came here in 1938, I was about 4 or 5 years because I started schooling at six here. It used to be Umkhumbane all over from here right to the Cato Manor police station. These are corporation houses, so, in 1943, corporation took over this place and built corporation houses from Lamontville built first, and then this one here at Umkhumbane. Umkhumbane used to be called Blackhurst. When corporation took over and bought this place, the superintendent, somebody in charge, was Chester, so they named this location Chesterville.

Did you see the musical Umkhumbane?

I did not see the show myself, as there were times I was not interested in these things when I grew up. There were stages when I had something else to do, but I was there when there was that play. Theo before he started this music I knew him because he stayed right in road 18. And I sued to stay here. My father got this house way back. After that I decided I had another older boy and a girl, to go to Zululand, right down where the Amatikulu river goes into the see and I stayed there for 18 years because the house I built there was a big house and my wife was a sickly women so she said lets go back to Chesterville because we still had this place. I was 80 then, she was 74. So, when Theo rang me up this morning I didn't know what it was about.

What were Theo's parents like?

In those days I know him when he is just a small boy and he went to school where I used to go to and to know him well when he started his music career that is when I started to see that this man was playing the jazz. Otherwise he was right down there and we had no relationship. It is this music that has done this relationship as it is now.

Sarah asks what inspires Theo and what blocks Theo's creativity?

That drinking period wasn't too good for him but for God's sake I don't know for what reason he left Chesterville for where he stays now so I wasn't in the position to at least come next to him to know at least all his affairs. Music was in his nerves because whatever he talks about he talks about music. He talks a little bit about business and so on, but you can't take him from music. I want to visit him one day and find out what kind of friends he has got.

Which word would you choose to sum him up as a person, Sarah asks another prepared question … !

He must carry on, don't go back now because there is no other. Another thing that I am happy when I spoke is because something I did not want to find out because I might be ashamed whether he talks about God because I heard him talking about that he goes to church now that I have the courage that maybe he is doing it the right way because God prevents you from this and that. There are laws that we have been given by God to go right.

Theo Bophela enters the room … I would like him to tell me as a young man when I was still drinking a lot we used to drive around in a combi by Dalton Khanyile from the YMCA or whatever, there was a portion where I wanted to fight him, I can't remember why I would want to fight Joe being my elder for one and secondly he is such a nice somebody what was there for me to fight for, unless it was childishness?

I am pleased that we have come to this. There was a time that he was drinking too much,. His wife told me. I said I don't know he is fighting us, he is that type. I think he was screwing up. Maybe there is that time of a person when he is growing that comes to that stage. That was not a good stage. Lucky he has done that and he is still alive because most of the young chaps who come to that stage are no longer here. They are gone. One time he visited me her, I don't know what happened. We were talking. I don't know, now when I am talking to him, I am talking to a person from a different planet. Maybe the ordinary speech that we talk together, now it tends to be maybe that I am swearing him. He is a changed man alltogether. So, he turned to me. He doesn't forget. I am asking him nicely, Theo forget now. Whenever we are together he does everything nice for me. On Christmas day I know he goes out where he gathers all the old age people and so on, he brought me a chicken that day and we cut with my son a piece and we had the whole month a piece, we have just finished now from Christmas time. But he doesn't forget that he wanted to fight me, it was nothing. I am trying all the time to say hey man you must forget it, but he doesn't forget it. Please man, it is finished, sorry!

Theo has the last word, he says, “We are living in an age of democracy. If I said lets vote, I will be outvoted. That is the simplest way. I don't like complicated things. Amen…”

Yabonga…Going further up the road to meet Moses Sefatsa was another story. Moses is 80 years of age. Speaking to him one realises that he is alive and in more ways than just breathing. His voice is still powerful. He is a man that truly loves music.

Driving to Theo's homestead we pass a bridge and Theo remembers an oil spill and the car skidding and crashing into the back of a truck. His only major injury was partial paralysis of the left hand.

Day Two

Visit to Eskhaweni to first wife Sety Bophela's home. Theo wanted to know one and only one thing, what name will Sety Bophela have on her gravestone? Sety assured him it will be her married name. He looked lovingly into her eyes. She was not married since their divorce more than 30 years ago, so will keep that name, the name of her three sons even though she thinks of their father as a bit of a wretch. One name she certainly wont use is Mamkhulu. Mamkhulu kind of means 'old first wife,' and can be the name worn by the first wife of a polygamous man. Theo was not polygamous. He had one wife at a time. All three children from his first wife were creative people. The eldest son has recently retired from a 40 year career at SABC, the middle son Barney is an established musician performing alongsie Caiphus Semenya and the last born son (all three years apart) is a diplomat. Sety said after the children turned 6, Theo left them to do his own thing. He himself was an orphan. The most important thing for Sety was to observe her Zulu custom and cook for us. She prepared a hot lunch of chicken, roasted potatoes and vegetables.

Sety's recollection of the song Theo composed for her, Sety's bounce, filled him with fire to broach the topic of SABC transcription recordings some of which I have heard myself in W Cape archives.

Day Three

Nise Malange, director of the Bat Centre since 2000 spoke poetically on the shared dreams and influences she had with Theo including helping him back onto the path after a series of three serious life threatening car accidents.

Interview Nise Malange, director of the Bat Centre

Nise how do you know Theo?

I got to know Theo personally when I started working at the Bat Centre in the year 2000. But I knew Theo before that as an artist and a musician.

When did you first see him play?

I saw him at the jazz venue. Well several jazz venues in the 80's and the early 90's. For instance, the Harbour View, now the hotel and then in Clairwood the Moon Hotel and a number of venues we used to go to for jazz and stuff. And later at the Rainbow when Ben Pretorious was still running the rainbow.

How did you get into jazz?

I grew up in Cape Town Gugulethu and I grew up with musicians. Working at UKZN and being friends with the Zim Ngqawana's, Feya Faku, Andile, you know like all these guys. They used to look after my son. You had a period in Durban in the late 80's with the Centre for Jazz where you had most musicians from the Eastern Cape and Cape Town who were studying there. I personally got to know the musicians and plight of the musician when I started working at UKZN. That was the University of Natal then.

Did you work in the jazz centre?

No I didn't. I worked in the sociology department in a project called culture and working life. We were doing a lot of training of the worker artist as well.

The 80's was a time when there was a lot of interaction between artists because of apartheid and because of the conferences that were taking place. I was then involved with the congress of South African Writers which was the organisation in terms of organising all disciplines within the arts. Those conferences was when we got to know people, going to meetings, going to festivals and it became a huge movement of workers and artists working to change things. That was the movement for me that made me meet a lot of local artists across the spectrum.

What is the plight of the artist?

Artists like Baba Theo; he shouldn't be still going around and is not known. He has to be in the same cue as artists he had developed over the years. I think the fact that artists in this country still don't have rights, you know and the 80's that is what we were lobbying for, for artists rights. There were a whole lot of organisations. Somehow we didn't get it right because the plight is still the same. We have contributed so much in terms of policy, in terms of making sure there is a minister of arts and culture and a door called arts and culture that people can go to get money. I think artists are funny creatures they never want to get united in terms of these things. They would rather have other people doing the work for them. They don't understand the power of unity. People end up fighting each other and channelling all the good energy into something negative.

I saw that with the legends as well. In 2000 we had the first world aids conference and then in 2001 we had the world conference against racism where I had the opportunity here at the Bat Centre to organise some shows. There were issues around censorship and they wanted to interview artists around how censorship affected them during apartheid. None of them could remember anything and a lot of them were out of the country because of their music and because of their writing and I realised there is a problem. Rather than saying there were no artists we decided that we would have a show to honour the legends because by then I had come across the beautiful history of Baba Theo. Baba Theo, his son is a musician. And then I came across Elias Ngidi whose son and daughter and youngest son were all musicians. And then I came across this heritage of beautiful families with a history of jazz music. From father, sometimes to wife and daughters and sons, and that fascinated me so much and I thought hey this is the opportunity to celebrate those musicians because for me how did they do it? A lot of parents don't want to support their children to go and study music at the University. You had Sandile Shange and his son Dumisani and daughters were musicians. And for me that just gave me goose bumps that hey there is this. I knew in Gugs we had the Ngcukana's and all those families, but what I saw here was just fantastic. I put on a show of all these families of musicians during the conference against racism and then we had poetry and we had drumming. The show went on from the day to the next morning for the people just to hear the stories and hear the history. The Jerry Kunene's with his brother Adolf. I know Jerry from before. He used to teach at my project as well. And we used to run projects for the youth of Mbali and victims of violence as well. So all of those things for me were just fascinating. The Pat Matshikiza's. Pat has just returned to Durban. We had this fantastic show and that for me was the beginning. I just fell in love with these old people that were blowing horns, playing piano, playing guitar and singing.

Speaking about Theo, what kind of memory do we need to find?

The stories were always very spontaneous. They would talk about PE, they would remember going to PE to perform and going in this old car that is breaking down every day. And where were you Baba Theo? He was a boxer at YMCA and then when he realised there was music and this man somewhere in Ridge Rd teaching music, he went there. And those are all the stories we would hear about.

YMCA was called the Bantu Something something centre. Activities of arts and culture and activities of sport used to happen. We went to Peter Stainbank because we were doing a series on legends. When we met with Peter Stainbank, he was very hostile. He took me on the side and said, ‘do you know what Theo did? We were going overseas, we had sorted out everything, passport and everything. And I am phoning Theo, where are you, where are you. And he says I am on the way I am coming. We boarded the plane and were still waiting for Theo. And Theo never came'. I said ‘when was that?' ‘In 1953/4!' ‘I was not even born and you are still holding a grudge.' ‘But that was a big show and Theo was one of my best pianists and to disappoint me that way.'

So these are stories that you get from one musician to another about how their connection is, how they have met, how they have worked together, how they have disappointed each other. How they have come to work together. And Theo always wanted to reconcile with the artist. So, I have been learning more about Theo's life. Through these musicians, the late Magwaza, (we met with the wife); you here Theo's story. And through pictures because Theo doesn't talk much about that. And through his travels overseas. I think the most fascinating for me was the fact that at 65 or 70 he decided to go and study music. And that story for me at Natal Technikon (before it was DUT) how the young students and even the lecturers thought that this one was not going to make it. And then he went on to enrol at university and he had an accident before he finished his degrees and these are stories he would tell the students at the Bat Centre that he is teaching. The thing that I also like about him is that he is willing to share his story. He is willing to share his skills with the younger generation. Theo wants to be an open book, he wants to share his story, he wants to impart skills. He wants people to know what he has and what they can gain. He is a true teacher, a very intelligent man. There is no dull moment with Theo. Every day you get a new story. His present wife comes from Queenstown and that is where my parents come from and that is also where Pat Matshikiza comes from. And that is also one of the towns in the Eastern Cape that has (many musicians). Stompie was coming from there. So he had lineage with the artists from that province. His stories with Hugh, Letta, Caiphus Semenya … artists some time mention those things; but do you know how much those artists respect him for the fact that he has joined them? Theo remained in this country, but he is not poor because he has his music and he has his home and stuff like that.

How does Theo fit into the Bat Centre as an educator and performer?

From 2001 we started these Legends concerts. Theo and Philani Ngidi have been the anchor because Theo knows all the musicians; people like Bobby Minter, Mervin Pillay. He know the history of the musician across race groups because of people that he has performed with. We have been lucky because some of the musicians we have been able to capture before they passed on. We have this show that we do every year, heritage month, where we bring in all these musicians. When we started we had the likes of Pat, Duncan Xaba, and we bring the guys from Joburg, Rogers, Tim Khulu and everyone. So, it becomes a reunion of all the legends of Kwazulu Natal jazz. I work with him in coordination of that because he is knowledgeable of the musicians. That is how I got to know more of the musicians, through him. Some years we don't have money, we do a little thing. We've documented most of these and some of them we have done interviews and stuff. And seeing that we were only working with him, with the performance, maybe once, twice, three times a year as sometimes we would bring him as a guest lecturer. We started a program for band development. We brought the older musicians to come and run those classes. Some of the guys from there are now at the university. One is doing third year already and is doing wonders. She is a maskandi musician. She was doing music for the first time. I remember when I told him that I have two maskandi that are joining the class. Baba Theo says, ‘you know how maskandi is? Those people don't play music.' I said let's try them because it was theory and practical. One of them, the first time he wrote the test he had a zero. And Baba Theo was spitting fire. I said Baba Theo let us give him another chance. Let's see. The second test she had 45 and the third test she had 75. And that is through his teaching and his dedication. There is one student, Nozulu, she got a full scholarship to UKZN music. It is through Theo. There are a lot of students so we decided to take him full time. Very few or none of the graduates have the knowledge that Theo has, the skills and dedication. They struggle to put a course content together. With Theo, they do tests, they do orals, they have to research. It is not only about learning to write and read music, but to research and understand. He tells them all the time that music is maths. If you ran away from maths at school and you think there is no maths here, so he inspires a lot of these young people.

I got him at the time where he was very demoralised and he felt like everything was falling apart. He had a red Sentra and he was driving home and he says he doesn't know what happened. He got off the road and had an accident. That was the second accident. And then he had a third one and he thought that, that was a sign that he was going. Without knowing that, I was getting this man out of this framework, getting him into teaching and stuff like that. When he was turning 75 we had his birthday party with Steve Fataar because they are in the same month in March. The family, the generations that he has, all of them here and all the friends made him blossom and realise that there are people that love him. There are people that appreciate what he is doing. There are people that are willing to walk with him. Our relationship never stopped. The following year people were promising that they were going to do a bigger party with him and they never did anything. He was very disappointed. So the following year his family had a party for him. That is where I saw the whole family. It is quite a big family. People know how I respect Theo and how Theo respects me. One time I went to Cuba and I saw how Cuba takes care of its legends and in my little way that is what I do. For those who are willing, I do it, and for those who are not, I don't force people into anything. Theo is one of those legends. Even with the municipality giving him that award as a legend, I had to get involved. I was one of the judges. And people didn't know Theo. And I had to tell them that this person is very monumental in the music industry. It doesn't matter that he has not won the Metro awards and all these things that are coming up. He is a great asset and a heritage. I look after the musicians who are willing. It is not for people who sit back and think that things are going to improve. This culture of entitlement is the attitude of the younger people. Theo knows that he is not entitled to anything and he has to work hard for it. He is still doing that at his age now; “that I have to work for what I have”. And he continues with that spirit. And not only for himself because if he was doing it for himself I wouldn't have known all these people. How many people know Peter Stainbank. I wouldn't have known Peter Stainbank if it were not for Theo. He was a great guitarist who left the country and lived in Germany. I had known the daughter Jackie Stainbank but I didn't know the father. He separated with the family a long time ago. It is that kind of history when you befriend a person, what you learn. And that is what I am learning from Theo. Every day I learn new things. One thing would trigger another memory.

How many people know us? We are becoming unknown entities. And people look at you like you are crazy when you say things shouldn't happen like this. Today it is all about hip hop and all the kinds of popular music like that. It is not even that, it is even in politics. Old activists are no longer known because no one cares about them. And that used to be one of my things. Who will remember me when I am old. Maybe with alzheimers, I won't even remember things myself. Who will remember me as a person who has walked the stairs or marched the streets, or did this and that. And who will remember that? And that is a poem I wrote a long time ago, but it is so relevant to today, when you hear people, they go to these offices and people are looking at them, who is this? Who the hell do you think you are?

Baba Theo is lucky to have the Bat Centre because I don't know if the Bat Centre was not here where all these musicians will be. These are some of the things we don't talk about and for me I am really proud. Theo comes here every day. He walks in and sits at the meeting. He is an honorary member of the Bat. When we took over the coffee shop, he said, ‘tell your kids when I come and ask for coffee I must get coffee, because I used to get coffee upstairs.' So I said, ‘let it be'. Theo comes with his lunch and then we warm it in the kitchen and then he sits and eats his lunch here because his wife looks after him very well. She is a lovely person. He is an old man. Sometimes you forget that sometimes he doesn't hear properly. You will be talking and he will be very far in thought. And you will say Bab Theo do you hear me and he will say, ‘What are you saying?

Theo is the kind of person that if you say, let's go and do something you got to go and do something. If you are going to be complaining and all of this than he leaves you behind. Theo doesn't like to wait. He wants to do things and get on. He doesn't wait for money. He might want money for his performance, he does it himself. That is the kind of courage that I would really love to see from the younger generation. Getting up and doing things for yourself and not complaining. Especially when you have God given talent. That is what I like about Theo, he gets up and goes. There were times when he was sick. And we would go and visit him in Inanda, sit with him and then we take all the old photographs and show him how we archive the old photographs, keep them. As much as he was sad about being sick, because there was a lot of things he wanted to do but he was not able to do it, because he had to be at home. That was a terrible time. He has sugar diabetes. Sometime he would come to class and then he would go to McCord hospital. And then he would phone from there. They have just admitted me for two hours to monitor and put a drip. He would have a drip because the sugar was very down and then he would come back. I would ask him should I go and fetch you, ‘No' and he would find a lift and come back and finish his class. One time he went to Addington to fetch medication and he got there really early, five in the morning or something. He said there were five people in front. The third person had to go, so this person decided to give Theo the ticket because you get a ticket and he saw the people in the cue were just not impressed with that. And he had his own way. He said I looked at them and told them, no I am happy with my number, I will remain here and he gave the person his ticket back. And the cue moved on. He is that kind of person, if there was conflict he would never raise it. He had a way of making you stop and listen to what he had to say, or he has a way of just getting out of the situation and move away from it. He has been hurt a lot by fellow artists and he keeps things and then one day he will say something that will make him talk about that. Some of these old legends, they don't understand that work goes to somebody who goes and looks for work and that is able to say thank you and deliver the goods. His band Nqwelo Afrika, he creates jobs for them, every month, sometimes twice or three times a month, but I really don't think that people tend to appreciate it because Theo is older than all the members of that band, but I don't think they looked at that. It is only when a person is gone do you realise and I hope that before he goes they can realise that we do things, because he does good to others.

Three years ago he had a show at the Jewish Club and he brought all these guys from the Rotary, the old people from the chamber and that chamber and he brought them and he said talk to them, tell them what I want to do because they seem not to understand. I have become that daughter where I had to explain. Sometimes I would be confused. What is it that I am supposed to be explaining? Then through the talking and stuff, I then understand that this is what he wants. For me he has been quite an inspiration and it gets tough and you feel hurt for him. He gets up and goes and does what he has to do.

What about funding?

Sometimes it is the paper work that artists don't understand that it has to be done. But, I don't see it as a problem. There are a whole lot of people who would be willing to fund Theo's project. Even the Bat has never failed to do these things. And even the MEC of Arts and Culture who comes on board, because Theo has done most of the things for himself. The former CEO of Samro met with Baba Theo here and they were also willing to give some of the funds from the foundation. NAC and Arts and Culture trust fund these things. You just need to put the proposal properly. I am sure the DAC, the library and stuff, they can do that. It is just the timing. Even for the book we have got to get the proposal up. Even Lotto is a heritage council. They can pay for this. It is part of the heritage of this province. What we need to do is the proposal in terms of the production, the launch, the concert and the documentation.

Day Four

Visiting the eldest sister Maria in Umgababa was a blessing. They never grew up together. When the parents died she went with one granny to Dundee and grew up there. With Maria our English language and culture is so far apart from hers that very little could be understood but for a smile, a laugh or a twinke of the eye that is to speak the many words required to say, what? I am 87, he is 83 and the third sister has died. I have five children, 13 grand children and 18 great grand children. That is life. We are a people. We are thankful.

And then we went to see Theo's pastor in Inanda ... so Theo could get a ride home.

Day Five

We return to Inanda to meet Agiza Hlongwani, full time news reporter at Sunday Times. Theo wants him to drum up some publicity but his hands are tied there. Theo is attempting to create a link in circumstances with Pat Matchikiza, but these are vastly unfounded. I explain this to him, he eats his lunch, jumps in his large vehicle and heads off to collect the other musicians for the show. I immediately wondered why we did not use that big engine for the long distances we had been doing rather than Sarah's clapped out vehicle. Agiza also wondered where the uBuntu had gone. He even apologised saying it was not in African culture to eat in front of your visitors.

Day Six

On Theo Bophela's 84 th Birthday, T Bone event manager of the Bat Centre called me onto stage to say few words. I looked out into the audience and saw nothing, there appeared to be a vacuum in front of me. I said, “It is Theo's intention to release his auto-biography on his 85 th birthday, and I will assist him.” That was all I knew to be true, the how's and whys were still ambiguous to me.

Thus we see how forgiveness, resolution and patience are all jazz terms…


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