While New York had the Harlem Renaissance in the 1920s, here in South Africa, Sophiatown ushered in a new wave of music, dance and culture. Known as Little Harlem, Sophiatown was the centre of South African jazz culture from the 1930s to 50s. It was the training ground for jazz legends like Hugh Masekela, Miriam Makeba, Dolly Rathebe, and Spokes Mashiyane; and it was where South African swing music was born. South African swing echoed the popular American swing jazz of the time, but also incorporated local rhythms, instruments and languages. Gradually it evolved into the Marabi, Mbaqanga, and Kwela styles that are so well known today.
The music of Sophiatown was defined by its danceability. If Harlem had ballrooms where band leaders like Chick Webb brought people to their feet, Sophiatown had strings of clubs and shebeens that were pulsating with couples dancing to live music. Photos and video footage suggest that the dances recall the Lindy hop styles that are familiar in other parts of the world, with the incorporation of local traditional dance elements.
The end of an era.
In 1955, the National Party began its violent clearance of Sophiatown. There was strong resistance, but by 1966 the town was destroyed; its residents forcibly evicted. Eleven years later, District Six, known as “the soul of Cape Town”, was also demolished. The destruction of entire communities, particularly these two cultural hubs, and the suppression of black culture under the apartheid regime, saw the decline of South African swing and the loss of major cultural artefacts. Unlike the well-documented American Jazz Age and swing era, which led to the ubiquity of black music and dance in popular culture, South Africa’s swing history is a scattered puzzle; its pieces hidden in private record collections, unseen photographs, and personal memories.
Much of the original swing music is forgotten and bands like the Manhattan Brothers, the Elite Swingsters, the Merry Black Birds and the Pitch Black Follies – the pioneers of jazz in South Africa – have faded into obscurity. Consequently, these musicians have not received the recognition, and in many cases the royalties, they are due for their music.
The destruction of Sophiatown should be considered one of history’s biggest tragedies, and it is essential to keep its legacy alive. This was the goal of CTS and The Pebble Shakers with the creation of the album Echoes of Sophiatown. Read about the project here.