Monday, 14 May 2012

Jump and Jive with West Nkosi (1967)

Today we feature the very first “solo” long playing record by the legendary saxophonist, composer, producer and, later, executive for Gallo records — West Nkosi — a major figure in the South African recording industry for more than three decades.

As a member of the famed Makhona Tsohle Band in the early 1960s, Nkosi help develop the sound of sax jive and subsequently the style of mbaqanga. As a producer he signed and recorded classic groups like Ladysmith Black Mambazo as well as Mahlathini and the Mahotella Queens.

Jump and Jive with West Nkosi, completes what I like to call the early Mavuthela trilogy — the other two albums being Meet the Mahotella Queens (1966) and Let’s Move with the Makhona Tsohle Band (1967), both on the Motella label.

Issued in 1967 on Gallo’s USA label, Jump and Jive does appear to be Nkosi’s first LP record. Though, like the other Mavuthela releases mentioned above, it is a compilation of material previously issued on 78 rpm. I suspect the recordings here range in date from around 1964 to 1967. The cover image of Nksoi has been featured on a number of websites, but remarkably, the source of that image, the original album itself, has not.

In preparing this post it was more than evident to me that no one could be more qualified to talk about Nkosi that my colleague Nick Lotay, who has covered the artist extensively in a range of posts first at Matsuli and now here at Electric Jive.

For this post, Nick has kindly allowed me to sample his various texts in order to string together a narrative for Nkosi. Nick, I am indebted, many thanks!

In many ways Nick’s 2009 post Jive Motella! at Matsuli is for me the gold standard for well-researched, informative blogging and it is from his essay that we open the West Nkosi narrative:

“The vital core of Mavuthela’s roster arose as amateur musicians during the mid-1950s, and the story begins with Joseph Makwela. [...] At the age of 16, Makwela moved to Pretoria on the lookout for work. He eventually became a domestic worker in a white suburb, and encountered by chance another gardener called Lucky Monama. [...] Monama got on well with Makwela and soon they became firm friends, learning that they worked only a short distance from each other. During an off-hour at the end of the week, they spotted a pennywhistler performing at a sports ground, Johannes Hlongwane. Hlongwane was born in 1940 in eMathafeni, just outside Nelspruit. At the age of 16, after leaving school, the music-loving Hlongwane was sent to live with his grandfather in Pretoria to find work. After he gained enough money to buy a pennywhistle […] Hlongwane began to make a name for himself on the streets of Pretoria by performing outside bus stations, at bus stops, and outside stadiums, inspired by his idol Spokes Mashiyane. After seeing the animated Hlongwane, Makwela and Monama bought their own pennywhistles and sought harmony advice from him, in awe of his precision music playing (and the high amount of money that he had garnered from onlookers). Shortly afterwards, the three lads formed The Pretoria Tower Boys. Three more members were soon added and Makwela replaced his whistle with a guitar.

The [PT] Boys would, on occasion, come upon a rival pennywhistle group led by guitarist Marks Mankwane. The Boys would often marvel at his meticulous and rhythmic tunes and Hlongwane noted to himself that Mankwane was a very talented musician to look out for. […]

By the start of the 1960s, each member wanted to try their luck as professional musicians. Hlongwane decided to change his name to West Nkosi. Nkosi and Monama were the first: they moved from Pretoria to Alexandra in late 1960, where Nkosi again played pennywhistle tunes on the streets – Monama backed him up on guitar – enthusiastically waiting to be spotted. A talent scouting expedition from [Gallo] saw the two boys moving to Johannesburg and Nkosi joining Gallo’s kwela studio group: Spokes Mashiyane & His All-Star Flutes. However, [Nkosi’s] time with them was brief, as he wanted to develop his own career as an individual performer.

Monama decided to remain at Gallo as a session musician and permanently abandoned his pennywhistle, opting to become a rhythm guitarist. Nkosi once again moved on, ending up joining another studio group called the Bon Accord Boys. The fame that they acquired affected Nkosi deeply, who wanted a reputation as a brilliant soloist.

This saw a move back to Jo’burg’s city centre in 1962 and back at the famed Gallo studios, this time with Joseph Makwela, for a second try. The two lads ended up performing as a duo outside the legendary building. They had at this point switched instruments: Nkosi replaced his pennywhistle with a saxophone after realizing that the pennywhistle had quickly gone out of fashion, and Makwela […] became the first black electric bass player in South Africa. Reggie Msomi was sufficiently pleased by the performances, having seen them on his way in and out of the Gallo studios.

The two men were recruited by Msomi into his stellar marabi line-up the Hollywood Jazz Band [led by Msomi] and were subsequently reunited with Lucky Monama – who, at this point, was already the rhythm guitarist in the band. Msomi was impressed with Nkosi, and gave the performer a second role at Gallo as a solo artist. Nkosi’s professional career effectively began. Some minor success occurred before Msomi heard that Gallo was not showing good profits in their black music production. He decided to take the new lineup of the Jazz Band on a tour, this time to up north to Rhodesia, hoping that he would gain decent revenue from the live appearances and recordings of the band for the company. […]

The company took Msomi’s unexpected departure as an opportunity to replace him. They managed to entice the massively successful Rupert Bopape [from EMI] and Mavuthela was born. Msomi was furious at Gallo replacing him behind his back, but he was persuaded by management to remain at the company with promises to become a possible co-producer […] in the new Mavuthela subsidiary.

When West Nkosi, Joseph Makwela and Lucky Monama finally returned to Gallo in the middle of 1964, they found that, in the re-organisation of the company, Bopape had fired most of the old musicians. One of the new recruits to the new Mavuthela roster was none other than Marks Mankwane, who had been […] at Troubadour Records […].

West Nkosi began pleading with Bopape to let him record as a solo artist on the new Mavuthela roster, just as he had done under Msomi, but Bopape – needing new musicians and having received word from Msomi that Nkosi was one musician from the old Gallo unit that didn’t deserve to be fired – instead put him in a group of backing saxophonists (the four horn blowers in the foreground during Mavuthela’s infancy were Shadrack Piliso, Elijah Nkwanyana, Zeph Nkabinde, and Christopher Songxaka) and started churning out the necessary vocal/sax jive output he had done at EMI.

The first few Mavuthela recordings were simple instrumental sax jives with a ‘call and response’ nomenclature. Depending on the pseudonym, one of the saxophonists would call with his instrument. He would be responded with a team of saxophones played by the other horn blowers on the early roster – with all important accompaniments from Mavuthela’s house band: Mankwane’s high-pitched electric guitar skills, Makwela on his deeply-plucked bass, Monama on acoustic rhythm guitar, and Wilfred Mosebi on brushed drums. The music itself built heavily on the mbaqanga […] sound. The deep electric bass pulsation and concentrated uptempo electric guitar was an irresistible complementation and as such held the entire melody together.

West Nkosi asked Bopape if it was possible to audition now that Mavuthela was up-and-running. Bopape agreed. Nkosi, together with Mankwane, Makwela, Monama and Mosebi, performed a sax jive tune that he had composed some months prior. Bopape was impressed by this performance, and as a result, Nkosi was made a solo act – under the name West Nkosi and His Alto Sax – and recorded his first tune: “Orlando Train”, the song he had performed in his audition.

Bopape formally organised the Mavuthela house band and later penned the Sesotho name ‘Makhona Tsohle Band’ (The Band That Can Do Anything) in reference to the skills of his musicians. Bopape organised for the band to perform at local gatherings to promote the Mavuthela division, which began its fruitful productive career releasing its product on the existing “Gallo-USA” and “Gallo New Sound” labels, and the newly-formed “Motella” label. The instrumentalists were very well-received with their new “electric jive” sound and success was to follow.

A huge slice of the black public became fairly fanatical about this new musical craze and the “Motella” name soon gained currency. The easygoing Marks Mankwane was to become a key musical arranger, whilst the more open and enthusiastic West Nkosi found a mentor in Bopape. Bopape educated Nkosi, an aspiring producer, on the rigid studio system, and gave Nkosi a stable role as a solo performer. Nkosi was happy in his permanent position of employment in Johannesburg, not least because it gave him a chance to make a name for himself and at the same time remain with his beloved wife Thami and newborn baby."

"The rest of the 1970s saw some more membership changes, and promotions – Mankwane and Nkosi were now producers, as was Lucky Monama (Monama was now also Mavuthela’s Public Relations officer). Makhona Tsohle subsequently disbanded around 1979 due to producer responsibilities, though did carry on as session musicians, reuniting in 1983 for their own (highly successful) television show, Mathaka (Friends) […]."

"Nkosi’s headstrong attitude to life thrust him further and further into the spotlight as time went on [...]. When the order came from Gallo’s management to increase production, Nkosi was one of the first to be honoured by Bopape with a producing role in 1972.

Nkosi was the ultimate champ and all-round good guy in front of Bopape, the big boss of the studio. But privately, one might say West thought Bopape was ill-suited to the music business: in an interview many years after Bopape’s retirement, Nkosi spoke about sitting down with his boss in the rehearsal rooms at Gallo and watching artist after artist audition for a contract. Though Nkosi could feel the potential in these musicians and singers, Bopape was the boss and had to have the final say – and often turned down the ones who Nkosi privately felt had the talent to prosper. His promotion to producer gave him the chance to have his decisions adhered to – and, in many cases, spotlight a talented act that, under Bopape, would never have shone.

When West Nkosi came to Durban to search for a local male group whose cothoza mfana vocal styling had captivated everyone listening to Radio Zulu, he struck gold. He brought Ladysmith Black Mambazo in a Gallo minibus to the Johannesburg studios, where welcome faces and pats on the back greeted them. All except for Rupert Bopape, of course! Joseph Shabalala, the enigmatic founder and leader of the group, recalled in a late 1990s interview that Bopape was hesitant of signing the then-seven members to Gallo-Mavuthela. “He was hesitating about it,” remembered Shabalala. “He said, ‘there are groups like the King Star Brothers… we record them and black people don’t buy their music! It’ll be the same thing for these guys!’” West Nkosi insisted that these guys were so much more talented than any of the others. The hesitation continued for a while – but luckily, Bopape’s wife Irene Mawela happened to be in the studios that day and asked who these singers were. When told of the group’s name, she immediately recognised them from the constant Radio Zulu airplay – and insisted that they be signed up. West noted her approval and Bopape duly agreed. Ladysmith Black Mambazo began recording in August 1972 and, by the end of the decade, had become the biggest selling group in the country’s history.

Alongside producing several more immensely popular acts, West Nkosi continued recording instrumental hits too: in the line-up West Nkosi Nabashokobezi (which included guitarist Marubini Jagome, bassist Jabu Zulu and drummer Eddie Ndzeru), he focused mainly on peppy sax jive tunes and recording many, many numbers in the ‘mabone’ series. With his longtime musical acquaintances in the Makgona Tsohle Band (also credited as the Makhona Zonke Band on several 1970s records), Nkosi also did sax jive but that bit more extravagantly, as well as later branching out into bump jive and soul."

"In 1973, the studio group West Nkosi Nabashokobezi worked up a sensational mbaqanga beat that just had to be recorded. Released on the FGB Producers label in 1973, the hit single “Two Mabone” (two car headlights) defined that alignment with the US. The single became a huge hit within South Africa, quickly attaining gold status – the tune was so popular that Gallo Africa issued it for international release via London Records in the US. Before long, jive Mabone – referring to the headlights of the Impala – became the in-thing. A long string of recordings by various sax jivers all helped to keep the trend alive for some two or three years. […]"

"[…] Following Bopape’s 1977 semi-retirement, Nkosi carefully encouraged his own influence with Gallo’s board of directors – using the influential advice that Bopape gave to him – and not only became head of production in the stable, but the first black man to be appointed to the board of directors at Gallo Africa (in 1982)."

In August 1998, Nkosi was paralyzed in a car accident, and died from his injuries two months later, at the age of 58. 

Many thanks again to Nick Lotay for allowing me to sample his texts on Nkosi for this narrative.

West Nkosi
Jump and Jive with West Nkosi


  1. Thank you Siemon. Thank you Nick. Thank you Matt (back in '09). Thank you Mr. Nkosi. Life is sweet.

  2. Can't wait to listen to this one. Nkosi in his prime! Thanks a million :-))


  3. Many Thanks for the kind comments!

  4. Speaking as someone who met West on several occasions, he was a hugely talented and gifted musician who never hesitated to put himself above his fellow musicians. Wages were shrouded in secrecy and major stars were little more than serfs cowering under his portly wings, smiling with thanks but silently resenting his every move.
    Still, bloody great music and an excellent post!

  5. Thank you Nick,

    Irene was very humbled when I reminded her that she is the one who supported the world known and grammy award winner-Black Mambazo. Indeed her life needs to be documented.

  6. Hello, is there any way you could upload "Jump and Jive with West Nkosi"? I'm really curious but couldn't find any link.


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