King Kong, the first All African Jazz Opera 1958
King Kong is of course one of the most famous American films ever made (and remade). The story of the giant ape transported from a faraway island to New York, captured the imagination of millions since its first release in 1933. South Africa however, has its own King Kong. In 1958 King Kong became the first all African Jazz Opera, with a star studded local cast including Miriam Makeba and the Manhattan Brothers, Kippie Moeketsi, Abigail Kubheka and Hugh Masekela.
Opera in a Convent Garden, an annual concert held at Springfield Convent School (St. John’s Road, Wynberg), this year features a delightful choral extract from this work. Albert Horne, chorus master of Cape Town Opera, made an arrangement of the famous number Back of the Moon, which will be performed by the Cape Town Opera Voice of the Nation Ensemble – South Africa’s premier opera chorus.
Soloists will be Cape Town favourites Shirley Sutherland (My Fair Lady) and Miranda Tini, whose extraordinary voice has thrilled audiences locally and internationally in roles as diverse as Jezibaba from Dvorak’s Rusalka and Mariah in Porgy and Bess praised at the Cardiff Millennium Centre in Wales, for her “powerful stage presence and equally powerful voice.” (Bill Kenny: Music Web International)
Cape Town Opera chorus’ experience with Jazz influenced works such as Scott Joplin’s Treemonisha and Gershwin’s Porgy and Bess make them ideal interpreters of this neglected work from the South African cultural heritage.
In 1956, the Syndicate of African Artists commissioned Todd Matshikiza to write a large work for choir and orchestra. The composer had written successful choral works before, but since no orchestra was available, Uxolo was created on a massive scale for choirs and brass band. The success of this work – with its jazzy undertones, led in part to the creation of the musical/Jazz Opera King Kong. Lyrics were by Pat Williams. Matshikiza wrote the music as well of some of the lyrics (some in African languages).
Lead roles were taken by Nathan Mdledle and Miriam Makeba, who created the role of Shebeen Queen Joyce, the matriarch running the Back of the Moon watering hole. This role brought Mama Africa Makeba international attention and launched a singing career that sustained her throughout her life as an Apartheid exile. The 63 member cast was backed by the cream of South Africa’s jazz musicians, including the now legendary reed player Kippie Moketsi.
Opening early in 1959 at the Wits University Great Hall, the show was an immediate success. By the time the show travelled to London in 1961, 200 000 South Africans, had seen the show. The life of boxer Ezekial Dhlamini was good material for a stage work. His meteoric rise to the top of South Africa’s boxing world as the famous ‘King Kong’ was in sad contrast to his descent into drunkenness, violence and murder. He killed himself by drowning at age 32. Matshikiza had covered Dhlamini’s 1950’s trial for treason as a journalist and was aboviously well-acquainted with his subject matter. According to The Daily Mail & Guardian, “Matshikiza understood his central character, and, more importantly, understood the whole world that surrounded ‘King Kong’. He understood the whole black world of the townships that fed Johannesburg and the histories of the people who filled those townships.” ~ Craig Harris, All Music Guide
Todd Matshikiza (1921-1968) is considered by many, as belonging to the royalty of South African music. One of a family of 10 – all of whom instrumentalists and singers – Todd started piano lessons at the age of 6. As an adult he ran the Todd Matshikiza School of Music, where he also taught the piano. From 1949 to 1954, Matshikiza was a committee member of the Syndicate of African Artists. This group aimed to promote music in the townships by getting visiting artists to perform there. Finding it difficult to make a living as a jazz musician, he joined the editorial staff of Drum Magazine. He wrote a jazz column covering the township scene, particularly in Sophiatown, where he commented on the likes of Kippie Moeketsi and Hugh Masekela who both played for the The Jazz Epistles. He also covered township life in his regular column With the lid off.
South African arts bosses should take note: the time is surely right for a revival of King Kong. With musicians such as Albert Horne taking such an active interest in the history of black jazz in this country, it would be a pleasant surprise if the Department of Arts, Culture, Science and Technology would also take such an active interest in the preservation of this piece of cultural heritage.
Other works on the programme Opera in a Convent Garden include operatic extracts such as Juliet’s Waltz Song from Gounod’s opera Romeo e Juliette, the Doll Song from Offenbach’s Les Contes D’Hoffmann. Musicals The Student Prince and Show Boat round out a programme designed to please all ages. The accompanists are pianists Albert Horne and Albert Combrink.When: Sunday 7 February 2010
Where: Springfield Convent School (St. John’s Road, Wynberg, Cape Town)
Price: Adults R100 / Scholars R20
Bookings: 076 696 4630