If songbird Miriam Makeba was the voice of the 1950s, singer and stage artist Marah Louw personified the black entertainment scene in the 1970s.
And if, indeed, the Sophiatown period was the golden era of jazz, Soweto in the 1970s represented everything fashionable – from the township soul of pioneering ensembles such as the Movers and the Cannibals to the black is-beautiful politics of Steve Biko and the June 16, 1976 student uprisings.
However, while books and documentaries have been published about the music, art and literary scenes of the Kofifi era, the same cannot be said about the 1970s. And that is why this book is such a ground-breaking contribution to a neglected decade in terms of historic coverage and scholarship.
It is the first work of literary worth in terms of the celebrity literature that Blackbird Books, an imprint of Jacana Media, is promoting.
At last, here is an authentic South African story told by a remarkable artist who has lived long enough to tell us, the readers, something worth knowing about an episode of our cultural history.
We see how ordinary people went on with their everyday lives despite apartheid repression. And for performers around Soweto the place to be was Club Pelican, the first nightclub in Soweto and definitely the famous township’s answer to Sophiatown’s Back of the Moon, and New York City’s Cotton Club.
Louw was the resident performer at the Pelican and she fondly remembers prominent musicians who played there as members of the resident band – Dick Khoza, Themba Mokoena, Mac Mathunjwa, Khaya Mahlangu, Sipho Gumede, Bakithi Khumalo and Edgar Dikgole. It was also at the Pelican where a 14-year-old Lebo Morake – the future Lebo M of The Lion King fame – first cut his teeth as a stage performer. Here all musical styles found expression – jazz, soul, blues, disco and mbaqanga.
Patrons travelled from all corners of the country to have a great time of live music and laughter at the iconic venue. Despite its rich history as the centre of the 1970s music scene, the Pelican and its cultural significance in the history of South African music has, until the publication of this book, never been documented or appraised.
The book recalls a smoky and dingy place that was packed to capacity every night. It was also a platform where Louw shared the stage with Sophiatown-era musicians such as Thandi Klaasen, Sophie Mgcina and Count Wellington Judge. It brought together generations from different eras and kept the memory of Kofifi alive. It was partly through the musical genius and artistic vision of Dick Khoza – drummer, band leader, troubadour, arranger, composer and impresario – that the Pelican became such a household name.
The book eloquently captures the mood and essence of this institution. The Colosseum Theatre in downtown Joburg was another cultural space that has been written out of the narrative of South African music, although it also symbolised the artistic vibrancy and versatility of the period right into the early 1980s.
Owned by the Quibell brothers, it hosted prominent visiting American performers such as Brook Benton, Clarence Carter and Dobie Gray. It was here that Carter’s chart-topping album, Live in Johannesburg (1982) was recorded with a stellar ensemble of local uncredited session instrumentalists – the likes of drummer Godfrey Mgcina, bassist David Mabaso, keyboardist Vusi “Buick” Twala, Mike Makhalemele (tenor sax), Jasper Cook (trombone), Stompie Manana (trumpet) and musical director and guitarist, Kenny Mathaba.
It was also at this entertainment mecca that, in 1976, and the following year the author was invited by the Quibell brothers to launch national tours as a supporting act for American artists – soul crooner Dobie Gray and The Main Ingredient, pop singer Johnny Mathis and his big band, reggae man Jimmy Cliff as well as jazz musicians Stanley Turrentine and Jimmy Smith.
The fact that she was billed with artists of such high calibre from different musical traditions was testament to her versatility and, by extension, the skilfulness of many South African performers during these decades. And she was at the centre of it all.
The 1970s was also an important decade for musicals and the author played a prominent role in this field. She was still a pupil when her powerful singing attracted Gibson Kente – famously remembered as the father of township theatre.
In 1971 Kente roped her into Sikhalo, at the time the most famous musical in the black community even though it premiered in 1966. Around the same time, she also joined Workshop 91, a theatre company under the directorship of Rob McLaren, otherwise known as Rob Mshengu Kavanagh.
The book offers background and context to prominent theatre names such as Maishe Maponya, Mango Tshabangu and Matsemela Manaka.
The highlight of her career in musicals was an international tour with Meropa, an African variety show which was conceived at Dorkay House by Ben Nomoyi. It toured Japan, Hong Kong, the Philippines and the UK.
The author writes about tough times for black people living in the face of racial humiliation, but she skilfully approaches her subject matter with wit and humour. Her personal tragedies are eventually overshadowed by her indomitable spirit and sense of triumph.