South Africa, Life, etc

King Kong lives again: Iconic 1950s musical revival set to be highlight on SA 2017 cultural calendar

By Marianne Thamm 10 January 2017

Almost 60 years after its first sensational staging in 1959, South Africa’s most significant, influential and iconic “all African jazz opera”, King Kong, is set for a 21st Century revival at the Fugard Theatre in Cape Town in July. The original production – which featured the cream of South Africa’s 1950s musical talent including those of accomplished composer Todd Matshikiza, songstress Miriam Makeba as well as that of legendary instrumentalists Kippie Moeketsi, Sol Klaaste, Mackay Davashe, Jonas Gwangwa and Hugh Masekela – later influenced and shaped post-war R&B, jazz and popular culture across the globe. King Kong is a seminal piece of South African cultural heritage which Fugard Theatre producer Eric Abraham has taken 20 years to secure. By MARIANNE THAMM.

Miriam Makeba was in her mid-20s in 1959 when she was cast as Joyce, owner of Back of The Moon, the most famous shebeen in Sophiatown, in the collaborative jazz opera King Kong which was seen by over 200,000 South Africans of all races as it toured the country between 1959 and 1960.

By then Makeba was already one of the most popular female singers in South Africa, as were many of the other cast members including Nathan Mdledle (of the Manhattan Brothers and who played the original King Kong) as well as a young Caiphus Semenya, Sophie Mgcina, Letta Mbulu and Benjamin Masinga.

In 1955 the then government had razed Sophiatown, also known as Kofifi, the undisputed hub of Johannesburg cultural life where writers such as Can Themba, Nat Nakasa, Henry Nxumalo (and the rest of the Drum generation) dreamed, wrote, danced, made music, loved and drank. In its shadow rose the whites-only suburb cynically named Triomf (Truimph). It was officially renamed Sophiatown in 2006.

Today Back of the Moon is one of the most most iconic and recognisable songs harking back to a period in South African history which celebrated the “final flowering of Sophiatown culture” as David B Coplan, social historian and musicologist, wrote in his 1985 history In Township Tonight, documenting three centuries of black South African music, dance and theatre.

Listen: Back of the Moon, by Miriam Makeba

The jazz opera is based on the life of heavyweight boxer Ezekiel Dlamini who was known as King Kong because of his immense strength and who became a legend during his dramatic and violent lifetime before his death in 1957. The tragedy of Dlamini’s life serves as a creative prism for the exploration of African urban life at the time.

In 1959 South Africa had been under apartheid rule for more than years, the Sharpeville massacre would take place a year later and in 1961 the country would become a republic. That same year the cast of King Kong toured to London’s West End which offered Matshikiza, Makeba and Masekela an opportunity to flee into exile.

A photo from the King Kong London programme.

Lost to South Africa, it was in the US that Makeba, Masekela and other musical talents from King Kong who followed later (including composer and musician Jonas Gwangwa), would become internationally recognised stars who influenced just about everyone from Harry Belafonte to Miles Davis, and from Stevie Wonder to Fela Kuti.

Matshikiza moved to London but later settled in Zambia where he died in 1968.

In his 2009 dissertation presented to the Faculty of the Graduate School of the University of Texas at Austin and tiled King Kong, Bigger Than Cape Town: A History of a South African Musical, Tyler David Fleming writes”

The collective musical journey of the play and its performers touched upon a diverse collection of the world’s musicians. Together they significantly shaped jazz, R&B and folk music across the globe and aided in the creation of the World music genre. Thus the collective impact of their careers is extremely significant to popular culture across Europe, Africa and North America of the post-war era.”

That King Kong has not been revived in South Africa before now, apart from a two-day disaster in 1979, has much to do with its specific cultural import, the historical memory it holds, as well as complications with regards to the holders of the rights to the production which were spread among several of its original black and white collaborators.

It has taken Fugard producer Eric Abraham almost 20 years to secure the rights as well as the blessing of those original artists associated with the production who are still alive.

While casting for the Fugard production is still under way (who will be the “new Makeba”, one wonders?), UK director Jonathan Munby has been drafted by Abraham to guide this 21st Century “evolution” – rather than revival – as he prefers to term it.

Munby has been in Cape Town working with musical director Charl-Johan Lingenfelder in an attempt to restore the authenticity of Matshikiza’s musical arrangements which were altered for the 1960 West End run in order to accommodate “Western” tastes.

Munby’s association with The Fugard dates back to the staging of his play A Number in 2011 and which opened the Studio venue at the theatre and then later A Human Being Died That Night in 2014. He is more than aware and respectful of the layering surrounding King Kong, its history and its place in the South African musical firmament.

I believe the original is a statement by its creators of what was possible. Back then, 10 years into apartheid, it feels to me that it is a statement that is fairly subversive. And we have in a sense tried to mirror that all these years later,” said Munby.

That it has taken so long for this historic piece to find its way back to the stage might have to do, says Munby, with the fact that “people wanted to protect it”.

People loved it and didn’t want it to be sullied in any way or the memory of it to be ruined or tarnished. It ‘made’ a number of people internationally. I think it’s inextricably linked to those people and personalities.The wonderful thing now is that everyone that is connected to it originally and is still alive has given this production their blessing.”

Listening to the West End recording and the original, one is struck, says Munby, by the differences and the choices that were made to accommodate white musical sensibilities.

One is the scale of the West End show. Here it feels like just another West End production. All authenticity and originality is lost in an attempt to create a quintessential Broadway sound. There is, in many ways, a cheapening of it all. It is loud, it is bombastic and blown through the roof in terms of scale. It was Westernised in a way now that feels offensive.”

There were also moments, says Munby, that were added for the international productions that made no sense in terms of the narrative and which turned a work of art into a cultural curiosity.

A gumboot dance was added that makes no sense but it was put there because it was deemed a quintessential piece of South African culture that audiences wanted to see.”

Returning to the original, says Munby, is to search for the root of the drama, and to help with this “opening up” of the script Abraham has roped in Oscar-nominated screenwriter, novelist and playwright William Nicholson (who wrote the screenplay for the film adaptations of Sarafina and Long Walk to Freedom).

I see this more as an evolution of the piece. It must have been really difficult the first time in terms of the inexperience of much of the cast in terms of acting. Those performers had no training and very little experience so they had to rely very much on music and movement in order to tell the story. That has changed now. Circumstances have changed. We have people who are actors, singers and dancers which really allows us to open up the piece.”

Now, says Munby, the book scenes (the original book was written by Harry Bloom) are as important as the music and can “live alongside each other”.

So we are not glossing over anything. I think the message at the centre of the piece is still very strong and resonant. It feels to me like a cautionary tale, a kind of warning about responsibility, about following a man who makes these extraordinary mistakes in his life but what he doesn’t do is contain this power, this violence inside of him. That is what the story is about, a man who abuses that thing that is inside him and does not control it. If we do not control this innate power within us all this is what it might lead to.”

Munby added that from the outset the creative team behind this 2017 production have approached it not as a documentary but as a piece of theatre.

And we need to be absolutely respectful and understanding of where it came from and the circumstances that created it. But our first responsibility, I think, is about the connection between the moment and the audience, a new audience, young people, have no idea. We have the responsibility of delivering a great piece of theatre. And if in the doing of that we can tell a story of the past that is illuminating and touch on some subjects that are still resonant today then all the better.”

Munby has decided to contextualise King Kong by starting it with a scene set in modern-day South Africa where four young men become embroiled in an argument. Just before the fracas becomes violent, a character, who turns out to be Pops, enters and begins to tell them the tragic story of Ezekiel Dlamini.

The moment we struck on that idea we were able to continually acknowledge the process of what we are doing in terms of bringing this piece from the past into the present. So actually what this character does is conjure the past, he brings these characters from the past to tell the story to these boys in the present.”

The unique hybrid and now distinctive styles of music, Kwela, Marabi, Mbaqanga blended with jazz, is what has made the King Kong playlist unique and now iconic.

The original cast numbered 72 and the orchestra consisted of a variety of top musicians including Mackay Davashe, Sol Klaaste, Kiepie Moeketsi, Gwigwi Mwrebi who arranged the music, Masekela recalled to author Muff Andersson in 1981 , “from a tape of tunes that Todd gave us”.

As they finished an arrangement they would give it to me and Jonas Gwangwa in the kitchen and we’d copy it out,” said Masekela.

Moeketsi – an alt saxophonist known as the Charlie Parker of South African jazz – was a key figure in King Kong and played all the incidental music. Moeketsi died in 1983 at the age of 58, penniless. While he was once of South Africa’s brightest stars, his battle with alcohol scuppered his career.

A key feature in the Kwela style of music is the use of the pennywhistle played in the original production by the wonder boy Lemmy Mabaso and also West Nkosi (later to become a record producer) who told Anderson that he viewed King Kong as the only true black musical to have emerged out of South Africa.

Said Munby:

We want to get away from any preconceived idea of what a musical should sound like, to get rid of all the ‘Broadwaydisation’, to stay true to the original and bring it to the 21st Century. What we are staging in this new version are things that they could not do originally which is a heightened stylisation of the boxing scenes and the use of physical theatre. We have also composed new songs for those moments where we feel that something is missing and needs fleshing out. We identified three of those moments and were to compose songs from an old archival audio recording Esme Matshikiza (Todd’s widow) found of Todd bashing out themes and ideas for the show on the piano.”

For now King Kong 2017 is still a work in progress and while Munby says he has witnessed extraordinarily talented South Africans in auditions for the piece, the team have still not yet found their Joyce or the “new Miriam Makeba”.

In terms of performers, the music for the guys is easy to sing but the music for the women is hard. It is a jazz sound. Musical theatre is written for a chest sound. If you listen to Back of the Moon its register is very high and we don’t train female voices in musical theatre these days to sing up there.”

Some roles in King Kong have already been cast but for now Munby is not letting the boxer out of the bag.

There is no doubt that the opening of King Kong in July will be one of the most highly anticipated events in Cape Town and South Africa this year, bringing to life and to a new generation the work of some of this country’s most lauded musical talents. We can’t wait. DM

Photo: Miriam Makeba as Joyce and and Dan Poho as Popcorn in the original production of King Kong. (Photo courtesy of The Fugard)

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