SINCE 1958, the Elite, Swingsters have been the most consistently popular exponents of that uniquely South African Jazz. Don’t, however, dismiss the band as a bunch of moudly old revivalists! The Elite’s music may have been fashioned from the continuation of a great tradition but they’re not content to merely recreate past glories. And when you see that word “jazz" in this context don’t start thinking about the cool, obscure, atonal variety that requires a musicology degree to “understand"
The Swingsters, African Jazz is quite simply some of the world’s greatest party music! Its strong on good, classic melodies the kind that keep repeating themselves on your own mental jukebox long after the gig is over or the record is finished served up with hot, instantly contagious rhythms that lift bums out of seats and onto a dance floor. Stylistically speaking, its really a blend of African melodies and harmonies with American swing, together with an added dose of New Orleans rhythm and even some rock ‘n roll thrown in for good measure.
Of course, it is useful to have a well-established reputation and the Elite Swingsters have long been a household name in the townships. Thanks to this, the band has recently featured at a number of gigs that would be right at the top of anybody’s social calendar. First there was a small party for the State President (where he ended up dancing with the Elite’s vocalist, Dolly Rathebe), then they played at the prestigious launch of Mr Mandela’s autobiography, “Long Walk To Freedom" (where trumpeter Hugh Masekela sat in on a few numbers). The Elite’s were also chosen to play at Westminister Abbey for the occasion marking South Africa’s re-admittance to the British Commonwealth. Queen Elizabeth and Prince Charles headed the guest list and the Prince went out of his way to chat to the individual band members, then asked for some more of the music!
But what in a way is even more gratifying is the fact the that the Elites are now being discovered by an entirely new audience, the result of a hectic schedule which has encompassed dozens of private parties and functions as well as some sensational public appearances at various night-spots. (Patrons dancing on the tables at Rosebank’s Get Ahead Shebeen became part of the expected nightly American businessmen at a resort in the Natal Drakensberg, some of the South Africans confided to the band that they had initially assumed the Elite’s were an American import! Several also added how much they regretted that the divisions of the apartheid years had kept them so completely ignorant of the band and their music.
African Jazz, jazz
Two gentlemen from the core of Elite Swingsters maintain the band’s direct link to a history stretching back more than three decades. “Founder member" Paul Rametsi was in the very first seven man line-up and plays tenor sax. Leader Peter Makonotela “only" joined in 1961 when he was still in his teens. He’s on alto sax (not to mention an occasional outgoing on pennywhistle) and besides providing many of the extended solos, together with Paul he forms two-thirds of an extremely well-oiled saxophone section that provides the essence of the Elite’s sound.
The other members are more recent, additions who have played a critical role in modifying the band’s style to keep it ever fresh and up-to-date. Providing a melodic counterpoint to the saxes (as well as a considerable punch to the ryhthm) are the almost boogie-woogie keyboards of Danny Ngema (who started his musical career as a Sotho Traditional accordion player) and the sizzling, bluesy guitar of George ‘Magu Manxola. Magu is a mbaqanga veteran of hundreds of recording sessions and one of South Africa’s all-time great guitarists. (His sister Mildred is one of the Mahotella Queens.) The two youngsters who provide the rock solid but swinging rhythms for the band are drummer Jackie Mogale and Paul Nteleru on bass guitar. They both earned their chops playing for Nature, a local disco outfit, and got involved with the Swingsters almost by accident. Paul, in particular, hestitated at first to join a band whose style was so different from the one he’d grown up with. He says, “It was difficult for me at first but I know that this is the music I always wanted to play!"
Last but far from least, is vocalist Dolly Rathebe, “The Queen of The Blues" She was already a veteran star when she sang regularly with the Elites in the 1960s, having earlier made her name as the country’s first African female jazz vocalist and film actress (not to mention magazine cover girl!) Dolly rejoined the band a few years back and today, her legendary prowess remains totally intact. She can handle a rocker or a balled with perfect aplomb, thanks to a voice incorporating what is undoubtedly the silkiest and most sultry low range in the business.
The concept behind the latest Elite Swingers recording was to recreate in the studio a typical program of the band’s current performances. There are several brand new tunes penned by various members of the band (“Get Me Right" “Shebeen Dance" “Dipholo" and “Ke Filwe" mixed with a number of older standards. Glen Miller’s classic “In The Mood" is given an African touch. “Skokiaan" is a Zimbabwean evergreen from the early 1950s which became internationally popular when recorded by Louis Armstrong, among many others. There are South African classics like “Laku Shona I Langa" made famous by Miriam Makeba and the Manhattan Brothers and “Meadowlands" a comment on the infamous mid 70's forced removals that obliterated Sophiatown which is today one of the country’s most immediately recognizable melodies. “Unosizwe" and “Unomeva" were popularized ‘way back when' by Dolly herself while “Ndi Hamba Ngedwa" was written by another famous 70's diva, Dorathy Masuka. “Kwela Kwela" is Peter’s tune dating from his days as a streetcorner pennywhistler and takes its name from the police vans that picked up Africans unlucky enough to fall afoul of the apartheid laws of that era. The remaining selections, “Payneville" “Elite Hop" “Two Ball Twist" (which nowadays the band usually calls “Vastrap", “Amahlubi"and "6 Rockville" are all songs written by band members, past and present, that have long been specifically associated with the Elites. Here they are presented with the brand new arrangements that have made them today a staple of the band’s appearences.
So here is the new Elite Swingsters album, a collection of mini-anthems just made for the new South Africa. Its appropriately entitled “Siya Gida" meaning ‘We Are Dancing" in Zulu. Slip this into your music machine, relax, enjoy... and party! Yebo!!
In the mid 1960s, the Elites situation began to change. Chooks Tshikudu tragically drowned in the sea off Durban beach and trumpeter Jordan Bangazi was forced to retire from music after sustaining severe head injuries that affected his embrochure.
The Elites were also faced with increasing competition from the newer musical styles that were then supplanting African Jazz in popularity, particularly the electric mbaqanga spearheaded by Mahlathini and the Mahotella Queens. Up to this point, the musicians in the band had all been full-time professionals, but in the late 1960s, in view of their declining audience and also because the married members wanted amore stable lifestyle, they decided to get ‘day jobs' and pursue music on an after-hours basis. The band did, however, maintain a considerable popularity as a live attraction and continued to record regularly, at a time when most of the other great combinations of the African Jazz era had long since disbanded. In fact, two of the Elites biggest hits originated during this period, “Blessing" (1972), which featured the prominent organ sound then favoured by the ‘cutting edge' local ‘soul' groups, and “Now Or Never" (1975).
Eventually, the musical tastes of the townships and particularly that of its youth, changed to the point that the Elites were forced into virtual retirement. During the disco era and still later when Bubblegum supplanted disco, the regular roster dwindled down to the three saxes of Paul Rametsi, Peter Mokonotela and Tami Madi. Violence and political instability precluded playing in the township halls which had formely provided the bands stomping ground, so live performance opportunities were limited to an occasional wedding or beauty contest. Recording opportunities also dwindled and the resulting albums, none of which were particularly successful, were often issued under various sound-alike names such as the Elite Swing Stars or the Airlight Swingster.
The Elites renaissance dates from 1989 when a film company working on a story set in Johannesburg in the 1950s telephoned ex-Elite saxophonist Albert Ralulimi, then working as a royalties administrator for Gallo Music Publishers, to ask if he knew of authentic African Jazz. Persuaded by Ralulimi that the only solution was to use Rathebe herself backed up by the Elite Swingsters, an audition was arranged which effected the reunion of band and vocalist.
Although the proposed film never materialized, the stage was now set for other opportunities including a recording contract with Gallo Record Company which produced two new albums, ‘Woza' (1990) and ‘A Call For Peace' (1993). A stable instrumental line-up emerged which included Rametsi, Mokonotela and Madi backed up by Danny Ngema on keyboards (he originally played accordion in the Sotho Traditional style) together with Paul Ntleru on electric bass and Jackie Mogali on drums (both were former members of Nature, a disco band). After his addition as a session guitarist on the two Gallo albums, George Manxola, a mbaqanga veteran whose career stretches back to the 1960s, joined the Elites on a regular basis. More recently, Tami Madi on second alto has dropped out to be replaced by Bennett Rahoau. (Like Peter Mokonotela, Bennett began his musical career playing a pennywhistle.)
Another important addition to the Elites roster, Colin Plit, became the band’s manager in 1993. He replaced the band’s aging PA equipment and some of the instruments, and began to aggressively promote the band as a performing attraction.
In the euphoria surrounding the birth of the “New South Africa" the educate a younger generation of fans, both Black and White, who in many instances had never heard or heard of African Jazz.
The Elite Swingsters now regularly feature at various public venues in and around Johannesburg and are kept busy playing at private parties and functions (which have included two prestigious affairs for State President Mandela). After a first appearance at the Anguileme Jazz Festival in 1993, the Elites are also beginning to attract an overseas audience. The band played a number of dates in France and also made a London appearance in Westminister Abbey for the ceremony attended by Queen Elizabeth and Prince Charles marking South Africa’s re-entry into the British Commonwealth.
In 1995, after an absence of almost 20 years, the Elite Swingsters returned to record for Teal Records, now Universal SA. Their album entitled ‘Siya Gida' (meaning ‘We Are Dancing' in Zulu) features live studio versions of four new songs plus thirteen examples of their most popular current performance repertoire.
The Elite Swingsters featuring famed jazz diva Dolly Rathebe represent the strongest, still-active link with South Africa’s fabled African Jazz era of the 1950s and early 60s. The Elites (pronounced ‘Eeh-Light' by their African fans) have now been playing for well over three decades. Their tenor saxophonist, Paul Rametsi, joined the band at its inception and Peter Mokonotela, the leader on alto, has played with them since 1961. Dolly began her career in 1949 when she was plucked out of obscurity as the starring actress/vocalist in ‘Jim Comes To Jo’burg' the country’s first African feature-length film. Throughout the next decade and into the 1960s, she maintained her popularity as the reigning queen of African show business before bowing out of the spotlight to run a Cape Town shebeen. She returned to music in 1989 as the vocalist for the Elite Swingsters, the band with whom she had regularly sung some 25 years earlier.
The Elites were first brought together in 1958 as a once-off combination of session musicians hired by Teal Record Company to record four songs for release as 78rpm singles on their RCA label. A Teal executive, Herbert Friedman, decided to issue the records using the name’Elite Swingsters' Rather unexpectedly, one of the four recordings, a tune called ‘Phalafafa' which had been composed for the session by the company’s African producer/talent scout, Lebenya Matlotlo, became an enormous hit. The musicians then decided to form a permanent band to capitalize on the success of ‘Phalafala' and adopted the Elite Swingsters moniker by way of advertisement.
For the next ten or so years, the Elites were one of the most popular attractions in African music. Dubbed ‘The Magnificent Seven' by their township admirers, the band maintained an active performing profile that was centred around Johannesburg, the Vaal Triangle and down into the Orange Free State to Bloemfontein. The Elites also regularly toured Natal and the Eastern Cape under the auspices of the ‘Batfairs' sponsored by United Tobacco Company.
At the same time, the band was kept extremely busy in the recording studio. Ultimately, several hundred Elite Swingsters titles were released, first on the RCA label and then later on Teal’s Drum imprint. In addition, there were a large number of ‘underground' recordings made outside of the band’s Teal contract for other record companies which were issued using a wide variety of pseudonyms. Some of their most popular numbers made during this period, some of which still remain in the band’s repertoire today, were ‘Drumbeat' '6 Rockville' ‘Elite Blues' ‘Two Ball Twist' ‘Payneville' ‘Dinokza' ‘Pul Nel' ‘Funky Mama' and ‘Madubula Hall'
The regular core of the Elite Swingsters' classic lineup consisted of the leader and string bass player, Johannes '‘Hooks'’Tshukudu, drummer Louis Molubi, Rex Ntuli on guitar, Jordan Bangazi on trumpet and Paul Rametsi on tenor sax. The two man alto saxophone section changed around more frequently and at various times used the following players: Jury Mpehlo, Chris Songxaka, Tami Madi, Shumi, Peter Mokonotela, Albert Ralulimi and Mike Selelo. Other musicians who sometimes formed part of the lineup were Elijah Nkwanyane and Johnny Selelo on trumpet, Blyth Mbitjana on trombone, Chris Columbus on baritone, and Dolly Rathebe on vocals.
this biography as provided by Elite Swingsters