Clem Sunter

The legacy of Tom Hark

2010-03-31 13:45

I checked the needle and the speed, lowered the 45 rpm single onto the turntable and swung the arm to the beginning of the record. It was the end of April 1958; and "Whole Lotta Woman" by Marvin Rainwater had just knocked "Magic Moments" by Perry Como off the top of the UK pop chart. Classics like "Great Balls of Fire" by Jerry Lee Lewis and "Jailhouse Rock" by Elvis Presley had hit No.1 earlier in the year.

But this record was different. It sounded like someone was throwing coins and dice on the table and, amid a lively conversation, out came the words "here comes kwela kwela". Then the music started and, as a kid aged 13 brought up in London, I had never heard anything like it. The instrumental arrangement blew me away.

The band was Elias and his Zig Zag Jive Flutes. The song was "Tom Hark"; and it went all the way to No.2 in the British top 10, eventually selling five million copies worldwide. I've still got the disc, which was recorded on the Columbia label, although the purple centre is a bit faded now.

Elias was in fact the brother of the leader of the group, Jake Lerole. They grew up in Alexandra near Johannesburg and learnt their trade as penny whistlers on the street. For writing and performing Tom Hark, they were paid six guineas each as studio fees and signed over the royalties to the melody for thirty pounds. Nowadays you would make at least a million pounds for a hit like this.

But Jake and Elias left a huge legacy because they introduced South African music to a world audience. In fact, they were preceded by Solomon Linda who first recorded "Mbube", or as it later became known "The Lion Sleeps Tonight", in 1939 with his group the Evening Birds. Pete Seeger discovered the song and made it famous in America in the 1950s. Numerous recordings of the song were made, many of which were huge hits. I first became aware of it with Karl Denver's version renamed "Wimoweh". It went all the way to No.4 in the British chart at the beginning of 1962.

Needless to say, Linda was only paid a one-off fee for the recording; and it took his family years of fighting legal battles to be reimbursed with some of the royalties.

Obviously, other South Africans have done well overseas. Miriam Makeba, with "Pata Pata" and "The Click Song", and Hugh Masekela, who went all the way to No.1 on the US Billboard with "Grazing in the Grass", are the most notable examples. But, in addition, there were all those musicians who did it with Western music like Eve Boswell, Danny Williams, Manfred Mann, Four Jacks and a Jill, Clout, Duncan Faure and Dave Matthews - to name a few.

Going back to the unique brand of South Africa music, one of my all-time favourites has to be the "Graceland" album recorded by Paul Simon. I know he is American, but the tracks featured the sublime guitar licks of Ray Phiri as well as the glorious background vocals of Ladysmith Black Mambazo. It would also be remiss of me if I didn't mention the contributions made by Watershed, Steve Hofmeyr, Johnny Clegg and his bands Juluka and Savuka, and Mango Groove.

Speaking of which, you should go out and buy the latest CD by Mango Groove called "Bang the Drum". They are as good as ever. The album showcases the versatility of South Africa music as well as the fabulous vocal range of Claire Johnston. My choice of track is "Give It (All Day All Night)".

Let's not, however, forget where it all started with Solomon, Jake and Elias. If you want to find out more about these remarkable pioneers, go to the website of 3rd Ear Music which is creating a definitive archive of the nation's music.

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