Friday, 7 December 2007

UNDER THE DRUM BEAT


I am not exactly someone to judge a book by its cover but I must admit to being sometimes inclined to buy a magazine just for its cover…
Now, here’s a magazine I would certainly buy just for its covers: the Drum magazine of ‘50s and ‘60s South Africa. I might have bought one or two of its more recent editions for their content, but those early ones would have got my money just for the covers. Of course, they are now collector’s items and highly protected by the Black African History Archives (BAHA) and The Bailey Archive, so I doubt that a common mortal like me would have a chance to get hold of one these days. But I can, nonetheless, claim possession of one of those highly coveted t-shirts printed with Drum covers put on the SA market by the very talented, clever and praised Nkhensani Nkhosi, actress and founder/creative director of fashion house Stoned Cherrie and one of the symbols of the New South Africa.

I mean, who, among those of us grown up in Southern Africa knowing of and experiencing, even if only indirectly, the antics of the apartheid system, would have imagined that within that system there was ever a place for a magazine telling through its covers of such a glamourous and exciting Black South Africa? And beyond that, of a Black Africa – there were, in fact, a South African and a West African (based in Ghana) versions of Drum, the latter telling us such amazing stories as Louis Armstrong’s visit to his motherland in February 1961 – precisely when armed struggle against colonial rule in Angola had started?

From a historical perspective, I would venture that that Drum of the ‘50s and early ‘60s could only be a testimony of the resistance of a social makeup the apartheid system (instituted in 1948) hadn’t yet managed to completely suppress, which makes those numbers even more valuable. That is precisely what those fortunate enough to have looked inside its covers will tell you: Drum was a repository of all the gripping stories chronicling the early years of the apartheid regime – except, apparently, for the Sharpeville massacre of 1960, which its legendary owner, Jim Bailey, reportedly didn’t allow to have mentioned in the magazine…

About Bailey, Bongani Madondo and Don Morrison wrote in an investigative story on Drum, What Made Drum Beat?, for the, now defunct, British “Zembla Literary Magazine”, in 2004: (…) After all, nobody knew about sensationalism better than Jim Bailey, a man whose name inspires perjoratives from former friends and victims. Ruthless. Dreamer. Freak. Wannabe Black. Bohemian. Drinker. Rich liberal son of colonialists (and quasi-colonialist himself). But also Visionary. Scholar. God’s gift to African publishing. Bailey’s father, Sir Abe Bailey, was a well-known South African mining magnate, financier and friend of arch-colonialist Cecil John Rhodes. Jim’s mother,Lady Mary Bailey, was an aviatrix whose 1927 solo flight from Croydon to Cape Town is legendary. After graduation from Oxford, young James Richard Abe Bailey joined the World War II British army and became a fighter pilot. Somewhere in the mid-to-late 1940s, he headed to Cape Town, then – as now- a magnet for bored Europeans in search of sun and excitement.

There Bailey met Robert Crisp, sole proprietor of a dull magazine called ‘The African Drum’, previously ‘The Bongo Drum’, which covered the quantly colorful lives of rural blacks who feared God and endured the missionary. Bailey saw an opportunity. All over the world, black people were becoming style-makers and urban culture creators. In New York and Paris, blacks were arbiters of fashion for both the counterculture and the mainstream. The Beat Generation imbibed jazz and the blues, smoked and wrote out of an existentialism espoused by blacks.Poetry, music, fashion – aaah, to be black, Bailey thought. He purchased the publication in 1951 and moved it to Johannesburg, where he imported from England an energetic editor named Anthony Sampson (who later found fame with his ‘Anatomy of Britain’ and 'Mandela', the official biography). Together, they got down to the business of remaking the magazine and making waves.

Bailey fell in love with Sophiatown and its rowdy, urban energy. A slum on the surface, Sophiatown was a mix of Africans, Indians, Chinese, Portuguese, Greeks and Jews doing business and living in relative harmony. The town offered everything white South africa and Europe did not: sex, alcohol, extraordinary characters, style, hope, hopelessness. “Noisy and dramatic,” was how David Coplan described Sophiatown in his 1985 book ‘In Township Tonight!” “A new synthesis of African culture sprang out of its potholed streets, communal water taps, the rectangular jumble of yards, brick and wood dwellings here and eye-catching mansions there. Sophiatown was crime-ridden yet heaved with music and wishes and dreams, vulnerability and stubborness that gave it its swaggering personality.”

Into this heady atmosphere, Bailey launched ‘African Drum’. He quickly cut the title back to ‘Drum’ and assembled a staff of untrained township youngsters into what would be known as the “Drum School” of writers. A few of its graduates – Casey Motsisi, Todd Matshikiza, Ezekiel Mphalele, Bloke Modisane, Bessie Head – went on to become successful novelists, poets, dramatists and composers. To the thousands of blacks who migrated to Johannesburg during the 1940s and ‘50s, ‘Drum’ was a manifesto of social realism. The magazine’s lurid, over-written feature stories, with their violent, tragic, fashionably dressed characters – dice hustlers, jazz musicians, racist policemen, babes and molls – and especially the accompanying pictures, not only entertained Sophiatowns but embodied Sophiatown. Drum portrayed celebrities, especially actors and jazz musicians (who were often the same), as accessible pople who lived within the same poverty-stricken township as their fans. At its peak in the late-1950s, the magazine had editions all over the continent recording “the ladder down the stocking” of Bristish Imperial rule. Its total circulation topped 800,000.

Bailey and his staff took particular care with the covers. The most beloved of all the cover girls was blues singer Dolly Rathebe, an icon to Sophiatown ‘tsotsies’ (gangsters). To them, she was Marilyn Monroe and Josephine Baker rolled into one. Blessed with a husky, sometimes coarse voice, she would wisper, coo, and sing-talk like Nina Simone. She wiggled her hips to the ‘tsotsies’, sang the blues to the troubled, and crooned Yiddish lullabies to the rich Jewish patrons of the Johannesburg jazz scene. Dolly reshaped the whole continent’s sense of African feminine beauty. She was even courted by one of Drum’s writers, Can Themba. Themba, along with literary journalist Bloke Modisane, “Hollywood detective” columnist Arthur Maimane and music critic Todd Matshikiza, were the ears of Drum. Photographers Jurgen Schadeberg, Bob Gosani and Peter Magubane became the eyes that captured the town’s vibrancy. But one personality reigned supreme: Henry Nxumalo, who more than anyone embodied the magazine. “From the coffee plantations of the Gold Coast to the jazz-stung nightclubs of Nigeria,” he wrote in a 1956 blurb, “in the dreaming hamlets of Zululand, among Cape Town’s fun-filled coon life, and Johannesburg’s teeming, thrilling thousands, everywhere, every month, Drum is read and relished.”

After obtaining his junior certificate at a missionary school, Nxumalo trekked down to Jozi, where he served as a messenger at the ‘Bantu World’ newspaper. When World War II erupted, he signed on with the British Protectorate regiment and served as a sergeant in Egypt before coming back to the paper as sports editor. In 1951, he was hired as Drum’s first black reporter. Slim and dapper, he quickly became a familiar presence on the Sophiatown scene, covering crime and club dates with equal verve. Within a year, Nxumalo began writing as “Mr Drum”, a byline under which he produced some powerful exposes. “In those days”, remembered fellow reporter Themba in a posthumous 1985 memoir, “rumour was strong that farmers were ill-treating their labourers in the Bethal district. [Indeed, one had been flogged to death.] Dear ol’ Mr Drum fastened his braces, tied his shoelaces, fixed his Woodrow hat and got on a roll to investigate – simply by getting himself a job as labourer himself, in one of those Bethal potato farms.” It wasn’t just the emotional shock of the labourers’ conditions that excited interest in what Nxumalo wrote, but the courage he displayed in getting a job as a virtual slave and then escaping from it. The piece he wrote turned both Nxumalo and his magazine into urban icons.

Not long afterward, authorities at Johannesburg’s notorious Number Four prison were rumored to have introduced a dehumanizing new way of searching inmates for smuggled items such as tobacco, dagga (cannabis) or anything that could have been hidden in the rectum. Prisoners were lined in a row, naked, and made to skip and jump as they ran in front of their jailers. This was called the ‘Tausa’, or monkey, dance. On 19 January 1954, Nxumalo contrived to get himself arrested in Johannesburg by staying out past the night-time curfew without the required pass. By a stroke of luck, he was sent to Number Four. In “Mr Drum Goes to Goal”, illustrated with clandestine photos, Nxumalo described the ‘Tausa’ dance and other abuses at Number Four. The expose’ caught the prison system by surprise. Authorities were enraged, and Nxumalo suddenly became a figure of great interest to South Africa’s security branch. By then, his exploits as an investigative journalist had earned a number of enemies, among them thugs, crooked politicians, farm owners, and police.

On New Year’s Eve 1955, Nxumalo headed into the warm Sophiatown night, humming to himself. He stopped at his cousin Percy Hlubi’s place and, shortly after seeing in the new year, walked out into the night. His battered body was discovered the following morning by a cousin’s wife on her way to catch the day’s first train.
Still in his suit, he was face-down on a patch of dry grass, with one shoe missing and a blood trail that went back a thousand metres to the entrance of Coronation Hospital in Newclare. Nxumalo left a wife, Florence, who died in 1979, and five children. No one was ever convicted of his murder.
Can Themba died of alcohol-related complications in exile in Swaziland, Todd Matshikiza died in exile in Zambia, Nat Nakasa committed suicide in New York and William Bloke Modisane died in exile in West Germany. Dolly Rathebe died on 16 September 2004 from a stroke.


Drum’s home turf is gone too, a victim of the apartheid policy of forced removals from “white areas” – which included a longtime black enclave like Sophiatown. At 5:30am on 10 February 1955, government trucks backed by 2,000 heavily armed police removed the first hundred and ten families to what is now part of Soweto, the black township. Over the next three years, other families followed as bulldozers razed the buildings around them. Before long the place was a wasteland of rubble. A white suburb was developed on the site. The government called it Triomf (Triumph).

Today, Johannesburg – “Jozi” to initiates – is a multi-ethnic sprawl, where Somali Muslims rub shoulders with Nigerian drug lords and Congolese le Sapeur fashionistas. Drum is a mere shadow, resold, repositioned and defanged since its glory days. But the magazine’s early spirit of iconoclasm is being celebrated with a new zest: Drum’s golden era of the ‘50s and ‘60s and Nxumalo’s story have been the subject in the last few years, among a flurry of books, essays, articles and documentaries in SA and abroad, of a feature film, Drum: Stories from Sophiatown (2004), directed by South Africans Zola Maseko and Dumisani Dlamini, produced by Hollyhood’s Chris Sievernich (The Quiet American) and Rudolf Wichmann (Love and Rage), co-written by Jason Filiardi (Bringing Down the House) and starring US-born Taye Diggs (Chicago) and a posse of talented South African actors.

{You can download an excellent video about Drum here}




Free file hosting by Ripway.com

(Sophiatown is Gone - Miriam Makeba)

I am not exactly someone to judge a book by its cover but I must admit to being sometimes inclined to buy a magazine just for its cover…
Now, here’s a magazine I would certainly buy just for its covers: the Drum magazine of ‘50s and ‘60s South Africa. I might have bought one or two of its more recent editions for their content, but those early ones would have got my money just for the covers. Of course, they are now collector’s items and highly protected by the Black African History Archives (BAHA) and The Bailey Archive, so I doubt that a common mortal like me would have a chance to get hold of one these days. But I can, nonetheless, claim possession of one of those highly coveted t-shirts printed with Drum covers put on the SA market by the very talented, clever and praised Nkhensani Nkhosi, actress and founder/creative director of fashion house Stoned Cherrie and one of the symbols of the New South Africa.

I mean, who, among those of us grown up in Southern Africa knowing of and experiencing, even if only indirectly, the antics of the apartheid system, would have imagined that within that system there was ever a place for a magazine telling through its covers of such a glamourous and exciting Black South Africa? And beyond that, of a Black Africa – there were, in fact, a South African and a West African (based in Ghana) versions of Drum, the latter telling us such amazing stories as Louis Armstrong’s visit to his motherland in February 1961 – precisely when armed struggle against colonial rule in Angola had started?

From a historical perspective, I would venture that that Drum of the ‘50s and early ‘60s could only be a testimony of the resistance of a social makeup the apartheid system (instituted in 1948) hadn’t yet managed to completely suppress, which makes those numbers even more valuable. That is precisely what those fortunate enough to have looked inside its covers will tell you: Drum was a repository of all the gripping stories chronicling the early years of the apartheid regime – except, apparently, for the Sharpeville massacre of 1960, which its legendary owner, Jim Bailey, reportedly didn’t allow to have mentioned in the magazine…

About Bailey, Bongani Madondo and Don Morrison wrote in an investigative story on Drum, What Made Drum Beat?, for the, now defunct, British “Zembla Literary Magazine”, in 2004: (…) After all, nobody knew about sensationalism better than Jim Bailey, a man whose name inspires perjoratives from former friends and victims. Ruthless. Dreamer. Freak. Wannabe Black. Bohemian. Drinker. Rich liberal son of colonialists (and quasi-colonialist himself). But also Visionary. Scholar. God’s gift to African publishing. Bailey’s father, Sir Abe Bailey, was a well-known South African mining magnate, financier and friend of arch-colonialist Cecil John Rhodes. Jim’s mother,Lady Mary Bailey, was an aviatrix whose 1927 solo flight from Croydon to Cape Town is legendary. After graduation from Oxford, young James Richard Abe Bailey joined the World War II British army and became a fighter pilot. Somewhere in the mid-to-late 1940s, he headed to Cape Town, then – as now- a magnet for bored Europeans in search of sun and excitement.

There Bailey met Robert Crisp, sole proprietor of a dull magazine called ‘The African Drum’, previously ‘The Bongo Drum’, which covered the quantly colorful lives of rural blacks who feared God and endured the missionary. Bailey saw an opportunity. All over the world, black people were becoming style-makers and urban culture creators. In New York and Paris, blacks were arbiters of fashion for both the counterculture and the mainstream. The Beat Generation imbibed jazz and the blues, smoked and wrote out of an existentialism espoused by blacks.Poetry, music, fashion – aaah, to be black, Bailey thought. He purchased the publication in 1951 and moved it to Johannesburg, where he imported from England an energetic editor named Anthony Sampson (who later found fame with his ‘Anatomy of Britain’ and 'Mandela', the official biography). Together, they got down to the business of remaking the magazine and making waves.

Bailey fell in love with Sophiatown and its rowdy, urban energy. A slum on the surface, Sophiatown was a mix of Africans, Indians, Chinese, Portuguese, Greeks and Jews doing business and living in relative harmony. The town offered everything white South africa and Europe did not: sex, alcohol, extraordinary characters, style, hope, hopelessness. “Noisy and dramatic,” was how David Coplan described Sophiatown in his 1985 book ‘In Township Tonight!” “A new synthesis of African culture sprang out of its potholed streets, communal water taps, the rectangular jumble of yards, brick and wood dwellings here and eye-catching mansions there. Sophiatown was crime-ridden yet heaved with music and wishes and dreams, vulnerability and stubborness that gave it its swaggering personality.”

Into this heady atmosphere, Bailey launched ‘African Drum’. He quickly cut the title back to ‘Drum’ and assembled a staff of untrained township youngsters into what would be known as the “Drum School” of writers. A few of its graduates – Casey Motsisi, Todd Matshikiza, Ezekiel Mphalele, Bloke Modisane, Bessie Head – went on to become successful novelists, poets, dramatists and composers. To the thousands of blacks who migrated to Johannesburg during the 1940s and ‘50s, ‘Drum’ was a manifesto of social realism. The magazine’s lurid, over-written feature stories, with their violent, tragic, fashionably dressed characters – dice hustlers, jazz musicians, racist policemen, babes and molls – and especially the accompanying pictures, not only entertained Sophiatowns but embodied Sophiatown. Drum portrayed celebrities, especially actors and jazz musicians (who were often the same), as accessible pople who lived within the same poverty-stricken township as their fans. At its peak in the late-1950s, the magazine had editions all over the continent recording “the ladder down the stocking” of Bristish Imperial rule. Its total circulation topped 800,000.

Bailey and his staff took particular care with the covers. The most beloved of all the cover girls was blues singer Dolly Rathebe, an icon to Sophiatown ‘tsotsies’ (gangsters). To them, she was Marilyn Monroe and Josephine Baker rolled into one. Blessed with a husky, sometimes coarse voice, she would wisper, coo, and sing-talk like Nina Simone. She wiggled her hips to the ‘tsotsies’, sang the blues to the troubled, and crooned Yiddish lullabies to the rich Jewish patrons of the Johannesburg jazz scene. Dolly reshaped the whole continent’s sense of African feminine beauty. She was even courted by one of Drum’s writers, Can Themba. Themba, along with literary journalist Bloke Modisane, “Hollywood detective” columnist Arthur Maimane and music critic Todd Matshikiza, were the ears of Drum. Photographers Jurgen Schadeberg, Bob Gosani and Peter Magubane became the eyes that captured the town’s vibrancy. But one personality reigned supreme: Henry Nxumalo, who more than anyone embodied the magazine. “From the coffee plantations of the Gold Coast to the jazz-stung nightclubs of Nigeria,” he wrote in a 1956 blurb, “in the dreaming hamlets of Zululand, among Cape Town’s fun-filled coon life, and Johannesburg’s teeming, thrilling thousands, everywhere, every month, Drum is read and relished.”

After obtaining his junior certificate at a missionary school, Nxumalo trekked down to Jozi, where he served as a messenger at the ‘Bantu World’ newspaper. When World War II erupted, he signed on with the British Protectorate regiment and served as a sergeant in Egypt before coming back to the paper as sports editor. In 1951, he was hired as Drum’s first black reporter. Slim and dapper, he quickly became a familiar presence on the Sophiatown scene, covering crime and club dates with equal verve. Within a year, Nxumalo began writing as “Mr Drum”, a byline under which he produced some powerful exposes. “In those days”, remembered fellow reporter Themba in a posthumous 1985 memoir, “rumour was strong that farmers were ill-treating their labourers in the Bethal district. [Indeed, one had been flogged to death.] Dear ol’ Mr Drum fastened his braces, tied his shoelaces, fixed his Woodrow hat and got on a roll to investigate – simply by getting himself a job as labourer himself, in one of those Bethal potato farms.” It wasn’t just the emotional shock of the labourers’ conditions that excited interest in what Nxumalo wrote, but the courage he displayed in getting a job as a virtual slave and then escaping from it. The piece he wrote turned both Nxumalo and his magazine into urban icons.

Not long afterward, authorities at Johannesburg’s notorious Number Four prison were rumored to have introduced a dehumanizing new way of searching inmates for smuggled items such as tobacco, dagga (cannabis) or anything that could have been hidden in the rectum. Prisoners were lined in a row, naked, and made to skip and jump as they ran in front of their jailers. This was called the ‘Tausa’, or monkey, dance. On 19 January 1954, Nxumalo contrived to get himself arrested in Johannesburg by staying out past the night-time curfew without the required pass. By a stroke of luck, he was sent to Number Four. In “Mr Drum Goes to Goal”, illustrated with clandestine photos, Nxumalo described the ‘Tausa’ dance and other abuses at Number Four. The expose’ caught the prison system by surprise. Authorities were enraged, and Nxumalo suddenly became a figure of great interest to South Africa’s security branch. By then, his exploits as an investigative journalist had earned a number of enemies, among them thugs, crooked politicians, farm owners, and police.

On New Year’s Eve 1955, Nxumalo headed into the warm Sophiatown night, humming to himself. He stopped at his cousin Percy Hlubi’s place and, shortly after seeing in the new year, walked out into the night. His battered body was discovered the following morning by a cousin’s wife on her way to catch the day’s first train.
Still in his suit, he was face-down on a patch of dry grass, with one shoe missing and a blood trail that went back a thousand metres to the entrance of Coronation Hospital in Newclare. Nxumalo left a wife, Florence, who died in 1979, and five children. No one was ever convicted of his murder.
Can Themba died of alcohol-related complications in exile in Swaziland, Todd Matshikiza died in exile in Zambia, Nat Nakasa committed suicide in New York and William Bloke Modisane died in exile in West Germany. Dolly Rathebe died on 16 September 2004 from a stroke.


Drum’s home turf is gone too, a victim of the apartheid policy of forced removals from “white areas” – which included a longtime black enclave like Sophiatown. At 5:30am on 10 February 1955, government trucks backed by 2,000 heavily armed police removed the first hundred and ten families to what is now part of Soweto, the black township. Over the next three years, other families followed as bulldozers razed the buildings around them. Before long the place was a wasteland of rubble. A white suburb was developed on the site. The government called it Triomf (Triumph).

Today, Johannesburg – “Jozi” to initiates – is a multi-ethnic sprawl, where Somali Muslims rub shoulders with Nigerian drug lords and Congolese le Sapeur fashionistas. Drum is a mere shadow, resold, repositioned and defanged since its glory days. But the magazine’s early spirit of iconoclasm is being celebrated with a new zest: Drum’s golden era of the ‘50s and ‘60s and Nxumalo’s story have been the subject in the last few years, among a flurry of books, essays, articles and documentaries in SA and abroad, of a feature film, Drum: Stories from Sophiatown (2004), directed by South Africans Zola Maseko and Dumisani Dlamini, produced by Hollyhood’s Chris Sievernich (The Quiet American) and Rudolf Wichmann (Love and Rage), co-written by Jason Filiardi (Bringing Down the House) and starring US-born Taye Diggs (Chicago) and a posse of talented South African actors.

{You can download an excellent video about Drum here}




Free file hosting by Ripway.com

(Sophiatown is Gone - Miriam Makeba)

3 comments:

VDV said...

Muito interessante. Always learning…

KIMDAMAGNA said...

quem és tu oh historiadora dos tempos? uma jornalista de varinha mágica na mão?
Obrigas me a reforçar o meu elogio.
The covers? "they cover me"...

abraço

Koluki said...

Tx VDV.

Obrigada Kim, mas sou apenas uma blogger...
Abraco!