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Kippie Moeketsi in Soweto in 1995

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Sophiatown and South African Jazz: Re-appropriating a Cultural Identity David B. Coplan

'African jazz'in Johannesburg developed as part of a tenuous effort to establish social institutions, and settings for the creation of community in a segregated context. For performers themselves there were both opportunities and dangers involved in playing the cultural broker – their mediating role in the 'argument of images'that defined black identities in the over-riding context of social conflict and accommodation, and their ambiguous relationship to their audience as they attempted to secure their status as professionals. The brief 60-year lifespan of Sophiatown illuminates such issues both because of what it was and what it symbolised as an organic community that allowed a freedom of action, association, and expression available only in 'freehold'areas. Sophiatown set the pace, giving urban African culture its pulse, rhythm, and style during the nineteen forties and 'fifties. Noisy and dramatic, its untarred, potholed streets ran by the communal water taps and toilets and the rectangular jumble of yards walled in with brick, wood, and iron. A new synthesis of urban African culture sprang up here, shouting for recognition. Materially poor but intensely social; crime-ridden and violent but neighbourly and self-protective; proud, bursting with music and literature, swaggering with personality, simmering with intellectual and political militance, Sophiatown was a slum of dreams, a battleground of the heart in the war for the city's, and even the country's suppressed black soul.
The role of performance in the social world of Sophiatown was of course conditioned by the relations between the urban African community and the white power structure. Opportunities for property ownership, family and neighbourhood life, and relative freedom from government interference attracted the growing middle-class. African professionals like Dr A. B. Xuma, MD, President of the African National Congress from 1939 to 1949, built impressive houses there and made the suburb both a symbol and a centre of efforts to gain entrance to the dominant society. Indeed the district itself was multi-racial, and its white, Asian, and Coloured residents and shop owners were generally accepted as members of the community. Shebeen society, primarily a working-class institution, flourished among all of Sophiatown's varied population. Some drinking houses - Aunt Babe's, The House on Telegraph Hill, The 39 Steps, The Back of the Moon – became genuine nightclubs where the elite of the African business, sporting, entertainment, and underworlds came to talk, listen, and dance to recordings of the latest jazz. Yet the Sophiatown Renaissance was defined as public culture more by people who earned their living outside the community's mainstream: the writers, intellectuals, musicians, gangsters, sportsmen and shebeen 'queens'who created a fringe culture, largely centred around these legendary watering-hole 'salons'. Due to the power and distribution of the new black print media, this fringe culture took centre stage and came to define not only Sophiatown, but urban African life more generally in the period.
Apart from the shebeens, there were frequent backyard parties organised around a wedding, celebration, or spontaneous get-together. Here neighbourhood musicians entertained, often imitating popular foreign and local performers in the hope of one (....)


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