Sophiatown: “Black Cultural Hub.”

This article is a paraphrase and quotations of different articles and written pieces.

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Sophiatown also referred to as Sof’town or Kofifi, was (it’s now called Triomf) a South African Suburb in Johannesburg that is best described as a “legendary black cultural hub.” I know you have probably once heard a story or two about Sophiatown or maybe you’ve read a book about it in high school.

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Sophiatown started as a “whites only” suburbs when it was established in 1904, but by 1913 it was said that, “black South Africans had freehold rights, and they bought properties in the suburb. By the 1920s whites had moved out, leaving behind a vibrant community of blacks, coloureds, Indians and Chinese.

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When black South Africans had “full-ownership” of the suburb they turned Sophiatown into a place were mainly black people enriched a rich cultural history that was mainly centered around the shebeens, were hundreds of people would go to drink skokiaan or baberton (the alcohol beverages that were made during those times) and to also talk about their daily struggles, political views and to also discuss their fears and hopes for Sophiatown.

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The shebeens where also were many artistry’s took place. “Music was a central feature of the urban culture that developed in Johannesburg and in Sophiatown in particular. It was here that the most important developments in indigenous jazz took place.” Most people used to gather at shebeens to watch Marabi dances and “Local groups began performing American swing. Such groups included The Manhattan Brothers, the Gay Gaieties and the The Synco Fans. The Jazz Maniacs, The Pitch Black Follies and The Merry Blackbirds, following on American tradition. They began to front their bands with female vocalists. It was in this way that Dolly Rathebe, Dorothy Masuku, and Miriam Makebabegan to gain their reputations.

At this point, African musicians in Sophiatown developed their own new sound, called “Tsaba-tsaba”. It combined African melody with American swing and jazz. Tsaba-tsaba was essentially a working class form of dance music. Walter M.B.Nhlapo, a music journalist of the time said of it:

Everybody spoke of Tsaba-tsaba …There were no radios to broadcast it all over; but everybody sang it. There were no printed copies of it, but some dance bands played it; it had the spirit of Africa in it. (Source: Quoted in D.Coplan, In Township Tonight!, p. 154)

Tsaba-tsaba eventually evolved into “kwela“, which began as street music based on the penny whistle.

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