The Significance of Celebrating Heritage Month with The Pebble Shakers at District.

Mary-Anne SlezacekHistory

There are many things I love about South Africa: the dramatic landscapes, the wild oceans and springtime flowers for a start. Then there’s the fact that traffic lights are called “robots” (and that you can do some shopping while you wait for them to turn green), there’s wine at children’s parties, you’re expected to be thirty minutes late to everything and at least two languages are spoken simultaneously in any given conversation.

I also love that every time I land at Cape Town International and hand over my green ID book – which states “Non-SA citizen” and ENGLAND in capital letters – passport control says, “Welcome home”.

This brings me to what I love most about South Africa: it’s home to such a diverse population. It’s always been a refuge for those escaping war and persecution, it’s provided adventure far away from familiar drudgery and it continues to be a beacon for a better life. Such a rich heritage means that people of all colours, creeds and backgrounds live together to make up this incredible fusion of humanity that is truly unique. 

Of course, it’s naive to think that such diversity lives in peace and harmony. South Africa is fraught with racial, social and economic tension, but I find it remarkable that collectively, the country pulled itself out of something as despicable as apartheid without large-scale conflict. Not without problems, hostilities and inequalities, South Africa integrated itself as a “rainbow nation”, which keeps striving towards unity. This is primarily achieved by celebrating diversity rather than attempting homogeneity and a shared identity.

In President Nelson Mandela’s 1996 address about the public holiday he stated, “When our first democratically elected government decided to make Heritage Day one of our national days, we did so because we knew that our rich and varied cultural heritage has a profound power to help build our nation”. 

Before the National Party’s forced removals, two areas stood out as shining examples of such diversity. They were Sophiatown in Gauteng and District Six in Cape Town. They will forever be known as South Africa’s soul, and even during the darkest days, demonstrated the power of culture, music and joy for life.

From the 1920s until the mid-1950s, Sophiatown was a mixed-race community, where, according to resident Elizabeth Nobathane, blacks, coloureds, Indians, Chinese and (to a lesser extent) whites lived together in harmony. It was a vibrant place full of music, dance, art, politics, business and family life. “There was so much going on in Sophiatown that the birds had to fly backwards to keep the dust going in their eyes”, says Elizabeth in a BBC News feature.

Sophiatown was known as Little Harlem because it was the centre of South African jazz culture and people from all walks of life danced the night away to live music in clubs and shabeens. The atmosphere was electrifying, much like Harlem, New York. 

It was the training ground for jazz legends like Hugh Masekela, Miriam Makeba, Dolly Rathebe, and Spokes Mashiyane; and it was where South African swing music was born. South African swing echoed the popular American swing jazz of the time but also incorporated local rhythms, instruments and languages. Gradually it evolved into the Marabi, Mbaqanga, and Kwela styles that are so well known today. 

Sarah Boyd, CTS teacher and co-founder of Echoes of Sophiatown project. Full article here.

Cape Town Swing’s project Echoes of Sophiatown endeavoured to revive and preserve the music of the Sophiatown era by producing an album that featured 12 covers of original songs which showcased the swing jazz of such an important era. The album was released in March 2019, when the Pebble Shakers put on a sensational performance at the District Six Museum.

On Saturday 23rd of September, the Pebble Shakers will return to the former District Six area (now made up of Zonnebloem, Walmer Estate and Lower Vrede) to perform more South African jazz classics at District nightclub in Zonnebloem.

This venue choice is of course no mere coincidence: it’s in an area of enormous cultural and historical importance. Bringing swing jazz home is a poignant tribute to the community’s glory days and South Africa’s diverse heritage. In an interview with University of Cape Town News, Professor Crain Soudian explains how significant District Six was before the forced removals of 1966 in terms of sport, politics, culture and art. When asked why District Six was targeted by the National Party, he responded that it wasn’t so much targeted over other communities – the entire country was hit hard by the apartheid regime – but

District Six remains the most visible because it was prime land in the heart of a city and because it was so iconic in the country’s history as a place of refuge and community for so many South Africans of all backgrounds.

It was the place to which many immigrants into the city first came and found help and support. These immigrants include people like Clements Kadalie, who came from Nyasaland; many white working-class British families; many, many families who can trace their roots to the four corners of the globe – the Caribbean, the Philippines, the Asian subcontinent, the Ottoman Empire; and then desperate people fleeing from the pogroms in places like Lithuania. District Six was a veritable melting pot. It would have been home during the ’20s and ’30s to, literally, the people of the world.

Professor Crain Soudian, 2021.

The colonial and subsequent apartheid governments both held the narrative that people were naturally distinct and could (or should) be separated into races. For the National Party, to whom keeping the races separate was of paramount importance, such heterogeneity was offensive.

And so the anti-apartheid movement – prominent in Sophiatown and District Six – sought to offend all the more by rejecting their oppression and racial barriers. Musicians fought hard to keep the music playing and the crowds continued to dance in defiance. In her article for the CTS blog, Makeeda Swan pays tribute to the women who helped shape South Africa’s jazz scene throughout such upheaval. The music that they created has continued to inspire unity and hope, and I feel it’s such an honour to be able to dance to music that is not only beautiful and creative but also loaded with political and social significance.

You can see some stunning images of life in District Six here.

Partying with the Pebble Shakers at Mother City Hop in 2019.

This will be my first time seeing the Pebble Shakers live, though I’ve enjoyed dancing to their tunes many times. Their music is fun yet soulful, with beautiful vocals and a swinging rhythm. This review sums it up perfectly: 

This is deliciously bright swing music played by an intimate band of wonderful musicians. This album is as perfect for dancing as it is for listening — over and over! Picking a favourite was HARD. 

Absinthiana reviewing on Bandcamp.

The songs revive the great artists of the past, such as Miriam Makeba, Spokes Mashiyane and Dorothy Masuka, evoking memories of the golden age of South African swing. In an interview on Cape Talk Radio, lead singer Thandeka Dladla talks about the nostalgia that audiences have expressed at shows. She says that it’s not only the the older folk who hark back to the old days, but young people also get excited and want to hear more. They fall in love with a past they never knew but which shaped their world. 

South Africa is probably the quirkiest, most complex and most diverse place I know. Time and time again it’s welcomed me with open arms, as it has done with migrants from around the globe for so long. It’s home to some of history’s strongest, bravest fighters of oppression and they fought using weapons of beauty: music, dance and art. Artists like the Pebble Shakers help their legacy to live on. When we dance in District Six tomorrow night, we dance to honour and celebrate unity through diversity; something that makes South Africa so special. 


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About the Author

Mary-Anne Slezacek