October 1958 – Cameron ‘Pinocchio’ Mokaleng and dance partner, Jeanne Hart dance a storm at a party in London as the former Sophiatown jazzophile and blues crooner show the English how it’s done in the shebeens and dance halls of his beloved country. The music in this case was pennywhistle jive, just over a year before King Kong hit the British shores. The UK music scene had already caught the kwela fever following the screening of Emergency Ward 10, a groundbreaking BBC television series whose first episode went on air in 19 February 1957.
The cult medical soap opera featured the compositions of Spokes Mashiyane as part of its theme music. The South African king of kwela has taken the street music from the pavements to the studios when he recorded the standard pennywhistle tune, Ace Blues in 1954.
Set in a fictional London hospital and based on medical issues and personal relationships, Emergency Ward 10 is regarded as the first television series to portray an interracial heterosexual kiss between a black female surgeon and a white general practitioner.
Whether this ‘interracial’ dance floor partnership was inspired by the historic on-screen smooch is anyone’s guess. After all, popular culture – be it music, acting and dance – has the potential to bring together people from different cultural backgrounds. It’s a bridge builder and social catalyst for new friendships, including enduring romantic relationships. And it’s perhaps interesting to note that in the London of the 1950s, Mashiyane’s music was not the only kwela that drove British party goers crazy.
In 1956, British film producer and director, Leonard Brett was looking for a soundtrack to accompany The Killing Stones (1958), a BBC television drama series set in South Africa and based on diamond smuggling in Kimberley’s mining fields. He was introduced to the street music of the Lerole siblings – Aaron ‘Big Voice’ and Elias ‘Shamba’. Born in Alexandra, the home of kwela, the brothers have composed and recorded Tom Hark under the stage name Elias & His Zig Zag Jive Flutes.
The captivating kwela tune turned out to be what Brett was looking for. In 1958 the EMI label released Tom Hark as a single for the British market. It sold millions of records and rocketed to number 2 on the UK hit parade.
That, briefly, is the background to the kwela craze that inspired this extraordinary image. It was published on 9 October 1958 in The Week’s Best Photos, a regular section in Jet – a Chicago-based, black-owned weekly magazine for African American readers. The edition was dedicated to the Little Rock High School integration episode and interracial marriages. Unfortunately, the identity of the photographer has evaporated with the mist of history as he or she was not properly credited. Equally regrettable is that Pinocchio’s intriguing life is still sketchy just over sixty years after he opted for exile in the United Kingdom.
At the time of writing the fate of the diminutive man who used to be the soul of many a Sophiatown parties remains a mystery. In the late 1950s, he inspired the phrase ‘to do a Pinocchio’ – meaning to skip a country through illegal means. One of Sophiatown’s colourful and intriguing characters with a passion for jazz and the blues, in 1954 he co-founded the Sophiatown Modern Jazz Club, which hosted a series of Sunday jazz jam sessions at the Odin Cinema on Gold Street. Established in 1912, the upmarket movie-house was owned by Jewish couple Frank Lakier and Bertha Egnos and had been a launching pad for many a music talent, including Dolly Rathebe and Thandi Klaasen.
It was here that some of Pinocchio’s friends – Kippie Moeketsi, Dollar Brand, Hugh Masekela and Jonas Gwangwa – had formed the Jazz Epistles, the country’s first ensemble to release a jazz LP. More significantly, the Odin was a venue where musicians from different racial backgrounds could work together and forge friendships across the colour bar – a practice that was frowned upon by apartheid engineers and was one of the primary reasons for the destruction of Sophiatown in February 1955. Its residents were relocated to Meadowlands, a new township in what later became known as Soweto.
Pinocchio scorned the idea of living in such a soulless environment and refused to go to Meadowlands. But the government had passed legislation to deal with such ‘cheeky natives’. Africans who resisted the move to Meadowlands were denied the renewal of their passbooks and effectively endorsed out of the city. Returning would mean breaking the law and risking a jail sentence. Left with lean prospect for leading a meaningful life in the land of his birth, Pinocchio chose exile and precipitated a wave of emigration of fellow black dissidents and like-minded artists. This exodus reached its climax after Sharpeville in 1960 when members of the King Kong cast decided to stay in exile.
Early in 1958 Pinocchio boarded a London-bound passenger ship as a stowaway. Upon arrival on the Southampton harbour the pint-sized jazz connoisseur was arrested and thrown in jail for entering Britain without a passport and the other necessary papers. But local artists there came to his aid and he was released. Pinocchio’s touching and intriguing tale is the subject of a chapter in Don Mattera’s Memory is the Weapon (1987). In the moving memoir, Sophiatown’s most famous bard remembers him as a dandy who dressed like a French painter and spoke like an American, a member of the ‘Nylon Club’ – ‘the peace loving highbrows whose main interests were wine, women and song’, a ‘the music lover, the comic and the dreamer who had infected Sophiatown with his gregarious warmth and humaneness’.
He also remembers him as a free spirit and lone figure who joyously walked the gang-infested alleys of his notorious neighbourhood without fear of being harmed by a soul. Nicknamed after a Walt Disney animated character in a 1940 musical fantasy film, Pinocchio has also found a permanent literary home in Professor Louis Molamu’s Tsotsitaal – A Dictionary of the Language of Sophiatown (2003). In the entry he’s described as ‘a legendary figure in the street life of Kofifi’. In the film Pinocchio is a puppet who fights to earn the recognition and respect of human beings by proving that he’s truthful, honest, brave and caring. That’s an apt moniker for a fearless man who sought a decent place under the sun but when it was denied, he chose the painful and bitter option.