Obituary: 'Big Voice' Jack Lerole
Penny-whistler par excellence
Fame but not fortune: Despite his talents, Lerole made little money
By CHRIS BARON - Courtesy SUNDAY TIMES South Africa
'Big Voice" Jack Lerole, who has died in Soweto at the age of 63, played the penny whistle like no one else.
In 1998, long past his brilliant prime, he played solo in front of 60 000 Americans at the Foxborough Stadium in Boston and, days later, dazzled 80 000 listeners in the Giants Stadium in New York.
During the height of the penny whistle's popularity from the mid-1950s to mid-1960s, Lerole and the more famous Spokes Mashiane were the kings of penny whistle jive, or kwela.
The music Lerole and other township children made from their cheap tin flutes became this country's first and most-successful musical export.
It was a lucrative export, too, for record companies.
In the late-1950s Lerole, his brother Elias and two other penny-whistlers from Alexandra township recorded for EMI an original composition which they called Tomahawk, a reference to the axes wielded by the gangs which roamed the streets of the Johannesburg township.
The song came out in Britain as Tom Hark due to an error by EMI.
EMI brought it out as a single, which proved so popular that it was used as the theme music for the British TV series The Killing Stones. They made £250 000 from the song.
Although it made Lerole famous, he never received a penny in royalties.
Lerole was born in Alex and, like countless other township children, began playing the penny whistle at the age of six or seven. The music they played was heavily influenced by marabi, a mixture of South African rural and Western big-band jazz and swing music, which they heard their older brothers and fathers playing and tried to emulate on cheap tin flutes bought at the nearest mine compound store.
They got their technique from watching Scottish military drum and fife bands playing at Balfour Park next door to Alex. The township children looked on in fascination as the kilted Scots played their flutes sideways.
From observing this, they developed a unique blowing and fingering technique, which allowed them to play more octaves than the two the instruments were designed for. From their experimentation emerged what is arguably the purest music form to have come from SA.
Lerole and other exponents of this new music played it on street corners in the white suburbs of Johannesburg, such as Yeoville, Berea and Hillbrow. White pedestrians who had never heard anything like it tossed these precocious child performers pennies, shillings and even, in the case of truly brilliant talents like Lerole, pounds.
As they played, the township youths kept a sharp lookout for the police, who would arrive suddenly in their vans shouting "Kwela, kwela!" (Zulu for "climb in") and arrest them for creating a public disturbance.
The players would station their friends a block away to give them advance warning so that they could pocket their money, hide their penny whistles and adopt suitably innocent, hands-in-pockets postures.
Their biggest fans were white "ducktails". They protected the young performers from the police, who preferred not to antagonise these intimidating, rough-looking bikers.
It didn't take the talent scouts working for record companies long to spot the potential of Lerole and his fellow artists. They'd be taken to recording studios, where they'd perform their magic for a flat fee of around R3 or R6, depending on whether they recorded one or two sides of a record.
The record companies churned out scores of records this way, cheaply and profitably.
Lerole joined his brother's group called Alexandra Black Mambazo, which recorded under a variety of names in the 1950s and early-1960s for EMI. At the same time he recorded independently under his own name for other companies.
Black Mambazo started as a purely instrumental band but began incorporating vocal routines. This is when Lerole's deep, rasping "goat" voice was heard for the first time.
In 1963 he left Black Mambazo and started making records as "Big Voice Jack" for Teal. Following the lead of Spokes Mashiane, he exchanged his penny whistle for a saxophone, and from then until the 1990s made few recordings on penny whistle.
The distinctive vocal sound he developed did his vocal chords no good and may even have contributed (along with heavy smoking) to the throat cancer which killed him.
Lerole was one of the first members of Mango Groove in the mid-1980s. He co-wrote and performed a number of the group's tracks, including Dance Some More, on which the low-growling voice is his, along with the penny-whistle playing. Always restless, Lerole drifted away from Mango Groove before they became a household name.
In the mid-1990s, Black Mambazo was brought together again after 30 years for a TV documentary called The Whistlers.
Under Lerole's leadership they performed to an ecstatic audience at the Nantes Festival in France in 1998, but back home couldn't get any gigs.
There were also tensions between the band members, who complained that Lerole was short-changing them, and the band split up, somewhat acrimoniously, for the last time.
In 1997, Lerole began playing at the Bassline Club in Johannesburg, where Dave Matthews invited him to play with the Dave Matthews Band in the US.
On his return, Lerole produced an album called Colours and Moods, and another called Zimanukwenzeka ( 'Things just happen'), which came out a month ago.
The fees Lerole got for his recordings, regular work for Radio Bantu and performances at weddings and stokvels enabled him to survive as a full-time musician, but not much more than that.
He complained that he was treated "like somebody special" overseas, but in South Africa "like a peasant".
He was married twice. His second wife, Thembi, died two years ago.
He is survived by three children from his first marriage and a step-daughter.
- Chris Barron
Whistling in the dark
Sad blow doesn't stop Big Voice Jack from making music
Big Voice Jack, the legendary Sophiatown-era pennywhistle player, has lost his deep, resonant voice to throat cancer.
This week, Jack Lerole, who is also famous for his gravelly voice singing, spoke in a barely audible and husky tone.
But, the consolation to his horde of fans is that he can still blow a mean pennywhistle.
Lerole's health has been deteriorating since last year. He has seen throat specialists in New York, Belgium and locally, who all say he's got throat cancer.
Lerole said he was told by doctors that he would die by May 2001 - but he's determined to put up a fight. "I am not dying. I'm picking up my strength. In four months my voice will be back.
"No one can ever take away my voice, you'd rather shoot me. I've got resistance. From the beginning of the year, things have been difficult," he said.
However, Lerole said he had received support from musicians, friends and family to "be strong".
Despite his failing health, Lerole will on Tuesday celebrate the re-birth of his music school, the Kwela School of Music in Diepkloof, Soweto - founded in 1997.
He has been financing the school out of his own pocket, without proper facilities. But now jewellery manufactures Oro Africa have thrown him a lifeline.
Rose Katz of Midi Trust said they sought sponsorship for the school because Lerole was a legend "and just being able to pass on skills of pennywhistle and kwela music gives kids hope".
The new sponsorship will enable him to buy new musical instruments, and other study aids for his students.
Lerole has also set up a creche in Diepkloof where children are taught how to play musical instruments.
"My aim is to revive pennywhistle music and other black music, especially our township jazz."
Lerole and two other teachers, Thomas Mhlanga and Busi Mdluli, mentor their students on instruments such as the pennywhistle, saxophone, trumpet, trombone, guitar, drums and clarinet.
"I want to take the kids off the streets, to come and learn music. I am very grateful to music, I could have ended up a criminal had I not taken music seriously."
The self-taught musician - who would not reveal his age - has played with legendary jazz giants such as McCay Davashe, Zakes Nkosi and Kippie Moeketsi.
Lerole draws on close to 50 years of experience playing, recording and composing kwela music.
'I am not dying. I'm picking up my strength. In four months my voice will be back'