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The Jazz King - Ragtime (Part 3)

JEFF RAMSAY
In our last instalment Sebele-a-Kealeboga had found employment as a clerk in the Gauteng mines. To many his truancy was especially scandalous given his status as the Crown Prince in what was regarded as Botswana’s senior dynasty.

Dismay over Sebele’s behaviour was compounded by reports of his freely mixing with ordinary people among Johannesburg’s then emerging black proletariat. Village gossip was animated by stories of his participation in such urban vices of drinking, dancing and faction fighting. Although Sebele’s behaviour was perceived by many to be offensive to his royal status he was sharing in the common experience of most of peers at the time, including members of his own extended family.

While the engagement of Bakwena males, along with those from neighbouring merafe, as migrant labourers in South Africa can be traced back to the mid-nineteenth century, it only became the norm from the late 1890s. This transformation occurred in the context of the onset of a period of disease and ecological crisis that was most notably manifested by the spread of the rinderpest (bolwane) epidemic, which in a few short months wiped out the majority of the region’s hoofed wildlife as well as livestock.

Additional push factors included the onset of a severe human influenza outbreak, massive locust swarms, drought and the 1899 introduction of the Hut Tax.

For the captains of the region’s burgeoning mineral industry this convergence of ecological, political and economic stress factors across much of Southern Africa conveniently coincided with the expansion of capital and labour intensive deep shaft gold mining along the Witwatersrand.

In 1898 the High Commissioner thus recorded that Bechuanaland Protectorate had become “flooded by both white and coloured persons calling themselves labour agents”, while the Bechuanaland Annual Report for the same year noted that: “So many men have gone that most villages present a quite deserted appearance.”

To the colonial regime this was a welcome development. As one official remarked in favour of the Hut Tax: “It has two advantages: it drives young men to work and it raises revenue.” With time further laws were introduced, such as those against poaching, cattle smuggling and vagrancy, whose effect, if not motive, was further encourage labour migration.

At least initially, the LMS missionaries at Molepolole, the Rev. Howard Williams and ‘women’s work’ teacher Mary Partridge, had also welcomed the spike in labour migration as a blessing that would demonstrate to the Bakwena that “next to ‘love of God comes the ‘dignity of labour’”. As the Rev. Williams prophetically if cruelly observed:

“The loss of their cattle has driven large numbers to seek work. Certainly the best thing that could happen as far as teaching them the value of labour...Work was the last thing thought of

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except among the poorer classes and with these the period rarely exceeded six months. All that is altered. A generation will pass before this country will recover from its lost wealth of cattle.”

Here it may be noted that the twined disappearance of livestock and game had a severe impact on virtually all sections of society. Yet, as much as young Sebele may have identified with his peers, unlike them his own prolonged stay in Gauteng was not a product of economic distress. While it may have been the impetuous yearnings of a bored youth that first lured him to abandon Molepolole along with his studies at Tiger Kloof for the bright lights of Johannesburg, it was his love of music and musical performance that seemingly anchored him there for five years.

As a musician he learned guitar, while perfecting his keyboards and singing voice. He also was renowned as a ballroom dancer. Sadly we do not have any known writings by Sebele himself during his period of self-exile. The only consolidated published account of his life at the time is M.O.M. Seboni’s short and less than sympathetic 1956 Setswana biography, which essentially treats Sebele’s life and death as a personal tragedy.

Sebele II’s time in Gauteng coincided with a seminal period in the development of a shared urban musical pop culture among Africans, which before it matured into the distinctive sounds Marabi and South Africa Jazz was generically known as Ragtime. In the near absence of contemporary recordings the documentation of the roots of ragtime in its American homeland is problematic, being to a great extent limited to the surviving sheet music of white impresarios who commercially appropriated what was then known as “negro” or more commonly and pejoratively “coon” music. Many authentic early artists prior the now widely recognised, but for many decades largely forgotten, genius of Scott Joplin, are unknown. While there is a general musicologist consensus that South African ragtime was influenced by, but distinct from, its American namesake, evidence of its aural roots beyond the popular isiZulu choral arrangements by Reuben Caluza, is limited.

Notwithstanding this deficiency, existing evidence suggests that prior to the First World War Batswana artists were often, albeit by no means exclusively, at the forefront of integrating brass, piano and guitar into their own uniquely syncopated sound. This phenomenon has been attributed to the relatively higher percentage of ethnic Batswana who had by then received instrumental training in various mission schools.



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