By Siemon Allen
Eric Nomvete died in September 1999 and his obituary in City Press reveals that he co-founded the African Quavers in East London. The Quavers were hugely popular at the time and included Willie 'Sax-o-Willis' Mbali on alto sax, Boyce Hashe on alto sax, David Mzimkulu on trumpet and Absalom Mtyeku on trumpet. The group would later become the famed fifteen-piece band the Havana Swingsters. Allingham lists the personnel of the Swingsters on the 1954 recording, Emaxambeni, as Douglas 'Sax' Manuel on 1st alto, Boyce Hashe on 2nd alto, Eric Nomvete on 1st tenor, Vuyisile Mjamba on 2nd tenor, David Mzimkulu on 1st trumpet, Mqaqbane Mlubi on 2nd trumpet, Absolom Mtyeku on 3rd trumpet, Zama Mati on 1st trombone, Graham Nobaxa on piano, William Madyaka on guitar, Daniel 'Kgomo' Morolong on bass and Pavia Gwenisa on drums. (Molefe, Allingham)
Born in October 1920, Nomvete studied at Adams College in Natal where his teachers included none other than Reuben T. Caluza and William Mseleku. It is here that he also met fellow-student Todd Matshikiza, a future member of the Harlem Swingsters and composer of King Kong. After receiving a diploma in social work, he moved to Umtata and there formed the Rhythm Swingsters in 1946. It is at this point that Nomvete learned to play the alto sax with the help of Gwigwi Mrwebi. In 1949 Nomvete moved to Duncan Village outside East London and it is here that he is said to have formed the African Quavers. He composed his first tune, Xapa Song, in 1951 with aid from fellow band members David Mzimkulu and Willie Mbali. (Huskisson, Molefe)
Willie 'Sax-o-Wills' Mbali a saxophonist and band-leader, hailed from Queenstown and must have been a notable dancer as David Coplan in his book In Township Tonight! shows an image of him as a Queenstown Ball Room Champion in the 1920s. In the early 1930s he led, with pianist Meekly 'Fingertips' Matshikiza, the Blue Rhythm Syncopaters a group that was preceded by the Big Four. In 1937 Griffiths Motsieloa organized a country-wide tour for the Merry Blackbirds and Darktown Strutters and in February 1938, Mbali wrote about that tour in Bantu World: “Let me add as a footnote that the local orchestra will benefit through the visit of the Merry Blackbirds, and will make use of whatever tips they received from these artists.” Interestingly, trumpeter, David Mzimkulu actually recorded with the Merry Blackbirds Orchestra when they backed the Manhattan Brothers on Pesheya Kwezo Ntaba (GE 973) in 1949, though it is unclear to me whether he would have been in the Blackbirds during the time of Mbali’s article. In the 1940s David Mzimkulu also performed with the legendary Jazz Maniacs. (Coplan)
Eric Nomvete is said to have ‘discovered’ Mongezi Feza and in 1962 introduced him on trumpet in his band The Big Five at the now classic Castle Lager National Jazz Festival. The track Pondo Blues also featured Dick Khoza on drums and though at the time only received third prize, is by far one of the best tracks on the album.
It is not totally clear whether Eric Nomvete actually performs on these African Quavers recordings, but I suspect he probably does. So far I have found at least nine tracks from this same recording session including U-Toki (BB 653) which is listed in Huskisson as a Nomvete composition. On this track the band performs with a vocal group, the Chocolate Sisters. U-Toki can be heard in the SAMAP archive. It is also unclear whether Absalom Mtyeku and Boyce Hashe were present at the recording.
Rob Allingham has it that Willie Mbali was the leader of the group at the time of these recordings in 1953. He also maintains that these were the only sessions recorded by the group, the result of a field-unit sent to East London, hence the varied quality of the recordings.
Most of the tracks appear to be composed by Mbali or Mzimkulu, notably Majuba (BB 155) by Mzimkulu and E-Qonce (BB 156) by Mbali. Majuba is the same composition that gave name to this style of music in the 1950s. Some discrepancies are evident over the authorship of Majuba. For example in his August 1957 article in Drum magazine, Todd Matshikiza implies that it was the Harlem Swingsters with Gray Mbau, Taai Shomang, Gwigwi Mrwebi and himself that came up with both Majuba and E-Qonce. Huskisson also has Matshikiza as the composer of E-Qonce. But Coplan points out that it was the Jazz Maniac’s popular recording of Majuba that gave the style its name and of course David Mzimkulu at some point did perform with the Maniacs. So my guess is more research needs to be done in this area.
The tracks from this 1953 recording session, in the order that they were recorded, include:
N 1576 U-Maskhanda, (Mbali), Bantu Batho, BB 156
N 1577 E-Qonce, (Mbali), Banth Banto, BB 156
N 1578 Kwa Gompo, Bantu Batho, BB 164
N 1579 Umkhonde, (Mzimkulu), Bantu Batho, BB 159
N 1580 Ezibeleni, (Mzimkulu), Bantu Batho, BB 159
N 1581 Majuba, (Mzimkulu), Bantu Batho, BB 155
N 1582 Tomatie Sous, (Mzimkulu), Bantu Batho, BB 155
N 1583 U-Toki , (Nomvete) with the Chocolate Girls, Bantu Batho, BB 631
N 1589 Uyandibambezela, Bantu Batho, BB 164
One final note, in his interview with Lars Rasmussen, Tete Mbambisa mentions performing with the African Quavers, though I am sure he was too young to be present at the time of these recordings. Also Willie Mbali is the grandfather of saxophonist, Ndithi Mbali.
Though all were members of the African Quavers, it is not clear yet whether Eric Nomvete, Absalom Mtyeku and Boyce Hashe were present at this particular recording.
78 Revolutions Per Minute - Majuba Jazz from Mra to Bra — a three volume history of Majuba Jazz, including the African Quavers, can be viewed at Electric Jive, spread over two posts:
Volume 1: Swing to Majuba (1953 - 1956)
Volume 2: Majuba to Sax Jive (1957 - 1961)
Volume 3: Sax Jive to Mbaqanga (1962 - 1967)