Tuesday, September 8, 2009

Hardcore (Diamonds) Can Never Die: Elias and His Zigzag Jive Flutes: "Tom Hark"

Defiance is one of the many, many reasons to make music - defiance of relatives, of a musical culture, or of your entire surroundings, including political. Defiance can sound (and usually does) loud and angry and upsetting; but "Tom Hark" is seemingly anything but. Elias (a.k.a. Aaron Jack Lerole) and His Zigzag Flutes were a bunch of friends who, in order to protect themselves from gangs in the not-quite-always-that-friendly streets of the Alexandra Township near Johannesburg, carried tomahawks. Whether "Tom Hark" is a play on this or not is not known exactly, but the combination of sharp, sweet penny whistles and sharp, ever-ready tomahawks protected them - they were street musicians who got to record this song, which somehow became the theme song of the tv miniseries The Killing Stones. The unsuspecting UK populace had never heard kwela music before and once it was released as a single they promptly went out in droves and bought it, thinking it happy and maybe ignoring or not caring about the fact that The Killing Stones was all about the troublesome and deadly lure of diamonds (this was some time before the term 'blood diamonds' was invented, never mind the more diplomatic 'conflict diamonds'.)

The song itself is a simple up-and-down merry/tough thing, with Elias taking the lead and improvising and blowing with greater intensity as the song goes on; I think I can honestly say that this is the first song described here that was made just to be made, without much concern for commercial potential (and South Africa being how it was, no money was made by the group for this, which is a real shame). I can well imagine that certain young ears heard this hit and became aware for the first time of real African music ("Zambezi" being more exotica than genuine) - Peter Gabriel, perhaps. Certainly it was heard by the young men in The Blue Notes (later to become in part the Brotherhood of Breath), who would take the cheery defiance and freedom of kwela music and add it to their storming free jazz to make something utterly unique and marvellously relentless. Sometimes entryism - in this case, the beginnings of what would be called nearly three decades later as 'world music' - is defiant, guarding its streetcorner, and then haphazardly is launched into another world that likes it, but doesn't quite understand it. Is "Tom Hark" New Pop? Yes, but of the most oblique and nearly nonchalant kind.

1 comment:

Robin Carmody said...

The UK success of this song has a very definite end-of-Empire *text*, not even the subtext written into rock'n'roll; consider that within two years, a British Prime Minister - an Old Etonian Tory at that - will have removed the remaining official/institutional objects to African self-determination, and within three, the floodgates this opened will have forced South Africa to become a republic and leave the Commonwealth, aware that even the Queen and her institutions won't automatically back them up anymore and that the only way to keep racial separation alive is in isolation. This song was a hit at the last moment when the South African state seemed unremarkable and not particularly shocking to most British eyes, and it arguably did quite a lot to change the way it was perceived here.