“He learnt so many lessons from his father whom he describes as the best parent, musician, humanitarian, teacher and role model. A year after Big Voice Jack’s passing, he went to receive a lifetime achievement award at the SAMA’s where his hero was posthumously honoured for the contribution in the South African music. His own way of honouring his mentor is to restore the love for the penny whistle”
Kwela is a penny whistled-based street South African music that was very popular in the country and rose to international prominence in the 1950s. It evolved from the marabi sound with jazzy underpinnings and a distinctive, skiffie-like beat. Musicians who performed this kind of music had to avoid being caught by the apartheid police who saw their act as busking and would arrest them. They would say “kwela” which meant “climb” inside the van when arresting the artists. Marabi was also associated with thuggery because of the gangs that terrorized patrons at venues where it was performed.
One of the icons of kwela music was Aaron “Big Voice Jack” Lerole who was in the forefront of this music genre in the 1950s. The legendary Aaron was a singer, penny whistle player born in 1940 and grew up in Alexandra Township. He was the bandleader of Elias and His Zig-Zag Jive Flutes, whose song “Tom Hark” became an international hit record in 1958. Lerole left the group in 1963 to embark on a solo career, releasing a single “Blues Ngaphansi” which made a him a star. As the mbaqanga style developed, he took up the saxophone in place of the penny whistle and continued releasing hits such as “Cherry Beat”, “Big Voice Jack”, “Tully La Fluter” and “Bongo Twang Jive”.
In 1984, Lerole co-founded the popular group Mango Groove which recorded several hits and whose audience was made of people from all age groups. He also performed with the Dave Matthews Band on international tours. Director Johnathan Dorfman released the documentary “Back to Alexandra” which captured Lerole’s tour with the Dave Matthews Band. Big Voice Jack passed away in 2003 and his loss was felt by global music fans who had adored his style of playing the penny whistle. The following year, he was posthumously honoured with a lifetime achievement award at the South African Music Awards.
The person who received the lifetime achievement award in 2004 was his son Sibusiso Lerole who was 18 years at the time. Born in Diepkloof (Soweto) 34 years-years-ago, the son of Jack and Thembi Lerole is also a penny whistle player, music teacher at Morris Isaacson Centre for Music in Soweto who goes by the stage name of Jack Lerole Jnr. His elder brother Ben is his business partner. “My parents had love for us children, music, people and each other”, he told Jazz It Out. The parents were always willing to help friends and associates in times of need. Sibusiso recalls how he always followed his dad who wanted his children to learn instruments instead of roaming around the streets of Soweto.
Growing up in the Lerole household was often confusing for the young man. “My home was always full of visitors which included people I would later realize were musicians”, he said. In some cases, there would be journalists and photographers from all over the world. What was even more confusing was that his dad would be away for a long time. “Later I came to realize that he lived a life of a musician who wanted to take good care of his family and this meant he had to do a lot of travelling”, he added. This made him realize that his family did not live an ‘ordinary life’ compared to those of their immediate neighbours.
He remembers his famous father as the best parent, musician, humanitarian, teacher and role model who gave him and his siblings love, groomed them for a better future in order to survive. Losing both his parents deprived Lerole Jnr of his youth and recalls the many challenges he faced. “Some people tried to take advantage of us, but with the great people our parents were very good friends with, we managed to rise above those challenges”, he recalls. As a youngster, he listened to Bhekumuzi Luthuli, Dave Matthews Band and African Jazz Pioneers. “I also enjoyed some kwaito and soul music which I would listen to with my peers”, he added.
Jack Lerole Jnr remembers that somber mood at his home on the 12th of March 2003, the day Big Voice Jack passed away. Even the many faces he always saw on TV did not give him any consolation. The incident which was widely reported in the media reminded him that they were not an ordinary family. “It was a painful experience”, he recalls. Something very interesting happened while the Lerole family was still mourning the passing of Big Voice Jack that he remembers very well. “My teacher Mr Steve Maelani came to my house two days after my old man’s passing and told me I had to represent the whole school alone with other schools in a regional competition”, Maelani thought playing the penny whistle would be a fitting tribute to his late father.
The youngster was awarded with a certificate and an award by the Gauteng Department of Education (GDE) for Arts and Culture in 2004. It was also in the same year that he went to collect the lifetime achievement award at the SAMA awards which was captured by the media. His family is grateful for the support they received from Mango Groove which he often performs with as an artist. He is also thankful to Mr Maelani for playing a major role in his life after losing both his parents. “Some of my friends at school met my father as he gave music lessons at DK Hall before he passed on”, remembering those experiences he went through at a younger age.
After completing matric, Jack Lerole Jnr enrolled for a music theory grade at UNISA. He also did teacher musician course at Trinity Laban Conservatoire of Music and Dance. Lerole Jnr describes the fulfilment he gets from teaching the learners at Morris Isaacson Centre for Music in Soweto: “When I teach the kids I get a huge amount of satisfaction knowing the penny whistle legacy continues as Jack Lerole Snr had always said and wished for us to ensure that Kwela Music and penny whistle sounds don’t die”. It always gives him excitement to see the young learners showing an interest in the genre that was made popular by his father and other musicians in the country.
His is unapologetic about his love for the restoration of Kwela Music as part of the South African heritage, just like genres such as Mbaqanga, Maskandi, and Afro Jazz. “To preserve our history is to know who we are and where we come from. This will enable us to grow and educate future generations about the importance of this genre”, he emphasized. Lerole Jnr’s debut album titled “D K Avenue” which he co-produced with J-Pit will be released very soon. He describes the album as not just about Kwela Music but good music that one can still listen and relate to decades later which includes the tune “Lerole Special” that was featured on the movie “MANDELA – LONG WALK TO FREEDOM”. Some of the artists featured on this project are the likes of Alfred “Nkakha” Khumalo (guitarist from African Jazz Pioneers), Young Mambazo (Grandsons of Ladysmith Black Mambazo) and Stephen Mlangeni.
Memories – Jack Lerole Jnr
Jack Lerole Jnr has worked with several artists including Billy Monama, Dan Chiorboli, Abigail Kubheka, Lisina Masina, McCoy Mrubata, Siphokazi, Moses Khumalo, Jonathan Butler, Jus Rolle, Andy Narell, Nils Landgren, Moremoreira and Gareth Lubbe, MXO, African Jazz Pioneers, Dolly Rathebe and Dorothy Masuku. He also performed at festivals such as Moshito, Castle Milk Stout Jazz Fest, Standard Bank Joy of Jazz Festival to name but a few. Top of the list of his future plans is occupying world stages with his penny whistle, exploring more that just Kwela Music, and making collaborations with other musicians.
He is happy that his academic programme is well received by parents in Soweto. “One of my learners was invited by Robert Brookes of MIAGI to perform in Switzerland”, he told Jazz It Out. Most of the learners were quite inspired by the invitation extended to the learner, which motivated them to work even harder. Lerole Jnr attributes his survival in this industry through humility, maintaining good relations with role players and not losing focus on his craft. “Being well informed as an artist is also very vital in making those crucial decisions”, he added. He loves spending time with his family and friends. His Facebook Account is Jack Lerole Jnr and follow him on Instagram @jacklerolejnr and @JackLeroleJnr on Twitter.