On the 25th April 1958 an unusual record appeared at the bottom of the Pop Charts. Unlike the other records that were its chart neighbours – the smooth ballads of Michael Holliday and Perry Como, the rock ‘n’ roll of Elvis Presley and Chuck Berry or the raucous instrumentals of Lord Rockingham’s XI and the Champs this record was a bizarre one-off.
It starts with voices talking in ‘Fanagolo’, the street language of Johannesburg, over what sounds like a gambling game. There are shouts as bets are made and the sound of dice and money rattling down. One man refers to his wife. Perhaps she disapproves of such activity. Then one voice cries out urgently:-
“E Bops, kom maak gou — hier kom die kwela kwela van!” (“Quickly”! Get going! Here comes the police van!")
In apartheid South Africa the police definitely disapproved of such activity.
The most common explanation for the word “kwela” is that it is taken from the Zulu for “get up” or “climb in”. In township slang it also referred to the vans, the “kwela-kwela” – used by the police to pick up street criminals with a shout of “Kwela” – get in!
There is a sharp chaotic rush as dice and money are gathered up and exchanged for musical instruments. Out of the confusion a tune starts, a simple shuffling melody played on a pennywhistle. This is immediately joined by a guitar and a bass and then more penny whistles. This is the ‘kwela music’ of the South African townships of the late 1950’s. This is “Tom Hark” by Elias and his Zig Zag Jive Flutes. This is the tune that some say sounds like a rip off of the 1927 song “I’ve Danced with a Man who’s Danced with a Girl who’s Danced with the Prince of Wales.” (No way!) By May 24th 1958 ‘Tom Hark’ had peaked at No. 2 in the U.K. and stayed in that position for four weeks. Although the name of that record and the original artists that recorded it are now largely forgotten 60 years on it has become a rallying call for football teams up and down the country.
“Tom Hark” was written by Johannesburg street kid and penny whistle player Jack ‘Jake’ Lerole. With his brother Elias they formed a band with three pennywhistles, an upended tea chest bass and a skiffle guitar – the ‘Zig Zag Jive Flues’. One day a record company scout heard the band playing in the street and offered them a chance to make a recording. They went to the studio and recorded the tune that Jake had composed. They called it ‘Tom Hark,’ a contraction perhaps of the word ‘tomahawk’ – after the small axes the musicians carried for protection. For the recording Jake and Elias received 6 guineas each, about £6.30p. Knowing that his brother was broke Jake gave the rights to the song to Elias who immediately sold them on to a record company executive for £30 which he spent on some flashy clothes.
‘Tom Hark’ went on to sell millions of copies around the world and was even used as the theme tune for a BBC TV thriller series “The Killing Stones” made in 1958. By then Jake and Elias had made all the money that they were going to get out of the record and soon returned to the streets as penniless as ever!
Over the passing years ‘Tom Hark’ was covered in various forms, some with added lyrics, by a wide variety of performers, from Mille Small, Jimmy Powell and Ted Heath at one end to Georgie Fame, Bert Kaempfert and Mickey Finn and the Blue Men at the other. In 1980 it was the turn of Brighton punk band The Piranhas, with their legendary vocalist ‘Boring’ Bob Glover to have a crack at it. On the 2nd August 1980 the Piranhas got to No. 6 in the charts. Then the record ran away from them. First Chris Evans used the Piranhas version as background music for his TV show, ‘TFI Friday’. Then inexplicably the song was adopted by top football clubs like Newcastle United and Manchester City as an unofficial anthem…
Newcastle United’s version
“We hate Sunderland!
We hate Sunderland!
We hate Sunderland!”
Manchester City’s version
“United sing, we don’t know why!
‘Cos after the match, They’re gonna die!”
Even Ipswich Town had a version
“Top of the league at Portman Road”
By 1999 ‘Tom Hark’ was the song that echoed around Highbury every time Arsenal’s new striker Thierry Henry ran on to the pitch…
“Thierry Henry, Thierry Henry!
Thierry Henry, Thierry Henry!
He plays on the left,
He plays on the right.
Thierry Henry! He’s the new Ian Wright”
Despite “Tom Hark” being a much covered worldwide hit Jake and Elias Lerole never made much money out of it. The ‘Zig Zag Jive Flutes’ eventually added vocals to their repertoire and changed their name to Alexandra Black Mambazo. In 1963 Jake Lerole left the group and started a new career as a vocalist in what became known as the ‘groaner’ style under the name “Big Voice Jack”. His single ‘Blues Ngaphansi’ made him a national star. In the early 1990’s following the release of ‘The Whistlers’, a documentary about ‘kwela’ music, Alexandra Black Mambazo reformed and toured the country with South African rock star Dave Matthews, playing at some of the country’s biggest stadiums. It was a long way from Johannesburg street corners…
“E Bops, kom maak gou — hier kom die kwela kwela van!”
‘Tom Hark’ by Elias and his Zig Zag Jive Flutes
— from Martyn Day