The Manhattan Brothers
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Profile of The Manhattan Brothers
The Manhattan Brothers were a popular jazz band in the 1940s and 1950s. The band consisted of four school friends, Joe Mogotsi, Ronnie Sehume, Rufus Khoza and the late Nathan Mdlele.
The group has been defined by the South African music fraternity as being one of the first-ever superstars. This is due to the fact that not only did they have a huge impact on the music of the day, but they also influenced fashion and trends throughout southern Africa.
The group’s musical style could be described as a fusion of Americanised harmonising and crooning, with an African twist. Their sound drew on American ragtime, jive swing and doo-wop as well as African choral and isiZulu harmonies.
The Manhattan Brothers were equally known for their style and their brash display of opulence. They wore clothes bought from the finest stores; always appearing polished, and in this way dictated the trends for many young, urban African men. Their trendy fashionable outlook was a way of asserting their humanity in the face of the dehumanising social conditions of apartheid.
The group started out their musical careers through a school group called Manhattan Stars, and then decided to move out on their own, calling their band The Manhattan Brothers.
The group was so successful that they were awarded a recording contract by Gallo in 1933. However, the recordings were marked by setbacks. Firstly, they were forced to play with a group of white musicians who refused to speak to them, thus making the recording process that much more painful. Soon after the recordings, the Second World War broke out, severing communication between South Africa and Britain, thus preventing the records from being struck.
In the early 1940s, the group asked Miriam Makeba to join them. Makeba, who was until this point a relatively unknown artist, stayed with the band until the 1950s, thus facilitating her rise to fame. However, the mid-1950s saw the emergence of a different style of music, and the group’s popularity began to wane. Makeba eventually left the group to join the incredibly popular Skylarks.
It soon became very difficult for The Manhattan Brothers to play in public. Various government bans and prohibitions imposed on them saw them constantly on the lookout for the long arm of the law.
In 1961, exhausted by the insurmountable restrictions that were placed on them, the band seized the opportunity to leave the country with the musical King Kong that was set to be played overseas.
The group thus began their life in exile. Staying together, they continued to find fame in the international market, touring and performing throughout Europe. In the 1960s, they produced three albums through EMI, but these were never released beyond London.
The Manhattan Brothers were a musical phenomenon second to none. Their unique interpretation of jazz revolutionised the music industry in a unique way.
They were also the first to redefine the style, fashion and trends of the day – in a way that was never done before in South Africa. Their mammoth contribution to music, art and culture can be regarded as ways of engineering a sense of pride in African culture and heritage.