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Marabi can refer to a twentieth century urban song and dance tradition in South Africa, to a novel or to a number of stage adaptations of the novel.

The music and dance form


In the early years of the 20th century, the increasing urbanisation of black South Africans in mining centres such as the Witwatersrand - the gold-bearing reef with Johannesburg more or less at its centre - led to the development of slum yards or ghettos, where new forms of hybrid music began to arise.

Marabi was the name given to a South African keyboard style (usually played on pedal organs, which were relatively cheap to acquire) that had something in common with American ragtime and the blues, played in ongoing cycles with roots deep in the African tradition.

The sound of marabi was intended to draw people into the shebeens (bars selling homemade liquor or skokiaan) and then to get them dancing. It used a few simple chords repeated in vamp patterns that could go on all night - the music of South African pianist and composer Abdullah Ibrahim still shows traces of this form.

Associated with the illegal liquor dens and with vices such as prostitution, South Africa's early marabi musicians formed a kind of underground musical culture and were not recorded. Both the white authorities and more sophisticated black listeners frowned upon it, much as jazz ("the devil's music") was denigrated as a temptation to vice in its early years in the United States.

But the lilting melodies and loping rhythms of marabi found their way willy-nilly into the sounds of the bigger dance bands, modelled on American swing groups, which began to appear in the 1920s; it added to their distinctively South African style.

Such bands, which produced the first generation of professional black musicians in South Africa, achieved considerable popularity in the 1930s and 1940s. Star groups such as The Jazz Maniacs, The Merry Blackbirds and The Jazz Revellers rose to fame, winning huge audiences among both black and white South Africans.

So successful were some of these bands, in fact, that jealous white musicians used the regulations against racial mixing and the liquor laws (which restricted black access to "white" liquor) to hamper their progress.


Over the succeeding decades, the marabi-swing style developed into early mbaqanga, the most distinctive form of South African jazz, which has given its flavour to much South African music since then, from the jazz performers of the post-war years to the more populist township forms of the 1980s.

The beginnings of broadcast radio intended for black South African listeners, and the growth of an indigenous recording industry, helped propel such sounds to immense popularity from the 1930s onward.

The music also inspired a number of creative works, among them a hugely influential stage musical, a novel and two stage versions of the novel.

The Marabi Dance, a novel by Modikwe Dikobe (1973)

The novel tells the story of an aspiring singer, Martha, who - growing up in the slums of Johannesburg - as falls in love with the underground Marabi culture in 1930s South Africa. While her friends understand her passion for singing and dancing, her parents can only see a dangerous underworld full of gangs and violence. She then develops a crush on a Marabi musician, while her father plans to marry her off to her cousin. Stuck between the values of the past and a rapidly changing world, Martha struggles to see a future that won't betray either herself or her parents.[1]

Originally banned from publication, it was finally published by Heinemann in 1973.

Marabi and the stage

Travelling variety shows, vaudeville troupes and dance concerts boosted the impact of black music in the country, and schools began to arise teaching the various jazzy styles available. Notable among these was pianist-composer Wilfred Sentso's influential "School of Modern Piano Syncopation", which taught "classical music, jazz syncopation, saxophone and trumpet blowing", as well as "crooning, tap dancing and ragging".

The form was extensively utilized by Todd Matshikiza for his score for the iconic musical King Kong (1959). The novel by Modikwe Dikobe was also reworked as a play and produced by Junction Avenue Theatre in 1982.

Marabi, workshopped by Ari Sitas and Junction Avenue Theatre (1981/1982)

Also called Marabi (1982), it began life as a piece of musical theatre (inspired by Modikwe Dikobe's book, The Marabi Dance), conceived in workshops led by Ari Sitas at the Junction Avenue Theatre Company in 1981-82.

1982: Performed in February by Junction Avenue Theatre, Upstairs at the Market, directed by Malcolm Purkey, with Arthur Molepo, Fats Dibeko, Siphiwe Khumalo, Henry Mahlatji, Sibongile Ngoma, Jane Mereko, Chas Unwin, Selauzi Selaotswe Marumo, Ramolao Makhene, Gladys Motlale, Patti Hendersen, Madidi Maphoto and Siphiwe Majola. Photographs by Ruphin Coudyzer.

Moipone adapted by Jerry Pooe (1994)

This new stage adaptation of The Marabi Dance was done by Jerry Pooe, which he directed with a cast of youth that Eager Artists Productions had trained during weekends, as well as drama students and professional artists who volunteered their time.

Performed at the Sneddon Theatre, Durban 1994, the musical received tremendous attention and was invited to perform at The Playhouse, where it also received rave reviews.

Sometimes also referred to as Marabi.

Marabi adapted by Malcolm Purkey (1995)

The Ari Sitas version was extensively reworked and rewritten by Malcolm Purkey for a production staged by the Junction Avenue Theatre Company at the Grahamstown Festival in 1995, directed by Malcolm Purkey, with a cast including Ramolao Makhene, Thembi Mtshali, Mthandeni Mvelase, Arthur Molepo, Xoli Norman, Nkhensani Manganyi, Moshidi Motshegwa, Owen Sejake, Selaelo Maredi. The production moved to the Market Theatre in November 1995.

Adapted from Modikwe Dikobe's "Marabi Dance"

1997: Directed: Malcolm Purkey at the Market Theatre. Cast : Ramolao Makhene, Arthur Molepo, Lindani Nkosi, [[Alistair Dube]], Lindelani Buthelezi, Reshuketswe (Shoki) Maredi, Thembi Mtshali, Lesego Motsepe, Eputla Sebogodi.


Ruphin Coudyzer. 2023. Annotated list of his photographs of Market Theatre productions. (Provided by Coudyzer)

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