The Drum Writers : Journalism of a jazz nature
“From the coffee plantations of the Gold Coast to the jazz-stung nightspots of Nigeria, from the slow pomp of Uganda’s royal ceremonies to the livid frenzy of Kenya’s turmoils; in the dreaming hamlets of Zululand; among Cape Town’s fun-filled coon life, and Johannesburg’s teeming, thrilling thousands – everywhere, every month Drum is read and relished.” Henry Nxumalo Jan ’56.
After the Second World War there was a cultural revolution worldwide. Where there was Son in Cuba and Rumba in Congo, there was Jazz in South Africa. Drum was an independent media machine that would record this cultural revolution in print and photography.
Drum was started by Jim Bailey. When the war was over Jim came to South Africa, Johannesburg. Jim was one of a kind. He had encountered death so often in the war and he had encountered life so often in Africa’s cultural world that he exhibited a philosophy of life as pure and gentle as can be. From his home at the foot of Table Mountain, Jim would look across the great view of Cape Town city and say, “You see every twinkling light out there? Under each light is a unique story.” He brought this philosophy to Drum magazine. Jim published Drum magazine successfully from the early-fifties to the mid-eighties and ran a number of offices all over the continent, East, West, Central and Southern Africa. He often referred to himself as ‘a lone white man in Africa,’ for where he went and what he did he was ‘a lone white man in Africa.’
Drum was the great African success story. It was popular and prestigious media that linked and shared ideologies, beliefs and abilities across the country and part of the continent. It was influential and entertaining media, bringing voice to an at times voiceless people. Drum took the bustle, the culture and the color of fringe city slums such as Sophiatown. It represented the hopes, the struggles, and the dreams of the ‘African’; and romanticized the fun, the danger, the vibrant frenzy and diversity of a racy and dynamic urban existence. Drum was an icon of courage, beauty and high life: “The best of times, the worst of times – so full of events,” claimed Can Themba in his Dickensian way. “There was tragedy, there was triumph,” it is told.
Drum was a perfectly timed literary renaissance which created the opportunity for a disparate cast of young, gifted and courageous black writers to engage and contribute on a higher level than the political dispensation allowed. It was a brief and exuberant moment where their interests and lives touched – feeding off the cultural indestructibility of the period, blossoming in the challenge of the ridiculous political regime, nobly promoting African identity and capturing the excitement of a racy period.
“Drum makes my tea sweater than honey, even without sugar in it.” Reader Walters ChalataLesotho
Within the pages of Drum magazine, crime and investigative reporting joined the more frivolous and entertaining material of romance (preferably across the color line) and sport as the content formula for the magazine. A combination of hot cover girls and down to earth photography gave the magazine the romantic shine to match the era. In every issue, there were sweet and coy picture love stories – girl meets boy, a lonely love song, a sensitive man and Cupids strike. Dolly’s heartbreak column appealed to all unrequited, footloose, inexperienced or confused lovers to write in for advice.
Todd Matshikiza with his rhythmical infectious jazz writing brought the personal victories of many artists to the public. Township life was a life of insecurity racked with a violent endemic – and the journalists laughed at it to live with it, creating an enthusiastic, light hearted and romantic vision of a bohemian life where the moment, the now was what mattered. Lofty ideals and political projections were misplaced in this fast talking, fast living, and brash kind of race to enjoy life now, while you could. It was: “live fast, die young – and have a good-looking corpse” as the era was often described. The Drum era was a heroic period that painted a light hearted picture of a ‘crazy’ world where gangsters were movie stars, artists were idols and journalists were crusaders. Drum was a brilliant mirror of society, preserving cultural pride and identity, injecting a self-confidence into the heart of the people, enabling them to live with courage. It was popular media for an integrated era that captured all aspects of township life in its drudgery, exhilaration, wildness and sadness.
And with all these emotions the Drum journalists became a huge presence in the community. They brought an effervescence from the variety of cultural hot-spots and an earnestness from the social issues. Their lives were a dedication, a mission, almost a fearless and selfless abandon in evaluating everybody’s culture, everybody’s concern.
Drum had a distinguished cast of writers and photographers. Can Themba, Casey Motsisi, Bloke Modisane, Nat Nakasa, Lewis Nkosi and Es’kia Mphahlele have written books and plays. The photographs of Peter Magubane, Jurgen Schadeberg and Bob Gosanie feature in many books. Arthur Maimane was a senior news director at British TV. Anthony Sampson and Sir Tom Hopkinson are famous figures in British newspaper history, and Sylvester Stein released the novel, ‘Who killed Mr. Drum’ capturing some of the work of Drum’s most famous son, Henry Nxumalo.
Henry Nxumalo, was the first journalist for the magazine, and the first to employ the mass of extraordinary journalistic material the polar opposites of South African political life offered the nonwhite writer. He risked everything to bear the truth and maintain the integrity of the exploited people. He was Mr. Drum, the good, fighting courageously and liberally, swallowing tough and dangerous assignments for the cause -to uncover the scoop, provoke change and strengthen the will of the righteous. He was experienced and heroic. Henry Nxumalo was continually at the cutting edge of danger, controversy, mistreatment and inequity.
He knew what was going down, and he supplied the details. Henry Nxumalo created headlines when his working stint on the potato farms rocked parliament exposing the poor conditions under which Africans labored. He arrived barefoot and unshaven to beg employment on a farm where an African laborer was flogged to death with a hose-pipe. His writing on the clean up the reef campaign identified the great area of lawlessness, ‘the square mile of sin’ and cried for support from the police. He conspired to get himself into Johannesburg central prison, and created an international scoop with the ward conditions and the belittling naked native search. And his investigation into church apartheid was fascinating in its juxtaposition of icy prejudice and the will for ‘brotherly love’.
Drum was compulsive reading. People lived by their Drum magazine, everybody of every age would read it. In the trains, on the streets, in the clubs; it would pass from hand to hand, everyone’s monthly diet of controversy, self-acclamation and self-worth. Drum was a symbol of the new African cult, divorced from the tribal stereotypes, but urbanized, eager and proud.
The Drum period had set the standard for urban living with a sensitivity to other African states, a tremendous cultural and linguistic cross-fertilization and a tradition of pride and respect. Yet, this cultural explosion, the wonderful and romantic life and all the hope and promise was subjected to the tragedy of the fascist divide and rule technique. Apartheid separated the thrilling diversity and variety of stimulus and destroyed the vibrant cosmopolitanism; and the essence of Drum magazine. With the inflexible fascist rock that is apartheid, the job of the social commentator and cultural historian became impossible and the romanticism of the period turned to heartbreak, frustration, angst and finally despair. Drum slowly faded eventually selling out to the Nationale Pers.
Jim Bailey sought the deal out with Nationale Pers as he believed that this would offer the regime a stake and sensitivity to black culture and hence would assist in enabling peace in the politically fragile South Africa. We will never know how close we came to a crippling revolution; however what this move certainly did achieve was maintaining the longevity of the magazine – an ideal that Drum never wavered from the moment it became the unique and desperately needed vehicle of expression for African culture.
National Pers incorporated Drum magazine as the African language partner to their popular English and Afrikaans magazines You and Huisgenoot. This was the very first real integration of black African and white Afrikaner through culture.
This was a forerunner to Mandela’s peaceful release and the all reaching vision of a rainbow nation.
Drum magazine has left us with a romantic image of a wonderful society, where alcohol flowed through the peep-holes of prohibition, life was footloose, musicians were fancy free and the community was vibrant. Street corners, shebeens and drinking spots teemed with the slow driving, beating rhythm of the blues; the growl, scat, bebop and big band sounds.