Monday, September 22, 2008

Skokiaan (South African Song)

Louis Armstrong With Sy Oliver’s Orchestra
Recorded August 13, 1954
Track Time 4:59
Written by August Musarurwa
Recorded in New York City
Louis Armstrong, trumpet, vocal; Omer Simeon, soprano saxophone; Charlie Shavers, Taft Jordan, Abdul Salaam [William “Chiefie” Scott], trumpets; Al Cobbs Elmer Crumley, Paul Seiden, trombone; Barney Bigard, clarinet; Dave Martin, piano; Danny Barker, banjo; Arvell Shaw, bass; Barrett Deems, drums; Sy Oliver, arranger, conductor
Originally released on Decca 29256
Currently available on CD: Both parts, with the vocal, are available on Louis Armstrong: All-Time Greatest Hits. A shorter version, with the vocal edited out can be found on the compilation I Love Jazz.
Available on Itunes? Ditto.

It’s been one-week since I learned about my book deal with Pantheon and I still haven’t come off of cloud nine yet. Again, I hope you’ll understand if I go short bursts of time without posting something...and when I do post something they might very well be slightly shorter than the lengthy dissertations I’m known for. However, I’ll continue to go forward, hitting on a good one today with “Skokiian.” This is a perfect song to match the mood I’ve been in all week as it is one of the most infectiously joyous Armstrong records of any decade.

On a personal note, the first time I heard “Skokiaan” many moons ago, I was underwhelmed. Somehow, I managed to overlook Pops’s powerhouse trumpet playing and instead I focused on the silly vocal. This is pure novelty stuff and though Pops sounds like he’s having a good time, I can only imagine what was really going through his head as just one month to the day previously, he was laying down the tracks for the immortal Louis Armstrong Plays W.C. Handy sessions for Columbia. That date was overseen by George Avakian, who was interested in making timeless recordings. Over at Decca, they were still obsessed with having Armstrong record the latest hits. Thus, while Columbia was working wonders by combing the talent of Armstrong with the songs of Handy and Fats Waller, Decca was having Armstrong covering the likes of “Skokiaan,” “Sincerely,” “Ko Ko Mo” and “Moments to Remember.” Pops managed to contribute something worthy to all these records but overall, Columbia was kicking Decca’s ass.

As far as the song itself, “Skokiaan” has remained tremendously popular to this day, especially in world music circles. The always-reliable Wikipedia has a lengthy entry on the history of the tune which is pretty interesting if it’s accurate (one mistake: it mentions that Johnny Hodges recorded it with Erroll Garner; Hodges did indeed record it but with Richard Powell on piano, not Garner!). It was written by Zimbabewean musician August Musarurwa and recorded in South Africa in 1954. Thanks to the glory of YouTube, here’s the original African version, released by the Bulawayo Sweet Rhythms Band, featuring Musarurwa on soprano saxophone:

So there it is. It is pretty irresistible, even if the trumpeter is kind of sad. Almost immediately, at least 18 different versions of the tune were cut in the United States, many becoming hits in the process (it was the number two most popular song of that year according to Cash Box). Again, thank you YouTube for the following...

Ralph Marterie apparently had a hit with this version, also done for Decca:

Bill Haley & The Comets, on top of the world with “Rock Around the Clock” (recorded for Decca), managed to find time to cut an instrumental of the tune:

Lyrics were soon written for the tune by an American named Tom Glazer. These lyrics drive me nuts (Richard Corliss described them as “ethnographic condescension”), but they provided a hit record for The Four Lads:

Naturally, I could go on but I’ll quit while I’m ahead and instead focus on Armstrong’s version. This must have been a fun session for Pops because, in addition to his regular All Stars (only Trummy Young and Billy Kyle weren’t present), Armstrong was surrounded by two of his greatest disciples, Charlie Shavers and Taft Jordan, as well as two New Orleans homeboys, Danny Barker and, playing the role of Musarurwa, Omer Simeon. Oliver’s arrangement stays very close to Musarurwa’s but Armstrong is quite an improvement over the African trumpet player on the original record. Oliver follows all the three-against-four tricky rhythmic patterns of the original and Armstrong burns through it all impressively. There are very few examples of Armstrong reading an arrangement in his later years but he absolutely nails the intricate rhythms of this one. And when he improvises, the amount of raw power in his playing is freakish.

Decca originally released the record as two parts, spread across one 78. The first part was instrumental while the second part modulated for the silly vocal and some more feats of trumpet playing strength at the end. Without further ado, here’s another YouTube video of a fella playing the Decca record on a 78 player, even taking time to switch sides as one must have had to do in 1954. Enjoy!

Yeah man, that always puts me in a good mood. Again, the vocal is kind of a waste of time but Christ, his trumpet is on fire, especially when drummer Barrett Deems enters his Gene Krupatron 2000 machine for some impassioned tom-tom playing. Almost like “The Peanut Vendor,” Armstrong is allowed to float over the repetitious chord changes, taking his time and completely swinging across the bar lines. So relaxed, yet it still manages to shake your soul.

I know the sound quality is a bit rough on that clip, but here’s some good news: Decca released an edited version without any vocal. THIS, to me, is a killer version of “Skokiaan” from start to finish. I’ve uploaded it here so give it a listen:

So yeah, maybe it’s no W.C. Handy album, but it’s a helluva lot of fun. What’s wrong with jazz that simply puts you in a good mood? Nothing, I say, and it’s hard to be in a bad mood after hearing Pops play “Skokiaan.”

I hope to back by the end of the week with another posting but as I wrote last week, I’ll be at Birdland this Wednesday to catch David Ostwald’s Louis Armstrong Centennial Band. The music’s always great and I know a lot of people who will be there (including my agent who sealed the deal) so it’ll be a real happy atmosphere. If you’re in the New York area, stop by at 5:15 and say hello! Til next time...


douglas said...

where can you buy this version?

maXou said...

great paper thank you
you should even complete Wikipedia

Anonymous said...

Skokiaan has zero connection to South Africa. Absolutely none!
Musarurwa recorded the song with his band "The Bulawayo Cold Storage Band" in present day Zimbabwe.
Louis Armstrong is the most hated foreign musician in Zimbabwe ever - for stealing the song. On his arrival in Salisbury (Harare today) he was welcomed by the BSAP (police) Band which Musarurwa had recently joined. The band was playing "Chikokiaan" as the drink for which it's written is called in Zimbabwe.
When LA arrived at the "whites only venue" he asked the band director - a whiteman - where the band was. He was told, "You're the band". Satchmo said, "No, the one that played at the airport".
"Why?" Mr. Tasker, the band director, asked.
"The music they played was incredible - it was the first original sound we've heard in Africa.
Well, in racist Rhodesia (as Zimbabwe was called then) the whiteman was king - Tasker simply said to Louis Armstrong, "Wait here a moment..." and soon came back excited beyond his wits - holding the score for Chikokiaan.
On Armstrong's departure from the country the band was again playing on the tarmac for him. This time he walked over to the band and said something about the song - it had become the BSAP Band's standard. The band all pointed immediately to Musarurwa.
Louis Armstrong was stunned! He took out the score Tasker had given him and showed them. They all shouted, "No! No! No! Not Tasker. Musarurwa is composer and arranger. Tasker is just putting his name on the score as senior officer. The song is Musarurwa's from his other band - he recorded it a few years ago.
Armstrong looked at the score - everything said "Tasker". He broke-down. Out of his pocket he took out five US dollars and gave them to Musarurwa who didn't put out his hand to accept.
Armstrong left and wrote a letter saying he was seeking permission to record the song. Musarurwa never concented - he never got the letter. Tasker kept it. Instead he wrote back saying okay.
Tasker even went so far as to lie that Musarurwa had died in a car crash.
I was a close friend of Musarurwa's original BSAP Band members when I left Zimbabwe in 1986. And would you believe it but Mr. Musarurwa was very much alive and well in Epworth - a suburb of Harare. I'm certain he has since passed away and also certain that his family is still pursing justice.

tizzi said...

anonymous. you seem to know a lot about August Musarurwa. I am doing research about him, I would love to get intouch with you to find out as much as possible all that you knew of him.