The jazz man from third avenue

Created by Readiris, Copyright IRIS 2005Everybody in Alexandra township knows Edmund ‘Ntemi’ Piliso. He is the tall, quiet jazz man from Third Avenue.

Ntemi has been around for a long time. He has made music with the best of them. He has played with big music groups like Zonk and the Harlem Swingsters. And for many years the township jived to Ntemi’s own band, the Alex All Stars.

Today Ntemi plays with the Jazz Pioneers – a group of the old greats who have got together. They are still blowing the old township tunes.

Ntemi Piliso does not talk much. He saves his breath for his saxophone. But Learn and Teach went anyway. And we were in luck. Nterni did not have his saxophone with him.

We asked Ntemi about his life and his music. He sat down. “Okay!” he said. He began to talk in a quiet and gentle voice.


“I was born in Alexandra on the 16th December 1925. My full name is Mthuthuzeli Edmund Piliso. My mother called me Ntemekwana or “Ntemi” for short. People still call me Ntemi today. Not that I mind – I like the name.

“Alex has always been my home. The place has also been my school. I learned music there. Like most kids, I began playing the pennywhistle in the streets.

“After school we loved to watch the movies from America. One day I saw a film that changed my life. The big Glen Miller band from the U.S.A. was in that film. That film made me dream the same dream for weeks. In the dream I saw myself playing a big trombone.

“I forgot about school. I forgot about those little pennywhistles. I longed to playa long, gold trombone. I can say that is how my music began – in my dreams.

Ntemi blowing in the old days

Ntemi blowing in the old days


“Years later I was sitting at home. I was all alone and bored. I heard someone knocking loudly on the door. I opened the door and a guy called Casablanca walked in. He was very excited. He said I must come over to his place. He said now was the time to start our own band.

“And he wasn’t just talking. He had three saxophones, two trumpets and a trombone. Said he bought them in Cape Town. I couldn’t believe my ears.

“I wasted no time. But when I got to his place another guy had the trombone already. So I picked up a saxophone. I’ve never let it go since then.

“Casablanca knew a music teacher at the Catholic School. This guy taught us to read and write music. Soon we were ready to start a band. We called ourselves the Casablanca Ochestra.

“I loved playing in a real band. We had great tunes. But some of the guys were not so serious. So my friend David Sello and I left the band. We wanted to move into the world of real jazz.


“We met a guy called Sam Maile. He was a great writer of jazz music. People called him South Africa’s Duke Ellington. He wrote the music for the famous film ‘Jim Comes to Jo’burg’.

“During the great war, some of our people fought in the army against Hitler. After the war Sam asked some of the soldiers to join a big band. He called the band Zonk.

“Sam Maile was a great guy. He taught me a lot about jazz. I played with Zonk for a short while. But I wanted to move on. The Harlem Swingsters and the Jazz Maniacs were the hottest bands in town. I wanted to join one of them.

“The Harlem Swingsters needed a sax man. They asked me to come and show my skills. I’ll never forget that day man! The great Kippie Moeketsi was there. He just said ‘Play’. And he listened very carefully. I was very scared.

“They asked me to play with them at a concert. The concert was at the Inchcape Hall in Sophiatown. I knew this was my chance. And I played for my life. The great piano player Todd Matshikiza and Kippie said I was okay. And that’s not all. I didn’t have my own sax then. So they went out and bought me one. I knew then that I was in the band – full time.

“I had great times with the Harlem Swingsters. The band was good. We mixed American swing and our own township tunes. We made African Jazz.

Ntemi (left) with two members of the Jazz Pioneers at Kippie's funeral

Ntemi (left) with two members of the Jazz Pioneers at Kippie’s funeral

“We played allover the country. Once we even went to Lourenco Marques in Mozambique. The best shows happened when we played with the Jazz Maniacs. We played from 8 o’clock at night to four in the morning. We took turns to play. We wanted to show who was best. We never beat the Maniacs. But they knew we were not a small group.

“The gangsters were always at our shows. Sometimes they loved us and sometimes they hated us. They arrived at some of the shows at four in the morning – just when we were ready for some sleep. And they said: ‘Play until the sun comes up.’

“No one could do anything. They took our women and danced with them. And we played on sadly. I remember a concert at Moroka. This gang started fighting. Then they took their knives out. I grabbed my sax and ran for my life. I hid in the toilet. When I came back I found a body lying on my saxophone case – full of blood. Our shows were like this all the time. Today’s shows are like Sunday picnics.

The young Ntemi Piliso

The young Ntemi Piliso


“In the early fifties all the big bands began to split up. I left the Swingsters and started my own band – the Alexandra All Stars. We were champions in the township. Even the gangs in Alex didn’t touch us.

“I made many records with the All Stars. My wife Constance had a beautiful voice. She made a record with me. The song was called “Baby come Duze”. That record made thousands of bucks. The record company gave me a paper and told me to sign. And they gave me five pounds. They bought my song for five pounds. That is how it was in those days.

“In 1962 King Kong started. This show went from South Africa to London. I very much wanted to go overseas and study music. But I wasn’t chosen to go with the show.

“I was broken. I felt so down that I didn’t play for a long time. But the Alex All Stars stayed alive. We made a record now and then. But the wish to play with the great jazzmen was gone.


“Now us old timers have got together again. We want to bring back the big sounds from those days. We call ourselves the Jazz Pioneers.

“But we’ve got lots of problems, big and small. For example: we need a trombone player. We know a good trombone player who lives in Springs. And he wants to play with us. But he can’t blow until he gets his false teeth.

“And when Kippie died, we all lost a good friend. He was a giant in jazz. I fought hard to keep him in the Pioneers. I felt proud to play with a man like him – even though many people did not understand him. And now he’s gone and we’ll never get another one like him. But we know that we must go on. Us old timers have a job to do. We can’t let the old music die.”.


“CISCO THE GREAT”: The gangster who went straight

Created by Readiris, Copyright IRIS 2005The Russians, The Berliners, The Msomis, The Spoilers, The Americans …. even brave men got scared when they heard these names. These were the names of the gangs that ruled the townships of Johannesburg in the 1950’s.

And some of the meanest gangsters came from Alexandra Township. Chanki ‘Zorro’ Mahangwe, Shad rack ‘Bra Max’ Mathews, Alec ‘Msomi’ Dube – these were only some of the men who gave Alex the name ‘Slag­ paal’ – the place of slaughter. I n those days, in the words of an old Drum writer, “mothers feared for their daughters and fathers feared for their wages.”

Today most of these gangsters are dead. Some died the same way they lived – by the bullet or the knife. Others died at the end of a hangman’s rope. But one gangster lived through it all. His name. Paulus ‘Cisco the Great’ Tefo. He is an old man now and his gangster days are over.

“I am not afraid to tell you the story of my life,” says Cisco. “But I tell you I am not proud of those days. My eyes bleed when I think of the story.”


Paulus ‘Cisco the Great’ Tefo doesn’t know the year he was born. “When I first saw the sun I knew I was here in Alex,” says Cisco. “I don’t know what year it was. All I know is I found my parents here when I came out.”

Cisco was like so many children in the township. He didn’t like school. His parents didn’t have money. And he was bored in the ghetto.

“We used to march around the town­ ship” says Cisco. “One guy had a big drum.The rest of us played our penny­ whistles. We all wore coloured skirts­ just like the guys from Scotland. In this way we made an extra penny or two.”

The young Cisco loved music. His parents sent him to church. At church the only thing he learned was how to sing. Soon the young boy was going to all the dances. He was also a great dancer.

Cisco has a drink in an Alex shebeen.

Cisco has a drink in an Alex shebeen.

“I was a champion of the jitterbug style,” says Cisco. “Once I even won a prize with that great doll Dolly Rathebe. I also knew the great guys of music – like Zulu Boy Cele and Zakes Nkosi. Those guys played the hottest music in town. Sometimes I sang for them when they played at weddings.”

But while Cisco danced to the music of Zulu Boy Cele, the people were suffering. Wages were low and jobs were scarce. People couldn’t find houses. And when they did find houses, rents were high.

The people had to live. So many people turned to crime. And soon Cisco was ready to join them. Or as Cisco said, “In life the boys had no dough. They had to get into this.”

Shad rack 'Max' Mathews Msomi leader now dead.

Shad rack ‘Max’ Mathews Msomi leader now dead.


“I stayed in Alex but I moved with the boys from Sophiatown,” says Cisco. “We called ourselves the Young Americans. The gangs in Alex were the Spoilers and the Msomis. They were a bad bunch. I did not keep their company!”

The Spoilers and the Msomi’s ruled Alexandra in the 1950’s. A group of young boys started the Spoilers. They stole from people’s pockets. They went to parties in the township. And they always gave the women a hard time – and their boyfriends could do nothing but watch.

Soon the Spoilers were stealing from shops. Some shopkeepers paid the Spoilers to keep away. They paid “protection money”.

Some of the shopkeepers got a bit angry. A tough butcher called Shad rack Mathews decided to fight

the Spoilers. He went to see the door­ keeper at the Plaza bioscope. He was a strong man called Alec Dube. Together they started a gang called the Msomis.

The Msomis fought the Spoilers. But thats not all. Soon the Msomis were also robbing shops and stealing wages from the people.

The Msomis had an office on the corner of Selbourne Avenue and 12th Avenue. The gang had its own judge. Nobody could stand up to the Msomis – and live.


“The Msomi guys were bad news,” says Cisco. “They robbed and killed their own people. All of Alex hated them. But we were not like that. We were thieves and fighters. And we only stole from the rich and from the shops in town. Then we sold the goods to the people at a lower price. But we never killed our people.”

“The boys from Sophiatown always came to fetch me in a boat,” says Cisco. (They called the big old cars ‘boats’) “From Alex we moved into town and did our jobs.”

Then Cisco and the young Americans decided to do a big job. “We had worked a plan with a white guy who worked in a bank,” says Cisco. “The job went well – no problems. Then when we had the dough in our hands,

the white man called his friends. They wanted all the dough for themselves. They followed us in a big, black Buick. I thought this guy was going too far. So I pulled out my gun and shot him. The guy died.”


Paulus Tefo got 15 years for murder. In the meantime the war between the Msomis and the Spoilers got hotter. Many gangsters died in these wars. And many were arrested. And some like Shad rack ‘Bra Max’ Mathews were hanged.

Cisco spent 12 years in jail. Then they let him out for good behaviour. “I did a long stretch inside,” says Cisco. “I had a long time to think. When I came out most of the old guys were dead or in jail. I decided to go straight. I even got a job – but I must say, its the on Iy job I ever had!”


Today Paulus ‘Cisco the Great’ Tefo is an old man. He is very poor. He lives in an old shack in his sister’s backyard.

The 'Mayor' and the kids of Alex.

The ‘Mayor’ and the kids of Alex.

Cisco broke his leg last month. So now he walks all bent over on crutches. His face is full of deep lines. And his body is full of old wounds. “You see, look at this stab wound on my wrist here,” the old man will say.

But in his old age, Cisco has begun a new life. He now cares about the people around him. He wants to help them.

“Right now I’m trying to help my people get better houses”, says Cisco. “And I go and pay for peoples permits when they are at work. I also help them when they have got problems. That is why they call me the Mayor of Alex.”

And its true. Whenever he walks in the street people shout, “Heyta Cisco!

How’s the Mayor?” Sometimes people call him to sing for the kids at a birthday party. He gets a little money this way.

So now Paulus ‘Cisco the Great’ Tefo sings for the children of Alex. He tells them stories about the old days. But he tells the kids he is not proud of the stories. He tells them gangs are not the best way to fight for better houses and higher wages. He tells the people they can only get a better life if they work with each other· and not against each other. •