Don Laka hails scribes who exposed his music

Veteran musician Don Laka / THULANI MBELE
Veteran musician Don Laka / THULANI MBELE

Don Laka doesn't remember the number of records he has released since launching his music career in the early '70s.

His vast discography includes various styles and genres spanning four decades. Some of the music was recorded for other artists in his capacity as songwriter, composer, arranger, producer and record label owner.

It's an achievement that indeed defies memory.

However, Laka remembers journalists who have supported his musical journey since those halcyon days of African jazz and township soul.

It was the time of The World with the irrepressible Percy Qoboza at the helm. Elliot Makhaya was one of the legendary newspaper's best known arts journalists alongside Vusi Khumalo, Derrick Thema and Morakile Shuenyane - some of black journalism's eminent scribes of the time who have since become iconic names of the profession.

Laka remembers Makhaya as a crusading wordsmith who combined his passion for the arts with remarkable penmanship and an authoritative style that earned him a cult readership.

"He was a proper critic of the black arts whose articles were instrumental in building careers of many musicians including mine," Laka says.

"Bra Elliot realised my potential and told me so. He developed a special relationship with musicians because he was genuinely interested in their calling. Ours started when he reviewed one of my earliest albums. He had interviewed me and the result was a comprehensive and insightful write-up."

He says when The World and other black publications were banned on October 19 1977 - Black Wednesday - he felt the loss acutely.

"The World was a mirror of the black world. It reflected our dreams, hopes and aspirations. It celebrated our achievements and contextualised our challenges. It was our mouthpiece."

He befriended Derrick Thema, another gifted scribe with an encyclopaedic knowledge of the arts.

His father was Richard Selope Thema, a Congressman who became the first editor of The World in 1952.

"He introduced me to a number of joints in Soweto. One of them was Irene's Place in Orlando East. It was a popular shebeen that was frequented by artists, writers, activists and everyone who was interested in challenging apartheid."

For artists like Laka, the appointment of Makhaya as showbiz editor and arts critic was welcome news indeed.

The World was a mirror of the black world. It reflected our dreams, hopes and aspirations

His humorous column, Monday Blues, provided the much needed comic relief for folks whose tapestry of life was often stained by tragedy.

In 1980 Laka became a founder member and keyboardist of Sakhile, a formidable Afro-fusion ensemble fronted by bassist Sipho Gumede and reedman Khaya Mahlangu. One of their memorable recordings, Isikhalo (The Cry) is a jazzy elegy for the children who were killed in the 1976 student uprisings.

As a precocious 12-year-old who was curious about everything under the sun, Laka was already familiar with the phrase by the elders, ke dilo tsa makgowa - literally meaning "white people's things" in the Sotho languages.

Every invention he knew was credited to people of European ancestry but he was sceptical. So did that mean Africans contributed nothing to human civilisation? He wondered as he began a life-long quest for the facts.

The result is a well researched history text titled Know Thyself: Re-Introduction to African History (Lesedi House, 2017). It proves that Africa is the birthplace of humanity and world civilisations and contends that most of the everyday items from mirrors to makeup and writing were invented by Africans.


As a youngster growing up in Mamelodi, Pretoria, he came under the spell of Matlherane Mphakathi. Popularly known as Bra Geoff, he was a cultural guru, jazzophile, political activist, philosopher, artist, publisher and much more.

He was manager of the Malombo Jazzmen when they took first prize atthe Castle Lager Jazz Festival at Orlando Stadium. Recently at the Joy of Jazz Festival, Laka paid homage to this unsung hero of the arts with a piece titled Blues for Geoff Mphakathi.

In 1976 Laka was arrested for his involvement in the June 16 student uprisings. In 1983 he worked underground with Rapitse Montsho, photographer and filmmaker who later served as Nelson Mandela's cameraman.

It's interestinghat a decade later Laka would be involved in a different revolution; one which involves ushering in a new pop style that would change the face of contemporary South African music.

When he co-founded Kalawa in 1992 with DJ Christos [Katsaitis] and DJ Oskido (Oscar Mdlongwa) the initiative would anticipate the advent of kwaito music.

Since then the label has generated an impressive catalogue of house, kwaito and Afro-pop recordings. After over a quarter of a century, Kalawa Jazmee is the biggest and longest-running black-owned record label in the country.

It has been home to artists such as Sharon D, Thebe, Mafikizolo, Alaska, Bongo Maffin, DJ Maphorisa, Black Coffee, Big Nuz, Heavy K, Professor, Busiswa, Black Motion, Infinite Boys, Dr Malinga, Uhuru and Candy Tsa Mandebele.

According to Laka, the secret to the label's success is the single-mindedness of its directors, who are also artists.

"We have a solid team of executives who are industrious and single-minded about their roles and responsibilities," he explains.

"In the next 25 years we intend to continue being a school of excellence for upcoming artists and to serve as a springboard for new talent. We have a flexible approach when it comes to artists' contracts. They are free to leave the company when they want to spread their wings whether they want to sign with other labels or establish their own."

Sam Mathe is the 2018/2019 winner of the Literary Journalism Award at the South African Literary Awards.

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