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Compiled by Ned Newitt




ZACKS NKOSI - a biography


Zacks Nkosi was a bandleader, composer and saxophonist of the first order. He was one of the most important figures during the golden age of African Jazz in the 1950s and '60s. Not only did he have a distinctive voice as a soloist on clarinet and alto sax, but he was also a major composer. His beautiful melodies frequently brought together the world of African tradition with that of jazz and swing.

Isaac Zakes Nkosi, known to his fans as 'Bra Zacks,' was born in 1918 at Ingogo, a small town near Newcastle in Natal. His parents, who came originally from Swaziland, moved to the Alexandra Township, just northeast of central Johannesburg. He started his schooling in Alexandra at the Holy Cross Catholic School, where he also began his music career. Here he learnt the rudiments of piano and organ. By the age of nine he was something of a musical prodigy and by the age of fifteen he had added the accordion, violin and clarinet to his repertoire. His sister Minah bought him his first saxophone when he was 15 and after matriculating, he formed his first music group.

The Jazz Maniacs c1940-44. Jacob Moeketsi is at the piano, the leader Solomon 'Zuluboy' Cele sits in the front line with Wilson Silgee (alto sax) left and Zakes Nkosi (tenor sax) right. Behind are (left to right) Zakes Searbi,  Vy Nkosi (trombone) and Edward Sillilo

  Zacks was soon playing professionally with the local bands like the Blue Diamond Jazz Band and the Havana Swingsters. He was then invited to audition at the Bantu Men's Social Centre for the Jazz Maniacs, the top jazz band of the day. This was led by the popular Doornfontein shebeen pianist-turned-saxophonist Solomon 'Zuluboy' Cele. Zacks joined the Maniacs in 1940 and soon became their leading saxophonist. The Jazz Maniacs were probably the most popular and developed an exciting synthesis of jazz, swing and local Marabi music, which became the inspiration for future generations of musicians. According to Yvonne Huskisson, after Cele's murder in 1944, Nkosi became the Maniacs leader, though this account is contradicted by Horst Bergmeier who probably confused trombonist S. Nkosi with sax playing I.Z Nkosi. At various times, Zacks also played with the Boogie Woogies, and The Jazz Havanas.   Although the Jazz Maniacs were very popular at dances, they split up in the early 1950s. This was  due to a combination of musical differences, gang pressure and the introduction of forced removals under the 1950 Group Areas Act.  

 Drum Magazine, May 1955

From Drum Magazine, May 1955
(courtesy of Bailey's African History Archives)


From Drum Magazine, May 1955
(courtesy of Bailey's African History Archives)


From Drum Magazine, May 1955
(courtesy of Bailey's African History Archives)

From Drum Magazine, May 1955
(courtesy of Bailey's African History Archives)

By the early 1950s, Zacks was playing with the African Swingsters, led by Ellison Temba and around 1952, they recorded Swazi Stomp; this was the first time one of his compositions had been recorded. With the other musicians from the Swingsters, he recorded dozens of sides for the HMV and Columbia labels often under different names. According to Maz Mojapelo, he led a number of bands under his own name, including the Zig Zag Zacks Band. He also supplemented his earnings through session work backing kwela artists and others on many recordings. His distinctive solos on alto and clarinet were a feature on many of these sides. He had his own way of blowing the horn which created a unique African jazz sound. In 1955, he was featured in an article in the influential black magazine Drum.

“Zig Zag Zakes” has been a horn blower all his life. Since the days of the great Jazz Maniacs, when that mighty team was founded; since the days when “Zulu Boy” Cele started jazz history in this country, “Zig Zag Zakes” has been blowing strong and mighty jazz. In the good old days, when bands led funerals to the graveyards, “Zig Zag Zakes” was there. When street parades were no parades unless the band was there, or church bazaars without the dart board and the jazz band, “Zig Zag Zakes” was there.

Zakes retired from big business when the Jazz Maniacs folded up. He started the smaller bands for recording purposes chiefly. Now and again he sits in with Ellison Temba 's African Swingsters.

Most times jazzmen crack their heads about fame. How shall I do it, they say, how shall I get great, man? Then while cracking their heads ‘bout greatness and fame, time catches up with them and they sink into the past. Not so with Zakes. He has worked for his name. That’s why people, his fans, admirers and followers named him “Zig Zag Zakes.” His real name is Isaac Nkosi, a cute diplomat of a musician who solves jazzmen’s quarrels without firing a shot. [...]

Zakes plays the alto-sax and the clarinet. His home town, Alexandra Township, boasts many young men who have learnt to blow the sax from Zakes. A patient teacher who combines teaching with sympathy. A jazzman who has great feeling for jazz and a creative mind that has composed many tunes heard on record. (Todd Matshikiza, Drum, May 1955)

By the mid 1950s, Zacks had became part of the stable of musicians working for the producer Rupert Bopape at EMI for the Columbia and HMV labels. This group imcluded band-leaders like: Ellison Temba of the African Swingsters, Michael Xaba from the Jazz Maniacs and Harlem Swingsters, Gray Mbau of the Brown Cool Six and Elijah Nkwanyana of Elijah’s Rhythm Kings. They would record together and often rotate band names depending on who was leading. By 1956, Zacks had formed two groups, Zacks and his Sextet and the City Jazz Nine, which recorded Zacks' compositions and arrangements for HMV. According to Max Mojapelo, the City Jazz Nine featured the talents of former members of the Jazz Maniacs.  In the early 1960's, the jazz musicians working for EMI became the core of Bopape’s 'Magic Circle Band' super-group which recorded under the name of the Transvaal Rocking Jazz Stars

Nick Lotay says that Zacks also became a co-producer at EMI working with Rupert Bopape and it was this collaboration which gave EMI such a successful African jazz catalogue. Whilst Bopape developed kwela and jive, Zacks assisted the development of the EMI African jazz sound. However, it is clear that Zack's activity at EMI was not confined to jazz. Zacks' compositions were recorded by penny whistle kwela groups as well as vocal groups like the Midnite Harmoneers. In 1961, Zacks wrote some rock and roll tunes for the Bogard Brothers. Many of these offerings were listed as collaborations with Rupert Bopape.


 Monday, 9th September, 1963

A high musical potential shown by the African’s marked rhythmic ability and his infused sentimental playing evinced itself at this year’s Newport-like Cold Castle Festival at the Orlando Stadium on Saturday. ........ It opened with the famous Elite Swingsters whose plight was to prove themselves kings in the swing and Mbaqanga sections. This group, led by Johnny Tshukudu (on bass) again poured with some of their latest recorded numbers with marked blending of tone on ragtime numbers like ‘Ain’t Misbehaving’ and Mbaqanga piece.  Next came the Zakes Nkosi Septet on Mbaqanga. Mr Nkosi leader, wore traditional attire. He went through intricate solos, twisting and dancing as he played. The crowds were highly thrilled. His combo would jump to the blues with numbers like ‘Savolo Blues’ and yet play Hodges Jam Session No. 1 with ease.












 In the early 1960s, Bopape was started to create a more rock-influenced jive sound. By the mid 1960's, the African public had lost their taste for the township swing, marabi and tasaba tsaba that had been so popular in the 1940s & 50s. The electric sound of mbaqanga had gained popularity and jazzmen had to adapt in order to survive. In 1964, Bopape had moved fom EMI to Gallo records taking with his coterie of musicians. However, according to Jonas Gwangwa, Zacks was also working at Gallo Records – not as a musician, but packing records in their storeroom.

Zacks played at weddings, festivals and parties, and every New Year’s Eve he would play at his home in 10th Avenue, Alexandra. However, his recordings from the late '60s show that he was playing great sax jive or mbaquanga as well as funk.

In the mid 1970s, despite the decline in popularity of jazz with younger audiences, Zacks was very active.  It was then he made a couple of excellent LPs which demonstrate how contemporary his playing had become.

Liner notes to Our Kind of Jazz vol 1
Zacks Nkosi was a legend in his own time. His name was, and still is, a household word throughout the country. The reason for Zacks' tremendous popularity was that he played his own sax, he had his own distinctive style and he wrote his own music. He had a highly individual style that made him streets ahead of all his contemporaries in the same field. He had the ability to interpret any harmonic structures of a given melody and leave the listener wondering how any one man can be so gifted. He had tremendous creativeness and yet played with such simplicity, this is reflective on all his past recordings.
Zacks could play any type of music - from progressive jazz, to pop ,to pure improvisation. He could also play with equal dexterity indigenous music, such as mbaqanga which again is reflective of the maestro's gift of song, versatility and fingering dexterity.
In our limitless world of African Jazz we cannot but applaud the singularity of this giant jazzman who had dedicated his life to uplifting the standard of his native repertoire, "OUR KIND OF JAZZ".
His son, Jabu, is just as gifted as his father, and his piano and organ playing on this album enhances the quality beyond belief.
We proudly present this musical legend of more than three decades and are confident that his music will linger eternally in the minds of his thousands of fans.

Zacks had five children,  composing songs in their names as well as ones which which show his Swazi heritage. One of his children, Jabu Nkosi (born 1954), became an outstanding musician in his own right appearing on his father's albums in the 1970s. Barney Rachabane, who had lessons from Zacks and played his first jobs as second alto with Zacks, also features. Soon after his last recording in 1976, ill health forced him to retire and he died on April 5th 1980.

On 19 May 2007, nine South African music legends were immortalised with the unveiling of the Pioneering Spirits Walk of Fame in Newtown, Johannesburg. They are, Miriam Makeba, Kippie Moeketsi, Janas Gwangwa, Basil Coetzee, Winston Mankunu Ngozi, Ntemi Piliso Chris McGregor and Zakes Nkosi.

In 2011, Zacks received a posthumous Siyabakhumbula award. These awards are intended to posthumously honour a number of extraordinary South Africans who changed the landscape of the country. The families of those who were remembered were presented with an award and a cheque for R15,000.


Sources: Rob Allingham, Siemon Allen, Electric Jive, 14 December 2011, Bantu A & R, Biographies from the Siyabakhumbula Awards, 2011, Drum May 1955,  Jonas Gwangwa and Fulco van Aurich: The Melody of Freedom  Prof. G. I. Galeta, The Development of Jazz in South Africa,  from Jazz Rendezvous, Nick Lotay, Electric Jive, 2 July 2012, Max Mojapelo: Beyond Memory, From the Diary of Max Mojapelo