Drums along the River – from Africa to the UK


Sanders of the River poster

We recently saw two old (1930s) films starring the great Paul Robeson. Emperor Jones is a sorry tale of trying to be someone you aren’t and letting it destroy you. The other one, Song of Freedom, uses the story of Emperor Jones in an operatic saga where Robeson returns to the (island) land of his African forebears and does become the King bringing “civilization” to his people.

But he also starred in another African tale, Sanders of the River (1935) set in Nigeria. And this is where the connection with Stan Watkins comes in. He was head of Western Electric in London at the time, helping the British (and European) film studios convert to sound using the WE equipment.

Alexander Korda formed London Films in 1933 and  his first film The Private Lives of Henry VII, starring Oscar winner, Charles Laughton, was nominated for an Oscar.Alexander Korda & Merle Oberon & the Watkins' (2)Stanley and Alex became friends. That’s my mom and dad behind Korda and his future wife Merle Oberon.

Alexander Korda was the producer of Sanders of the River; his brother Zoltan, the director. Stan remembered: During the making of Sanders of the River we met Paul Robeson and his wife. I had liked his singing so much ever since I first heard it. That was when I was helping the Columbia Phonograph people in New York. Their recording director would get me to listen with him to all their new recordings and one day he said to me “Listen to this, it’s a new man we’ve just been recording; we think he’s good.” It was Robeson.

When Saunders of the River was filmed, a production group was taken to Africa by Zolton Korda, Alexander’s brother, to make the ‘local colour’ shots of war canoes and suchlike things. Robeson didn’t go on the African expedition but sang his songs in the Korda studio in front of projected shots from the material brought back by the location group.

In the studio the African parts were taken by a large collection of Negros recruited from the ports of South Wales, mostly from Cardiff. There were no separate washing and WC facilities provided and one day a deputation of actors came to the studio manager asking that the blacks be given separate facilities on account of a difference in body odour that was found to be unpleasant. The interesting point is that the deputation was from the Negros.

Somehow a Zokali drum was brought back from Nigeria for my father and it traveled with him when he returned to New York in 1936, and when he retired, to London in 1948. The sound director on the film was A. W. Watkins – not a relative, but a good friend we knew as Watty. It may have been Watty who arranged that gift, and also three stools, carved by prisoners out of one piece of wood. My sisters and I each have one; mine with curved sides  (OMG! I should have dusted it first!), MA’s with straight side posts, and Su’s is an elephant.african stool 001

The drum was a huge hollowed log about 6′ long with a carved pointy tail about 6″or 7″ long at one end and a pointy-nosed head with ears at the other. Apparently it was meant to be an antelope but it looked nothing like one. The inside of the body was carved away more on one side than the other so there were two distinct sounds – one higher than the other – when hit on the sides with the drumstick. This was a short, stout stick wrapped at one end in raw rubber.

Throughout my childhood I heard the drum beating out the did-did-did-dah that summoned us home for meals, bedtime, or piano lessons. It echoed all over the neighborhood.

Back in the UK, the unkind damp, wet weather finally rotted the old drum away. I have no photo, only a sketch by my father of my 3 year old brother banging on it. But we still have the stools and the memory of the drum beat. The family whistle was, and still is, that same Morse code V: . . . __. Beats having to shout to get someone’s attention.



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