TWO SOUTH African music greats, Hugh Masekela and Shunna “Sonny” Pillay, are collaborating on a musical drama that depicts the life of a black South African gangster in the 1940s.

The internationally recognised duo announced their partnership on the production, Panzee, when Masekela visited Pillay at his home in New York, US.

Panzee is set in Durban after the 1948 riots and includes the trials and tribulations of the gangster (after whom the production is titled), his love interests and the difficulties they encountered under apartheid. It will contain lavish sets of the colourful Grey Street in its heyday.

In an interview with Tonight Pillay said he was inspired to write about Panzee as he was “more than a gangster”.

“He was a gangster who then became a preacher and suddenly everyone was out to kill him, from the local mobs to crooked cops. He was also an actor and an extremely well read and fantastic looking young man,” he explained.

Pillay said as a boy he knew Panzee and although his musical is exaggerated in parts, it is broadly based on Panzee’s life.

“I wrote the book and story. Morris (Goldberg), David (Bravo) (both international jazz musicians) and Hugh have done most of the music. I wanted it to be a jazz opera, so it will be mostly sung through.”

In the musical, Panzee decides to leave Port Elizabeth and then Joburg where everyone is looking for him, and head for Durban.

“He tries to find a room with a Brahman (highest order of social castes) family. He figured that if he found place in the servants’ quarters of these people no one would look for a black man there, but he ends up in a house with a wealthy woman and her daughter. She is a widow and falls in love with him. Her daughter does, too. There is also an English woman who falls in love with him.”

Without giving away too much, Pillay said the musical journeys through all aspects of Panzee’s life, until his demise: “In real life, in the end it was the police who killed him, but in play it’s the mob.”

Asked about his friendship with Masekela, Pillay said they’ve been good friends for some time: “Hugh and I almost grew up together. I was in a show called the African Jazz Variety Show, in those years the best talent in South African music performed on these platforms. We had about 70 people in the cast and each had promising futures. I was the star of show and that’s how I met Hugh and Miriam Makeba, Dolly Rathebe, Ben “Satch” Masinga and others.”

The show played to sold-out houses in the ’50s and is regarded as having had some of the best line-ups in South African music.

Pillay said acclaimed director Themi Venturas will direct the musical: “I’ve changed the dialogue into lyrics and Hugh is going to put music to that. Otherwise, the production on paper is finished. What we have to do now is to start holding auditions and work out where the play will open.

“Hugh and I will work this out and hopefully also do some concerts together. It’s been a long time since we’ve been on stage together. It would be nice,” said Pillay.

Masekela said the production is scheduled to premiere next year.