Monday 19 September 2011

Cool Crooners 60 years later

I was 19 at the time (in 1953) and I kept our money in the pocket of my jacket. We had raised about £75 from the shows. Dorothy (Masuku) and Steven stole the money one day and they fled to South Africa leaving us stranded in the capital - Timothy Sekane on when Dorothy ran away to SA

I met the grand old men of township jazz, the Cool Crooners, in 2004 at the Monomotapa Hotel. They were in Harare for the International Jazz Festival.
I was struck by their humility and openness despite the newly-found fame they were enjoying. At the time, Ben Pula Pulani who was an instrumental member had just passed away.
They were booked on the sixth floor where I met Abel Sithole and Timothy Sekane. In about two hours, the two took me back to the 50s when they were growing up in Bulawayo; their participation in the war of liberation and the great musical comeback.

Here is their story and that of township jazz:
The word conviction on its own has a deep meaning. But when it is used to describe the Bulawayo-based and internationally renowned marabi outfit, the Cool Crooners the word assumes a deeper meaning.
So do not be fooled by those well-rehearsed steps and that calculated swing and well timed foot tapping for some members of the Cool Crooners used their musical talents to raise money to assist the liberation struggle way back in the 60s.
In fact, some of them eventually underwent military training, crossed into the then Rhodesia where one of them was captured, tried and sentenced to hang before the commutation of the sentence to 18 years. The other one managed to escape into Zambia after the raid where he stayed until 12 years into independence.
Despite all this when they talk about that past; they always do so with smiles on their aging faces. They are so full of optimism.
It turned out that Timothy was the first to embrace music soon after leaving Mzilikazi Government School where he had met the late Abiathar Rusike, the father of the Rusike Brothers, who was a teacher and a musician whose band was called the Boogie Woogie Songsters around 1951.
With Timothy in the same group were Steve Gadlula, Pascal Sibanda, Peter Kurete and Phenias Tapona.
When they abandoned the Boogie Woogie Songsters, their next stop was Remington Muzambani’s outfit, the Merrymakers where they did not stay long.
‘Steven came up with the idea of starting our own group,’ recalled the soft spoken and shy Timothy who is Abel’s cousin. ‘That was in 1953 and we agreed. We were joined then by the late Ben Pula Pulani Gumbo and Sonny Mili. Then there was Steven, Phenias and me. We called the band the Golden Rhythm Crooners,’ he said.
Dorothy Masuka, another veteran musician used to appear as guest artist for the Golden Rhythm Crooners during those days when they would perform at festivals and parties.
‘We reached our climax in 1953 when we were invited to perform during the Rhodes Centenary Celebrations held in Bulawayo. The settlers were celebrating a hundred years of colonising our country.
‘The Manhattan Brothers, South Africa’s best musical group then was also in the country. They had been invited by the late Professor Stanlake Samkange to fund raise for Nyatsime College. We ended up sharing the stage with them,’ explained Timothy adding that their performance was superb.
After the Centenary Celebrations, the Golden Rhythm Crooners toured the country and ended up in the then Salisbury where they shared the stage with Salisbury based groups amongst which was the De Black Evening Follies. The late Safirio Mukadota Madzikatire was there singing as a maskandi (solo guitarist). His favourite song was Ndatemwa Negogo.
‘I was 19 at the time and I kept our money in the pocket of my jacket. We had raised about £75 from the shows. Dorothy and Steven stole the money one day and they fled to South Africa leaving us stranded in the capital,’ laughed Timothy as he relived the shock of that moment. ‘When Ben came and heard about the theft, he accused me of complicity and we fought over it,’ and again that soft mirthless laughter came.
They then found friends with whom they stayed while looking for train fare back to Bulawayo. Fortunately, at the same time, the late Sonny Sondo had split from the De Black Evening Follies and formed his own group, the City Quads. Knowing Timothy as a good bass guitarist, he invited him to join them.
‘I played with the City Quads in Salisbury and was paid £5. During those days, train fare to Bulawayo was ten shillings per person. So I managed to send others to Bulawayo while I stayed behind playing with the City Quads,’ explained Timothy who later met the late singer Faith Dauti whom he married and has two children.
After the group’s Umtali (Mutare) tour, Timothy left and went to join others in Bulawayo to settle debts the band had incurred. He then returned to Salisbury and secured employment.
Meanwhile, Ben had formed his own group, the Cool Four, when he returned from Salisbury. With him in the group were Lucky Thodhlana, Mako Mapfumo and Never Nervada. A freelance pianist, Peter Jaffa coined the name Cool Four.
In 1955, Abel who had finished school teamed up with George Matondo, a goalkeeper from Umtali and Champion Banda and revived the band the Golden Rhythm Crooners. Later, George Chagasa, Andrew Chakauya, Phenias Tapona, Willie Mhlanga and the late Simangaliso Tutani joined the band. Once again the group became a hit.
‘We managed to record four songs with a South African outfit Troubadour (that later became Gallo and now Gramma),’ said Abel who took over the narration. ‘These were Umama Uyakala, Jojina Wami, Ubushe Balintombi and one other. We also recorded several songs with the then Southern Rhodesia Broadcasting Corporation.’
Later in 1955, Timothy returned to Bulawayo as a solo artist who would sometimes join the Golden Rhythm Crooners on stage.
A year later, they initiated a tour to Congo where they intended to play. In order to reach Congo, they had to acquire passes and go through Zambia. The trip was, however, a disaster.
‘We had communication breakdown with the Congolese. They could not understand English and all our shows flopped. Steven, who had a Zambian girlfriend, deserted us after receiving money from her,’ smiled Timothy.
‘The hotelier had to hold on to our instruments when we failed to settle the bill. We had to approach the British Consul in that country that gave us passes to travel back home,’ put in Abel.
However, they did not travel back to Bulawayo but stopped over in Zambia where they were engaged to promote Bata Shoes. They managed to raise enough to enable them to pay the hotel bill in Congo and collect their instruments.
Around that time, the war was just at its early stages. Zambia was accommodating black Rhodesians who went there as refuges. Those people needed food and so the group played to fundraise for the support of the refuges. The news of their activities filtered through to the settler regime and they had to flee back into Zambia.
‘We left in 1961 and went to Malawi where Dorothy was playing. But when we arrived in Malawi we were told that she had gone to Tanganyika (Tanzania today). We finally met her in Dar es Salaam.
‘She introduced us to Joseph Nyerere, President Julius Nyerere’s young brother who in turn took us to ZAPU offices where we were asked to stage shows and fundraise for money to buy food for the people,’ said Timothy who added that their first performance was at State House before the late President Nyerere and ZAPU leader the late Joshua Nkomo.
After the State House show, they toured Uganda, Kenya and many other African countries in 1962. Eventually, Abel, Timothy and George opted to train as guerillas. But George did not go to the front since he was playing with a Tanzania band.
Abel was part of the recruitment arm of the struggle and was also involved in fund raising activities.
‘In 1969 I crossed into Rhodesia to recruit more youths and I was captured in Dande area. I was sentenced to die but later the sentence was commuted to 18 years.
‘I stayed in Chikurubi Central Prison during the first days before I was taken to Khami Prison where I stayed until independence. I was released after the Presidential Amnesty,’ he explained.
After his release, he was asked to choose what he wanted to do and he opted to continue singing.
‘I turned down an army job for music. Teaming up with some youngsters, we formed a group, the Newton Sounds, and when I left, I joined the Black Merchants. In 1982, I secured a job with the Makasa Rainbow Hotel in Victoria Falls as a cabaret artist,’ said the affable Abel who leads the band today.
In 1994, he went back to Bulawayo and started the process of rounding all those musicians he knew from their time. Under the Bulawayo Music Revival programme, Abel managed to bring together an old timer Phineas Tapona and two others who had grown up in the same suburbs but had never been part of the Golden Rhythm Crooners – Eric Juba and Robert Chirenda.
Timothy was in Zambia after surviving a bombing in Dete where he had been deployed. He did not return even after independence until his eldest son went to collect him. When he returned in 1992, he went into farming and never bothered to revive his musical career. Several attempts to lure him failed.
George became the late Ndabaningi Sithole’s bodyguard. He even stayed with him in exile in the USA. He is now late.
Ben had also gathered some former members of the Cool Four under the Bulawayo Music Revival programme. But these efforts came to naught when some of the musicians demanded payment soon after their first show.
‘I continued trying to bring together some of the people so that we could form one strong group,’ said Abel who had to write a letter to Lucky who in turn briefed Ben about the idea.
Finally in 1998, the old boys got together and the Cool Crooners were born with Abel, Lucky and Ben as the members.
On three occasions they visited Harare to participate in the Winter Jazz Festival. And on one of these, Jackie Cahi of Pangolin Pictures was doing a documentary on Zimbabwe and she fell in love with the graceful old man whose music was steeped in the golden 50s era. She ended up doing a documentary on them and even became their manageress.
‘We called in Eric when we toured overseas countries,’ said Abel.
Their first album, the 14 track Blue Sky was recorded in 2001. According to Abel, Blue Sky is a jail in Pretoria, South Africa that has high walls and when one is inside, they can only see the blue sky.
In 2002, Ben’s health deteriorated such that he could not perform with the group. Timothy was at last convinced to leave his plot and follow the bright lights of the world’s metropolitans wowing the people with that graceful swing which accompany their marabi type of jazz.
Such was their conviction.

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