Monday, August 15, 2022

Michael ‘Malombo’ Mmereki beat humble roots to become a great artist

Seldom does it happen that the writer is moved to a story not by the immensity of the event, but rather, by the largeness of Michael ‘Malombo’ Mmereki’s impact on people around him.

I am moved to comment on Malombo’s life, or rather, the little I know of it, not by force of journalistic habit, but because I have seen only a few men grow from humble beginnings to lift themselves above others who had a far more plentiful upbringing.

Malombo was among the first crop of soccerites groomed by Ray Molomo at the newly founded Black Peril on the Gaborone Secondary School grounds when I returned from the United States in 1972.

Some played barefoot and preferred it so. Molomo sought to erase the glaring class bias reflected in the equipment that the boys from the more privileged New England brought to the pitch, in contrast to their team mates from the low income neighbourhoods of Bontleng and White city.
He bought out of his pocket, a football kit that included football boots, so that all who qualified to play entered the field looking like one, uniform Black Peril.

Malombo rarely qualified to play for the first team, and probably never cared to wear the team boots. He was nevertheless as committed to daily practice as were Wrong Button, Chippa, Tai-Tai, Levy, and Michael ‘Msomi’ Gaborone, the captain, assisted by ‘Ten-Ten’. I attended and was given the baptismal name ‘Negro’ before I graduated to “Senzeni’, the name awarded me by Msomi who often travelled with Ray Molomo to Johannesburg to watch the Pirates and Kaizer Chiefs derbies.
I suspect that Mmereki took his name for Jan ‘Malombo’ Lichaba, the indefatigable Pirates midfielder.

It is also possible that he took that name from the South African trio of Dr Phillip Tabane, flautist, Abe Cindi and drummer, Julian Bahula.

It was little lonely walking back home to 2512, Kgabo Close when the rest of Black Peril walked in the direction of White House Inn to get the evenings ‘magwinya’, on their way across the ‘Zeerust Road’ to ‘kasie’ where Malombo lived.

Often, I found Malombo in deep conversation with the late Livingstone ‘Dollar Brand’ Paledi’. He was from Lentsweletau and Malombo from Mmathethe. They spoke as if they were brothers. But they also discussed studying instruments; Dollar under the late Scarers bassist, Elvis and Malombo …I could not tell.

Malombo was industrious. He free-lanced as a door keeper at Capitol Cinema at the central shopping mall in addition to practicing with the Scarers at Joe Manguba’s residence right in the belly of Bontleng.

Even as a lost touch with Black Peril and Gaborone when I worked for Peace Corps often in Molepolole, Kanye, Serowe and other villages, I sensed that Molombo was making great progress as an apprentice singer with the Scarers.

He and Callie Sebolao soon emerged as the lead singers with Imagine, a group he formed with the assistance of pioneer musical promoter, Gale Letsatle.

Letsatle returned from Britain where he studied accounting to find The Scarers engulfed in squabbles and financial disarray. Gale passed on what little remained of the Scarers equipment to Malombo and Imagine. They were to remain friends until Letsatle died about three years ago.
Malombo had finally found a place for his latent talents and he pursued his work with the verve and vigour that he displayed at the football ground where did not really belong.

He sang with Nonnie Pilane, Tsilo Baitsile and made friends with South African singers Coyote, Babsie Mlangeni, Kori Moraba, Blondie Makhema and countless others.

At Tsholofelo Giddie’s funeral in Mahalapye, it was evident that he and Louis Mhlanga were the closest of buddies. Mlhanga and Jimmy Dludlu spent part of the youth in Botswana and shared hours and hours of musical time with the general of Malombo and Whyte Kgopo, a qualified brick layer who followed his musical talent and assembled a band called Impressions were Phadi Solomon played organ.
Most bands practiced by listening to records or recording songs off the radio. It was probably on that account the late Ricky Molefe found some amusement in Malombo’s pronunciation of the James Brown classic “I’m Black and I’m Proud”. Ricky claimed that Malombo sang: “I’m Black and I’m Brown”. So what!

Malombo sang everything from James Brown, Wilson Picket to some of the African ballades such as ‘Rosy My Girl’ and Babsie’s ‘Swabisa Satane’. He was equally confortable in the Mbaqanga based songs made popular by the Dark City Sisters and the Mahotella Queens.

Malombo, Socca Moruakgomo and others joined their lifetime buddy, Tsilo Baitsile, himself a vocalist of repute, to join the Botswana Defence Force when it proved evident that it was becoming impossible to make a decent livelihood out of music in the ‘civilian’ arena.

Tsilo progressed to become band master and the BDF flourished with three or four popular music bands in the various camps.

Malombo went to study in the United States where he did well as a vocalist also acquiring some skills as a saxophone player. His stature permitted him to organise and manage the annual BDF national tours that raise money for charitable organisations. One that he managed was done in cooperation with the Red Cross.

Malombo, with Tsilo ÔÇô I suspect Bonjo Keipidile was there ÔÇô pioneered the establishment of a musicians union in Mahalapye at the instigation of Gale Letsatle. Letsatle told me: “There was no way we were going to record unless we properly understood that our copyright would be granted because then the radio station paid nothing for playing peoples records on the air”.

It was on account of Malombo’s persistence that I attended some of the meetings of BOMU. I told him that BOMU was only an association ÔÇô a hodgepodge of divergent interest groups and individuals ÔÇô that defeated the spirit of the union that was envisaged by the Botswana Association of Musicians.
He insisted that it was better to go and listed rather than to reject the efforts that were being made. He was a peacemaker. I am certain that Malombo learnt his lesson. His spirit also taught me a deeper lesson in reconciliation.

The funeral date has yet to be decided. Check The Telegraph for more information.

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