Monday, July 6, 2020

Oh the music, the memories!

Those were the days of our lives and we thought they would never end. Now our Congolese  vocalist  Bizza Mupulu is  dead. Rumours of  his demise  gained currency Friday  afternoon, when  we were still eating Bot50,  slapping ourselves  on the back  and wondering just how did  this hot,  desolate  desert country  that no one  ever gave  a chance not only survived to tell the tale but also blossomed. Amidst the revelry I  got  a message  from a die hard enquiring on the  veracity  of  the rumours. With everyone  in the  country  on cloud  nine,  creative  rumours  were inevitable  and therefore   needed  some cross checking. So I  called the  only  man who  could  speak with  authority, the head honcho  of  Les Africa Sounds, a certain Alfred Mosimanegape affectionately known  as Alfredo Mos. He  confirmed  the shattering  news  indicating  he  had been informed that his  greatest  ever rapper, the one  around whom  the live  shows  of the band   were  pivoted  had succumbed  to  a sudden  ailment  in Malawi. Promptly  I  dispatched  a  message to  relevant all  and sundry that indeed   our  vocalist  had  departed  to  join the   big gig  in the  sky. Hence  the  reunion  tour, the  possibility  over which we had drooled  for over a decade  was  off because  without  Mupulu,  the original  Les Africa Sounds  would  not  be able to reproduce the  magic of  years past. They would  be  like one of those  tribute  bands  which  can play  exactly  like  the original  group but  can never lay  claim to authenticity. With the  money rolling in for modern day  prophets, I think I can  put up  a strong  case for prophesying. Something  happened   a fortnight  before  the  sad news.  We  had been  organising  a stag  party  for  a  brother  who  got married yesterday.   By  definition  an out of town event, and for  our  gang of  bundu  bashers,  a camping  experience,  there are certain  accoutrements  one takes  along, including  music. I  spent  days  compiling  my  selection because  clearly  this was going to be  the  ultimate farewell  shindig. On the  morning  of excursion,  at  a filling  station I happened on a  merry  young man  blasting  out  sounds  from  my memories  at full decibel. He  was  nicely oiled long before lunch  and in his Bot50  shirt was  evidently eating his celebrations a few weeks early.

After  a chat  and enquiring  where he  had  obtained  the  music because  he  was clearly too  young to have  frequented  the place of its origin,  he  gaily told me  his brother  had introduced  him to the sounds and  he was bowled  over ever since. Now buddies,  i confided   that my  cds   had been  liberated  from  my possession  over the years  and  could he   copy me  a bootleg edition. Acting like a little smart arse  he reminded me that copying was illegal. However  after  some  negotiations  and hours of trailing him around the city  I had three  copies;  in exchange he had  a  couple of hundreds for the weekend  as  I hit the  road   into the  bush. For the entire  weekend, and going into the  week   back in town  I was  playing Les Africa  Sounds incessantly. A fortnight later Mupulu  was gone. Is premonition a  real thing?  I  don’t know  but  I  have around thirty  friends who  can attest  to the weekend  in the bush where they were subjected  to  heavy rotation  of Les Africa Sounds in the pristine  air of  the wild west. Some of my mates recall  a  crazy  period  where  every Friday, Saturday  and Sunday for  months  on end  we would rock up  at Bodiba  Country Club  to  see   the band on stage.  On reflection  it  seems  improbable that  at times for  a period  of  three months on end, the same  faces  would  gather at  the same venue  to  see the same band  sporting the same  line up,  playing the same  songs  in the  same sequence. That  was the  magic  of  our  band  and we couldn’t get enough of them. In the Guardian  newspaper   this week  there is  a fine  account of  how Alfredo  came to  hook up  with Mupulu and how the union  changed  the  local  kwasa  kwasa  scene. In those   years, the early nineties to around mid new millenium  this  genre  of music simply blew its way past  the  attitudes  of  some sneering locals who considered  it  low end. In fact  at  varsity  I had a girlfriend who  was too embarrassed  to tell her fellow snobs I was taking her to a Pepe Kalle show  one weekend when the  big elephant   was in town. As we mourn the  loss of Mupulu, it is worth reconnecting   with  where it all started.

In my view Congolese  music is the African artistic  innovation  that surpasses anything  coming in from outside the continent   in terms of its universal appeal. The  music historian Graeme Ewans  in his  book Africa Oye traces  the  genesis  of  the various strands  of what we loosely call rhumba  to the end of  World War II  when the veterans  returned  home and  more  people  left the  villages for   the urban areas  in search  of better livelihoods. Most of the drift was in the direction of Kinshasa  then known by its Belgian colonial name,  Leopoldville, with its  reputation   as ‘ a town of joy”. The historian records that  in a country of many ethnic groups, the lingua franca in this  vast territory was Lingala, a trading  language  used along the River Congo. Thus Lingala  became the  language of  vocal expression  for all Congolese singers  because  of what  is described  as its tonal quality  that gives a rhythmic and   poetic expression of any emotion. So much so that Lingala is said to sing itself. But by the eighties, the Latin influenced rhumba sound which  was characterised by  elaborate vocals, horn section and multi layered rhythm instruments  paved way  to a new style that eschewed  the wind instruments, quickened the pace  and introduced  animation or rapping. This was known as kwasa kwasa or ndombolo and  it lit  a wildfire across sub Saharan Africa. In this  country the pioneer  of the genre was  Alfred Mosimanegape who was tutored by Lawi Somana, a Congolese  who played Gaborone Sun  as a resident  crooner. That was also  the  time of Lubumbashi Stars, a dazzling all  male ensemble  that had arrived to thrill new converts to   this intoxicating  music. In this mix Alfredo  recalls  how after the death of Lawi he  formed Les Africa Sounds. It was in 1995 when he  met Mupulu, then  singing  for a group called Super Power at the same time his group  was  playing  various  dingy  clubs  around Mogoditshane patronised by a loyal audience of macho soldiers and their chicks.  The refugee  from Dukwi  camp had arrived in Gaborone as an electrician  for  a company doing work  at Princess Marina Hospital and did music in his spare time. Alfredo recalls  that Mupulu  then left Super Power  and contributed, albeit moderately on  the 1997 debut album Botshelo,  the first kwasa kwasa album set to seTswana lyrics. It was the  following year  1998 with  the  release of Mothoalbum   that   his star  rose. Dominating the  recording and complemented by guitarist and  band master Alfredo, Mupulu was in fine mettle. In fact many  diehards  consider   it by far the best   work  by  the band. Around the year  2000 when some of us started  frequenting Bodiba Country Club, many were the die hards who  had been  watching the group  for years before  even before the arrival  of Mupulu. In a chat  this week, one of them Molatedi Ramogwana  reminisced  how this was the  most talented  bunch  of musicians  he had  ever  seen. Next to  Alfredo and Mupulu, there was Paki Molotsi  on bass, Thabo Motsumi on rhythm, Tumelo Mafoko on keyboards, Suzuki Tembo on drums  and the animateurs  Yombe Chisulu and Charlie Musonda.

As we  speak  he  tells   me  about his friendship  with both Alfredo and the rest  of the  band. He describes  how fastidious  Mupulu was about his appearance.  For every performance he  would  be at his dandiest  best. What Molatedi is unwittingly  referring to  in Mupulu’s fashion sense  is a nod to the Sapeur  cult, or the Society  of Cool and Elegant  People which cherishes  designer labels  and  ostentatious dressing. No matter how poor you are,  as a gentleman  you must dress well  and  carry  yourself  with  class  goes the Sapeur  doctrine which can be traced to the two Congos straddling  the eponymous  river. Showcased in the documentary film Sunday in Brazzaville on  Al Jazeera last  year, the Sapeurs reveal  one of the many complexities of  this central part of the continent.  Anyway at  the end of our chat Molatedi  gives a heavy  sigh over the  phone  like  a man  left bereft, as indeed  he  is since Friday on independence day  when he  heard about  the death  of Mupulu.  Although at his most imperious  in  the album Motho, live on stage  the vocalist cum rapper even  more  hypnotising. Self taught,  there was none of  the  sultry   elegance  of Congolese  singing about  his style. His  was a barnstorming delivery in Lingala  interspersed with seTswana  as expressed  in Congolese  which is  best  heard on that recording. Here Mupulu croons, wails, scream and at  times  sounds  like a vampire  straining  at  the leash. What  drove  hundreds  of us  every  weekend  to hear him raw and uncut was this style  of singing and rapping. Behind him gyrating  in choreographic  formation  would be the trio of female  dancers Didimalang Chaa, Keneilwe Kgaswane and Keneilwe Tshupoetsile.  During the premonition after the  bachelor  party, I sent  our  whatsapp group  a message declaring that   next  to my  other favourite destructive vocal force, one  Mick Jagger  of The Rolling Stones, I considered  Mupulu the  best frontman  in  the entire universe  of music. We   will  forever wax nostalgic  about Mupulu  and his magnetic stage presence including  gimmicks such as his  whistle  with which he  whipped  audiences into a frenzy. Ultimately  when we reflect  on the life and times of Mupulu  it all comes down  to  a simple proposition. Here was  an entertainer of immense  talent who in his lifetime enjoyed  what  he did for fans who reciprocated with great love  and affection. This  is the compact  of the artist  and his audience. And  invariably  it ends  in tears  but with  memories treasured  for ever. And so it is with Bizza Mupulu.


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