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.