Wednesday, October 27, 2021

The late Soares Katumbela pioneered Sunday jazz

Up until a fateful day in 1979, Botswana didn’t have a regular and structured Sunday jazz experience. Seven years earlier, diamond mining had started in Orapa and among the first crop of employees were five young men (Soares Katumbela, Ephraim Mothapo, Boiki Sebubi, Tebogo Makgale and Lukie Sesinyi) who were crazy about jazz. They formed what may well have been Botswana’s first jazz club, the Orapa Jazz Club, and would meet every Saturday to sample jazz tunes.

The name that stands out on that list is the first. The first name is Portuguese and is pronounced something like “So-a-res.” However, in an English-speaking country, it became “Source” and tiring of correcting the mispronunciation, Katumbela gave up. At this time that the Orapa club was formed, he worked for Debswana Diamond Company as an auto-mechanist.

Three years later, Katumbela resurfaced in Francistown and repeated his Orapa feat by co-founding the Francistown Jazz Club and becoming secretary of its first committee. It was at this point that the earliest manifestation of present-day Sunday jazz came into being. Both members and paying non-members met at the now defunct New Yorker Nightclub on Sundays. Around this time, South Africa was under the yoke of apartheid and Francistown had a sizeable jazz-loving refugee population who were members of this club.

“These were the only jazz sessions in Botswana. Some of the people visiting Francistown from Gaborone would stay up late at these sessions and return on Monday morning. Occasionally, we would also host a jazz band from Bulawayo,” Katumbela told Sunday Standard in a 2013 interview, mentioning Paul Lunga, Jazz Merchants, Jazz Impacto and Akwaba among Zimbabwean acts that would visit.

Hugh Masekela, Jonas Gwangwa and Afro Sunshine would also drop by to play gigs. For new acts like Makgadikgadi (made up of Kenny Ndaba and Cynthia Gaetsewe), the New Yorker jazz shows provided an opportunity to bloom as artists. Still maintaining links with Orapa, Katumbela would take some of these bands there. It so happened that the owner of New Yorker also owned another nightclub in Selebi Phikwe called “Talk of the Town.” Through this connection, the Francistown Jazz Club took its sounds beyond Ghetto to the copper mining town.

However, New Yorker would close down in 1989 and three years later, Katumbela opened Ritzma Sounds Beer Garden in a Francistown area called Kgaphamadi. In 1996, he relocated down south and through Buddies, introduced Gaborone to Sunday jazz. This is when the Sunday jazz craze really caught on and two years later, Katumbela opened Take 5 Nightclub, Botswana’s first – and to date, only nightclub that strictly played jazz every night.

“The club got very busy the second week of its opening,” he recalled.

However, three months later, the landlord and the tenant parted ways due to irreconcilable differences.

At the time of the interview, Katumbela had formed the opinion that “Sunday jazz has sort of died.” Exhibit 1: a majority of its patrons didn’t really appreciate the genre but were just pining for the putative status associated with its followers. Exhibit 2: the early Sunday jazz fans – the ones that truly love the music – no longer go out because of familial and professional commitments. “Some of them are now CEOs and managers,” Katumbela said. Exhibit 3: the deejays play the same music over and over again, week in, week out, and some of that music is not even jazz.

That notwithstanding, Katumbela expressed some satisfaction that real Sunday jazz helped launch the careers of jazz musicians and deejays and also helped re-popularise live bands.

Tragically, the man who gave Botswana a leisure activity that is now enjoyed from Ramokgwebana to Ramatlabama is no more. He was found dead in Tlokweng last Thursday in apparent suicide. A music promoter at the time of his death, Katumbela was one-third of a local collaboration that brought United States jazz maestros David Sanborn and Joe Sample to Botswana in 2012. He also managed local jazz musicians, Shanti Lo and Nnunu Ramogotsi and operated a music shop at Molapo Crossing shopping mall in Gaborone.

RELATED STORIES

Read this week's paper