Why rumba failed to make it into SA
The only country in southern Africa where rumba music failed to penetrate was South Africa.
This is not difficult to understand because South Africa had its own music derived from the struggle against apartheid that was ongoing during those days.
When Congolese rumba musicians were setting up bases in Zambia, Tanzania, Kenya, Uganda and the then Rhodesia, South Africans were playing kwela music, which spoke eloquently about their situation.
Rumba is mostly romantic music except for a few artists like Sam Mangwana in his song ‘Canta Mocambique’ that speaks about the people’s struggles.
But kwela was also romantic – that bitter-sweet romance of a people who have come to terms with their surroundings and circumstances.
Maybe, the other reason why rumba never made it into South Africa was because of its sophisticated nature in terms of the required instruments, which during apartheid, could not be easily hidden or carried around because black music was also under threat from the system.
In the case of kwela, a musician needed a simple pennywhistle, which could also be stuffed inside a jacket if and when apartheid police raided shebeens or came round a corner on patrol.
It was largely because of this simple nature and manageability of a simple instrument at the centre of kwela music, which left no room for rumba in South Africa.
Kwela is a word in both Nyanza and Zulu. The word means climb in both languages.
It’s believed that kwela music – the pennywhistle that is – found its way to South Africa via Malawian immigrants who sought jobs at the mines in Johannesburg.
While it’s not clear how Malawians coined the name, it’s known that South Africans coined the word as a warning call to gamblers for imminent police raids.
Because kwela is the kind of music that can be played by one man, enterprising South Africans would stand by the roadside as a sentinel while others are drinking in a shebeen or gambling. He would divert attention from the other activity.
In case, a raid was launched, then he would call out kwela kwela meaning the police trucks were coming.
There is yet another reason why rumba failed to make it into South Africa in the 50s and 60s. This was because South Africa had had exposure to the United States and, as such, jazz brought so much influence.
Even today, much of South African music is soft. Even kwela in denouncing apartheid, it remained soft. There is no doubt that South Africa is the home of afro or township jazz, which they call marabi.
The same can be said about Zimbabwe’s second largest city, Bulawayo that is linked to South Africa by virtue of the fact that the Ndebele ancestor migrated from down south to settle in Matabeleland.
Bulawayo never real appreciated rumba music because of the South Africa jazzy influences. In any case, South African music competed with rumba in Zimbabwe.
Simanjemanje, for example, found favourable reception in Zimbabwe through Zexie Manatsa, one of the 70s great musicians.
South African groups too would come to perform in Zimbabwe then thereby sharing the support of fans.
One can easily conclude that the situation has not changed in South Africa today regarding rumba music because very few rumba musicians have made it big there.
This can be why Zimbabwean artist, Oliver Mtukudzi, has managed to make a big break in South Africa ahead of any other rumba artist.
In many ways than one, Mtukudzi’s music captures some South African elements and this, apart from the fact that he uses his language, Shona, still made him win over South Africa.
Maybe more telling is the fact South African music just like rumba, also has an international appeal to it. This could explain why notable international musicians have done versions of some songs while none has done the same for rumba.
Even during the apartheid era, kwela music could draw from across the colour barriers, especially during the late Spokes Mashiyane’s performances.
The World newspaper of August 30, 1958, carried a story of how during one of Mashiyane’s performance at Zoo Lake, white and Indian youths who were supposed to keep to their demarcated areas of the dance floor, moved into the blacks area.
“… the Africans had pleaded with them (the white fans) not to come dancing in the African section of the grounds as this would cause trouble with the authorities, the white teenagers left voluntarily,” the paper said.
Even today, South African musicians are well known across Africa, as compared to rumba artists. Take the late Brenda Fassie, for example. She was a real African musicians whose death touched all and sundry.