When Kwela Became Part of Zimbabwe’s Liberation War
Kwela or township jazz in South Africa was protest music but for two Bulawayo music groups, the music was a vehicle for the liberation of Zimbabwe.
The two groups, the Golden Rhythm Crooners and the Cool Four that were active in the early 50s emerged after the war as the Cool Crooners performing in most metropolises.
I had the opportunity of talking to Timothy Sikhane, the leader of the group in 2004 when the group was on a comeback trail.
This is his story:
“I was the first to embrace music soon after leaving Mzilikazi Government School where I met the late Abiathar Rusike, the father of the Rusike Brothers, who was a teacher and a musician whose band was called the Boogie Woogie Songsters around 1951. In the same group were Steve Gadlula, Pascal Sibanda, Peter Kurete and Phenias Tapona.
“When we left the Boogie Woogie Songsters, our next stop was Remington Muzambani’s outfit, the Merrymakers where we did not stay long when Steven came up with the idea of starting our own group in 1953.
“We were joined then by the late Ben Pula Pulani Gumbo and Sonny Mili. Then there was Steven, Phenias and me. We called the band the Golden Rhythm Crooners. Dorothy Masuka would come as guest artiste.
“We reached our climax in 1953 when we were invited to perform during the Rhodes Centenary Celebrations held in Bulawayo. The settlers were celebrating 100 years of colonising our country. The Manhattan Brothers, South Africa’s best musical group then, was also in the country. They had been invited by the late Professor Stanlake Samkange to fundraise for Nyatsime College. We ended up sharing the stage with them.
“After the Centenary Celebrations, the Golden Rhythm Crooners toured the country (Rhodesia) and ended up in the then Salisbury (Harare) where we shared the stage with the De Black Evening Follies.
“While in Salisbury, Dorothy and Steven stole the money we had saved and fled to South Africa leaving us stranded in the capital.
We had to stay with friends while looking for train-fare to Bulawayo.
“Fortunately, at the same time, the late Sonny Sondo who had split from the De Black Evening Follies formed his own group, the City Quads and invited me as a good bass guitarist.
“The other members among them Ben Pulane returned to Bulawayo where they formed the group, the Cool 4 together with Lucky Thodhlana, Mako Mapfumo and Never Nervada.
“In 1955, I teamed up with George Chagasa, Andrew Chakauya, Phenias Tapona, Willie Mhlanga and the late Simangaliso Tutani to revive the Golden Rhythm Crooners and recorded four songs – ‘Umama Uyakala’, ‘Jojina Wami’ and ‘Ubuhle Balintombi’ – with South African outfit Troubadour (that later became Gallo and now Gramma Records).
“We also recorded several songs with the then Southern Rhodesia Broadcasting Corporation.
A year later, we went to Congo via Zambia but the trip was a disaster when we had communication breakdown with the Congolese. They could not understand English and all our shows flopped.
“The hotelier had to hold on to our instruments when we failed to settle the bill. We had to approach the British Consul in that country for passes back home.
“Around that time, the war was just at its early stages. Zambia was accommodating black Rhodesians who went there as refuges. Those people needed food and so we played to fundraise for the support of the refuges. The news of our activities filtered through to the Rhodesian settler regime and we fled back into Zambia.
“In 1961, we met Dorothy and toured Malawi and then Tanzania where she introduced us to Joseph Nyerere, President Julius Nyerere’s young brother, who in turn took us to ZAPU offices where we were asked to stage shows and fundraise for money to buy food for the people.
“We also toured Uganda, Kenya and many other African countries in 1962. Eventually, Abel, George and I opted to train as guerillas. But George did not go to the front since he was playing with a Tanzania band.
“In 1969, I crossed into Rhodesia to recruit more youths and I was captured in the Zambezi area. I was sentenced to death but later the sentence was commuted to 18 years.
“I stayed in Chikurubi Central Prison in Salisbury before I was taken to Khami Prison where I stayed until independence. I was released after the Presidential Amnesty in 1981.
“I was given an option either to join the army or continue with my singing career. I turned down the army job and teamed up with some youngsters to form the Newton Sounds, and when I left, I joined the Black Merchants. In 1982, I secured a job with the Makasa Rainbow Hotel in Victoria Falls as a cabaret artist.
“In 1994, I went back to Bulawayo and started the process of rounding all those musicians I knew from my time.
Under the Bulawayo Music Revival programme, I managed to bring together Phineas, Eric Juba and Robert Chirenda but it was not until 1998 when the Cool Crooners were born with Abel, Lucky and Ben as the members.
“Our 14-track debut album came in 2001. It was called ‘Blue Sky’.”