Over 50 years ago the world swayed to a different kind of beat. Blues and jazz were the new kids on the music block. Their sounds and rhythms were an original blend of African and western fusion, a musical pot-pourri of a number of different influences. It was an era of immaculately dressed men and glamorous women; of songs whose beats and melodies remain just as popular today as they were half a century ago.
As school children Abel Sithole, Ben ‘Pula Pulani’ Gumbo and Lucky Thodhlana were part of the jazz generation. For over 50 years these three amazing gentlemen of delicately advancing years have sung and danced to the music of such legends as Ella Fitzgerald and Duke Ellington. I had the honour to meet these fascinating men at the inaugural Africa Day Music Festival hosted by Harare’s Book Cafe and the Mannenberg Jazz Club.
The aim of the festival was to bring together music and dance in order to highlight innovative and contemporary African sounds and the continent’s vast contribution to jazz, blues and soul. And boy did it do that!
Not only were our very own Cool Crooners, Paul Lunga, Dorothy Masuku and Luck Street Blues there, but also our regional neighbours who were represented by Amayenga from Zambia and Kapadesh 10 from Mozambique. The open-air festival brought together people from all walks of life whose common goal was the love and appreciation of good music. ls there any better way to spend a sunny afternoon than with good friends, a braai, cold drinks and great music?
As the afternoon heat started to dissipate I spotted a white-headed man slowly meandering through the crowds. At 70 years of age Ben is the oldest member of the Cool Crooners and has that distinctive air about him that men of experience and knowledge naturally elude. With the help of the effervescent Jackie Cari, the Crooners new manager, we eventually managed to find the other two. Unfortunately the fourth Cool Crooner, baritone Eric Juba, wasn’t able to attend the performance.
Jackie has been managing the Crooners since October last year when their-previous temporary manager left. They have great respect and admiration for her and she has undoubtedly done wonders for their musical career. They have just signed a three CD recording contract with Sony, which will see them touring France in the near future. The Crooners met Jackie through the Pangolin Film Company of which she is a director. But it was the company’s other director, Patrick Meunier, who decided to make a film about them. Unfortunately, nine months down the track ZBC still hasn’t made a commitment about when it will screen it.
We found ourselves a relatively quiet corner in the Book Café and I had the opportunity to learn a bit more about these extraordinary men. Although their cumulative singing careers have spanned 150 years, there is absolutely nothing presumptuous or arrogant about them. They are unassuming, friendly and amusing and they welcomed me into their intimate circle as if they had known me forever. I felt like l had visited a close friend and was spending a delightful afternoon listening to their grandparents telling humorous and poignant stories.
The three men are all over the age of 60 and have known each other since their school days. Back then the Golden Rhythm Crooners, as they were then known, were ‘The band’ around town.
“You see when we were still at school, we used to admire the Crooners, and when we finished we wanted to join them,” said 60 year old Abel. “The Crooners were like the Highlanders football team. They were the Highlanders of music.”
By all accounts there were many people in the Golden Rhythm Crooners over the years and it could all get a bit confusing. “Yes yes, there were lots of us. We were all crooners,” says 60-year old Lucky. The boys then start trying to get clear in their own and each other‘s minds the names of their friends, past and present, who may, or may not have sung with the Crooners. Soon they start chatting and reminiscing in Shona about by gone times. Occasionally they howl with laughter slapping one another in the process and other times they sit quietly, perhaps having brought up nostalgic memories of some distant friend.
I got the impression that concert days were more about getting together with your mates and having a good time than anything very serious. The Zimbabwean jazz world is a small fraternity of friends. As we sit chatting, musicians of various ages pass by and say hello. All are greeted with mutual respect and jubilation, for many either have, or would love to, appear on stage with these old and accomplished performers.
The Crooner’s backing bands vary depending on their venue and what else happens to be going on in the country at the time. When they thrilled last year’s HlFA audience they were supported by Sam Mataure and the Summer Breeze Band. Filbert Marove passes by and sits down to join us for a chat. He plays keyboard on the forthcoming CD and will accompany the band tonight. A couple of the Crooners’ other musicians are currently playing on stage with the brilliant Bulawayo trumpeter, Paul Lunga. There are a few other band members missing in action although no-one seems to be too perturbed about it. As the old saying goes ‘The show must go on’.
When l ask if they have ever recorded an album before it appears that some of them have – way back in 1948. They also did a fair bit of travelling in their youth. They visited the Congo in 1961 and Algeria in 1969 and they’ve also sung in Zanzibar, Tanzania, Uganda, South African and Botswana. However they had never made it out of the Africa until October last year when they undertook a tour of France to promote their CD, due out in Zimbabwe this month.
The band gave 11 concerts throughout France, starting with a live performance from a stage in the centre of the Virgin Megastore on the famous Champs Elysses. Accompanied by champagne and cake, it was a fitting launch for the tour which would take them to venues across the European country, including Brest where they played to a sold-out audience in the 1500-seat auditorium.
The tour, in fact, was so successful that a second CD is in the pipeline. Due to be recorded later this year, it will be followed by a 2002 tour to South Africa, France and hopefully a number of other European countries.
With such a long-spanning and varied career, what are their views on success? “Someone once said to me” muses Abel, “Don’t worry, one day you’ll succeed.” Well it looks like they weren’t wrong. There can’t be many people who record their second ever CD in their 60s.
Abel and l sit chatting about his favourite songs. He loves those from the big band era but doesn’t mind a bit of Michael Bolton either. He gives me a personal rendition of “Georgia on My Mind” with some Crooner specialities thrown in. Meanwhile on the opposite side of the table Ben is quietly bobbing away to “Sitting on the Dock of the Bay.” Lucky has disappeared to watch the world go by on the street: “That’s how you get ideas for songs,” he tells me later.
I leave them to gossip and get ready for their set for which they are slightly late because they insist on polishing their shoes until they practically radiate, while chatting away with Paul Lunga. Wearing their trademark white suits, black shirts and cream ties – which they have been wearing since the 50s – they are instantly transformed into the epitome of ‘dapper’ gentlemen.
Then, as if someone has waved a magic wand, these dear ageing gentlemen turn into young, sprightly boys. Gone are the slow movements and seemingly bungling thought patterns, for this is when the fun starts. Skipping onto stage they start their set, as they always do, with the lively Swahili love song “I Van Enkuku.”
Apparently they started with other songs a couple of times but it didn’t work. “Well a lot of people have taken it as our trademark and have encouraged us to keep it,” explains Abel. We changed it some time back and people said, ‘No, we can’t have you changing things now.”’
As the set progresses so does their athletic prowess. They thrill the audience with press ups and 50s dance routines. “Ben’s definitely got dancer’s legs,“ Jackie had said earlier. “I’m sure he thinks he was Fred Astaire in his younger days.” How they manage to be so active and still sing beautiful harmonies is beyond me. The Cool Crooner’s energy is overwhelming, as is their obvious love of music.
So how much longer will they sing for? They smile, and look at each other and Abel answers the question for all of them. “Forever, or until the grave. Whichever comes first,” and then they all collapse into loud laughter.