Then and now, life and the lyrics

David Mungoshi Shelling the Nuts
Nathan Dambuza Mdledle of South Africa’s Manhattan Brothers was a larger than life character, suave and very much the man about town.

There is a sense in which he and his colleagues in the Manhattan Brothers were South Africa’s first black super stars and role models, setting the pace for township life in more than one way, and with music and fashion very much in the fore.

Besides being lead singer with the Manhattan Brothers, Mdledle was also the group’s spokesman.

His charming manner, good looks and distinctive baritone stood him in very good stead. His baritone was most spectacularly on show in the group’s mega-hit “Oshabalala” in the mid-60s.

To an extent, groaners like Boston Tar Baby, Mahlathini, Saul Shabalala and others, took their cue from Mdledle.

Of all the collaborations between The Manhattan Brothers and Miriam Makeba, easily the most memorable is the song “La Kutshon’ilanga” (At Sunset) where Miriam’s uplifting voice is well-complemented by the harmonies of brothers.

The song evokes images of a red sun sinking into the waters of the horizon far across the sea as well as the sound of a lonely wife calling to her man to bring the cows home before the sun sets.

Mdledle’s recitation and improvisation with Miriam’s melodious voice in the background is art elevated.

“La Kutshon’ilanga” was a cover version of the popular “Lovely Lies”.

The Manhattan Brothers and Miriam Makeba also recorded “Lovely Lies” in London. And Mdledle’s rendition of the lines “You tell such lovely lies/With your two lovely eyes/When I leave your embrace/Another takes my place” is bewitching, as is his “The devil is a woman/So enticing and oh so beguiling/The devil is a woman/Who hurts you while she’s smiling”.

In “Lovely Lies,” the Manhattan Brothers tug at the listener’s heartstrings with a finesse that is sweet in a rather pensive way.

The tight, mellifluous singing does a lot of justice to the song.

While the influence of the trend-setting Mills Brothers is discernible, Mdledle and his mates gave the song a diction that is all their own and a freshness that can only be African. Mdledle found fame in the United Kingdom as part of the cast of “King Kong, a musical composed by Mona Glasser in 1960. He was the star, playing the role of heavyweight boxer and township thug, Ezekiel Dlamini.

Dlamini was nicknamed “King Kong” because of his size and strength and had a dramatic life that ended tragically.

As with his fictional namesake, a woman was involved. In real life, Dlamini killed the woman he was in a relationship with and was arrested, tried and convicted and subsequently imprisoned.

Not too long afterwards, his body was found in a dam at the prison. Those who knew him said he had killed himself and that it was not a drowning.

Dlamini lived at a time when many young black South Africans (male and female) anchored their lives on a credo that exhorted them to “Live fast, die young and have a good-looking corpse.”

Those were heady times, quite akin to the Wild West. What with the coteries of gangsters, jazzmen, beauty queens, folk heroes and the many illegal dagga dens where people smoked weed.  Mdledle played the role of King Kong to perfection and endeared himself to audiences around the world.

He was to later star in at least three movies: “Mandela” (1987), “Options” (1989) and “The Kitchen Toto” (1987).

All in all, despite the scandal of the non-payment of royalties, the Manhattan Brothers did very well, recording well over 150 titles for Gallo in the 1950s and going on tour around Southern Africa.

Their international career saw the Manhattan Brothers travelling to many countries all over the world.

In the “Blue Skies” album, Zimbabwe’s Cool Crooners did versions of several Manhattan Brothers songs.

The Manhattan Brothers played township jazz and composed songs about work, poverty, prison as well as recreation and love. At the height of their fame, the Manhattan Brothers were backed by some of the most accomplished musicians of all time: Kiepie Moeketse on alto sax and clarinet, Mackay Davashe on tenor sax, General Duze on guitar, Boysie Gwele on piano, Jacob Lepere on double bass, Willie Malan on drums and Dollar Brand (Ibrahim) and Todd Matshikiza on piano.

For me, the song about the obsession with keeping up appearances in the townships had a lasting impression.

The song is called “Kweminy’imizi” (In some homes) and decries the practice of houses choking full with furniture while the children go hungry.

I was later to write what became my first published poem, “Real Life – An Interpretation.”

The poem was an inspired by this satirical song in terms of its theme, content and imagery. I have always hoped that my effort was enough tribute to the Manhattan Brothers.

Musically, more or less the same was happening is Southern Rhodesia (our Zimbabwe today) as it was in South Africa.

Groups such as The Golden Rhythm Crooners, The Hiltons, The Capital City Dixies and The Black Evening Follies were doing popular covers and also composing new titles to entertain the public.

The Black Evening Follies had tremendous success with “Kumadekero” (In the West), originally improvised by the famous comedian Kenneth Mataka of Bantu Actors fame and later in life a member of the Magic Circle.

In his twilight years, Mataka went around schools doing magic tricks.

Some of the earliest comedies captured on film in Zimbabwe featured Mataka.

“Kumadokero” had a refined brass section with an unforgettable clarinet.

Without doubt, the lyrics could have held their own as a poem.

A translation of a few of the words from the Shona original would go something like this:

West of the country

Is where my heart is

As I walk hand-in-hand with my sweetheart

With the birds of the forest flying about

Wishing us love and happiness

Another song with profound lyrics and devil-may-care tone is the piece by the City Quads which they called “Zonke Izinsuku” (Day by Day).

Most lovers would identify with the sentiments expressed in this beautiful song that stands out due to its mellow and attractive melody and its thoughtful lyrics.

The song, a township jazz classic, has the obvious genius of Sonny Sondo written all over it and goes something like this:

Day by day

I keep telling you

That there’s no joy in my heart

And that my spirit is troubled

My one and only sin is you

Even when I settle in other lands

And the brethren invite me to church services

Even as the pastors preach the gospel

In holy places of worship

My one and only sin is you

Life, love, devotion, pain and other things are the raw materials of an enduring type of creativity that has traversed the years in Zimbabwe. Among the most painful emotions ever to trouble the hearts of human beings is the devastating feeling of being abandoned.

Fanyana Dube and The Job’s Combination did “Ekhaya” (Home), a song that is an indictment against all those who leave for places far from home and forget about family and loved ones.

Dube’s song is about a heartbroken mother, who wonders why life has treated her so badly. She is the mother of several employed sons and also has a formidable number of daughters. However, none of these gives a hoot about her. She is easily forgotten and dispensed with.

Tellingly, her name is “Singaphi” (Where are we in IsiNdebele) and she cannot understand how her children can be so callous and uncaring.

Dube’s song is a post-Independence piece, which in some ways extends the lyrical traditions of earlier musicians.

Bulawayo’s Golden Rhythm Crooners recorded a song called “Umama Uyakhala (Mother is Weeping) in which they painfully observe:

Umama ukhala ngami ekhaya (Mother is longing for me at home)

Uthi ngize ekhaya (She says I must go back home)

Nobaba naye uyangibhalela (Father too is writing me letters)

Bathi ngize ekhaya (They both want me back home)

Umama Uyakhala (Mother is weeping)

Umama Uyakhala (Mother is weeping)

Ngizobuyela nini (Will I ever go back home)

Uthando Iwami lukhulu (My love for you is too deep)

Angingeke ngikutshiye (I can’t see myself leaving you)

Latter-day prodigal sons, and daughters!

I am sure we recognise the similarity of theme and concerns between the songs of some of the pioneer musicians of Zimbabwe’s pop music to, say, Maskiri’s “Wenera,” a song with a story about a lazy-no-good son too besotted with a girl in South Africa to care about home issues north of the Limpopo.

The young socialite boasts that he is not accessible and that if he never returns home it should be no surprise to anyone.

He has become so bohemian that he cannot possibly ever leave his sweet South African love for even a second, he says.

He decides to drown himself in his decadence and let the pleasure kill him.

Such is the overlap between life and music.

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