Sunday 27 May 2012
What the dickens is happening to musicians of my generation? Why are they vanishing, as if they had a date of expiry which they could not live beyond? Last Sunday (20.05.12) it was Robin Gibb who was 62 years old and last May 17th, Donna Summer, 64. Last February 11th saw the demise of Whitney Houston, a ‘teenager’ and not our generation at 49, and in 2009 that of Michael Jackson, ‘tenderly’ aged 51.
Now tell me, is this rapid succession of deaths not saying something in a proverb? I ask this with unease and alarm because, as Nigerians say, an old woman is uneasy when dry bones are mentioned in a proverb. I may not be a woman but I don’t like the ‘sound’ of these bones one wee bit! Which bone is going to be mentioned in a proverb next and what will it mean for “not-yours-truly-in-passing”?
But music and no bones. As you know by now, we didn’t come in contact with music in English until late in our lives. We started to pick ‘crawling’ knowledge of the English language in 1969, in our first year of secondary, and came to know that there were other singers apart from our Rwandan harp players, Ugandan ‘kadongo-kamu’, Kenyan ‘gitari-moja’ and Congolese ‘guitar-et-bouteil’.
Before secondary school, the latest music we knew was that of the Congolese who could sing as a duet, to the accompaniment of a guitar and a bottle that was regularly knocked according to the rhythmic beat of the song. Our constellation of music stars then included names like late Bosco wa Bayeke, the fast-modernising Bavon Marie Marie (who died young), voluminous Grand Kabasele and Dr Nico Kasanda, both gone. Then there was the up-coming crop of ‘modern’ singers like late Franco and Rochereau, Papa Wemba, the duo still going strong.
After sampling this ‘local menu’ provided by Rwandans, Ugandans and Kenyans as well as the ‘modern’ Congolese singers, in 1969 we were introduced to music that was played on something that was not a radio. We could even determine which singer we wanted to listen to. The snag only came when we were told what was required: money. You had to buy what was called a ‘player’. But it did not begin to play until you bought a ‘record’. Put the two together and you joined the world of musical ecstasy.
So, how could we get to that musical ecstasy without money? Luckily, there were a few rich students who could afford them. That’s how their ‘beds’ became our haunts where we used to ‘hang out’. ‘Beds’ because we stayed in dormitories that had many rooms and a room housed more than twenty students. Therefore, listening to music demanded that you sit on the rich student’s bed or stand around it. You could thus find more than thirty students from different rooms and dormitories crowded around one bed.
If you could afford it, you bought yourself a record which you could play on the rich student’s player. I remember one time, when I was window-shopping, I heard a beautiful song and stopped in my tracks because it was captivating.
As soon as it ended, I entered the music shop and asked the Indian shopkeeper the name of the song. When he answered “The Sound of Silence” I thought he was pulling my leg and said: “Oh? Sir, I’d like to buy it.” Then I watched in sickened stupefaction as he brought it out and handed it to me! I brought it nearer to my eyes and examined its title. And sighed with relief: its title was different. When he saw that I didn’t see the title I wanted, he said: “You arr turrning it round now, no?”
And, indeed, when I “turning it rround now, no” my heart sank again. It was marked “Sound of Silence” by Paul Simon and Art Garfunkel. I told him I’d not come with money and he said: “Vat yurr name is, Ntare boy?” By my uniform, he knew my school. He wrote down my name and said it was ok, I could take the record and bring the money later. But he did not see me again until the end of the following holidays, when I got some extra cents on my transport fare. Even then, he did not mind and pleasantly asked me: “You arr liking tthe song, boy? You arr vanting anotherr?” I shook my head and left.
Yes, of course, the whole school had liked the song. For that, I was rewarded with the nearest place to the record-player whenever it was listening time. From then, I started the blissful journey of listening to, not only the mentioned deceased and others but, such enchanting singers as Jim Reeves, Louis Armstrong, Skeeter Davis, Barry White, Jimmy Clif and groups like The Bee Gees, Cool and the Gang and a whole host of many others.
My contemporaries can even remember some songs that sounded like gibberish: “Geruppah! Geroraah!” Who could have known that actually the words were “Get up! Get on up!” Remember Isaac Hayes, eh, oldies?
Unlike today, voices were not filtered through machines and all played their instruments.