Bruce Ndlovu, Life correspondent
“People only start talking after somebody has died. In the meantime when that person is sick they all hear about the illness but do nothing to help,” says the Cool Crooners’ George Salimu.
“When Abel was alive no one offered to help him. All the help came after he had died,” he observes.
Eloquent and elegant, Salimu is a man that appears to be rarely driven to anger by anything. Although he speaks passionately about music, it is only when the subject of artistes welfare comes up that the passion vanishes and the seething frustration that bubbles underneath flows into plain view.
“All these musicians that had fame leave this earth with nothing. Like just now I know Ray (Phiri) has passed away. He passed away like a pauper with no money or anything to show. That’s not good at all,” Salimu says.
It is a Wednesday afternoon and as usual the three remaining members of the Cool Crooners have gathered for the afternoon rehearsal session at Stanley Hall, Makokoba.
The last few weeks have been gloomy for the jazz maestros who gather every Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday to rehearse as they prepare for the release of a new album. Only a few days before, the group gave their last salute to the late Abel Sithole, singing a rendition of their hit Bhulugwe Lami over his grave.
Whether Sithole carried that classic melody with him to the afterlife is only known to him and his maker, but on that occasion the Cool Crooners audience also included a number of other people. Family, friends, Government officials and some of the country’s most prominent musicians came to the Provincial Heroes Acre in Nkulumane to pay their last respects.
Now the trio that was a quartet only a fortnight ago has gathered again at a gloomy Stanley Hall. Their audience this time is just the metal benches facing the stage and a few flies that buzz about aimlessly.
While Salimu speaks, Lucky Thodhlana nods in agreement with him, while Timothy Mkandla, who is not feeling well, slumps in his chair and sleeps throughout the interview.
With the current economic situation, things are tough for musicians. Shows have dried up and to worsen the situation, royalty cheques are also becoming a thing of the past.
“We stopped getting royalties two years ago. They were coming straight from Sony and we would withdraw the money from Botswana. We rely on shows. That’s how difficult it can sometimes get. It can be hard,” says Salimu.
Upon hearing this, Thodhlana pulls out a crisp sheet of paper, a letter delivered to their doorsteps by a French record label. It’s the latest instalment of their royalties from the French company, which used to deposit their money in Botswana.
This latest cheque, coming so soon after the sun has set on the lives of one of their colleagues, is the last that they will ever get from the record label.
“We get that money the hard way. The process is long and difficult. As you can see its written in French. This should be the last cheque. All along they were banking through a Botswana bank and we would go there to withdraw. This is the last that’s remaining so they want to do it through a Zimbabwean bank,” says Salimu.
As they get older, death is constantly on the Cool Crooners’ minds. When death finally taps him on the shoulder, Salimu says that he hopes it will find him financially stable enough to leave something for his loved ones.
“Dying like paupers is something that’s always on our minds. It’s not good. I’d rather not please somebody because they just want us to perform. This is our livelihood,” he says.
While many have blamed artistes for failing to manage their finances properly when they are at their prime, Salimu believes they are simply not being paid enough.
“The only way you can be financially wise is if you’re paid wisely,” he says.
After decades in the music business, Salimu says the group does not want to fall into the trap of performing for mere fame which is why they sometimes avoid the spotlight.
“People think when you’re just sitting and not performing it’s bad. Instead they want you to perform for nothing and be seen and in the long run when you die then they can make up stories and say so and so died without anything. Yet they forget that they were the ones that wanted you to perform without getting anything,” he says.
According to Thodhlana, a man of few words, the most bookings that the group gets these days come from weddings.
“The bookings that we mainly have right now are weddings,” he says.
Salimu says this is so because the group feels like wedding performances offer them a fair deal, unlike at other shows where promoters want them to sing their lungs out for peanuts.
“We’re not that desperate. Someone will tell you they will pay $200 and for that amount they also want you to perform with a live band. We don’t do that. That’s why you don’t see us performing much in Bulawayo. When we go for weddings usually those people don’t mind. We play four or five songs and they don’t need us to have a live band backing us,” says Salimu.
From its humble beginnings in Makokoba’s F Square, the Cool Crooners have come a long way. Despite their rich history, the group, famous for its snazzy dress sense that closely mirrored the elegance of their music, have also been victims of the City of Kings’ apathy towards live shows.
After living their whole lives on stage, they are also coming face to face with the reality that the professional live performer who does his job with style and grace is no longer the much sought after commodity that he was decades ago. Despite this, they still believe in the power of jazz.
“There’s been a decline in the number of live shows. However, I don’t buy into the idea that jazz is dying. There’re still a lot of people who like jazz music.”
“It’s the people who can help make happen that aren’t coming to the party. In Harare you’ve got people who organise such shows. That’s why we’re always there,” says Salimu.
Despite problems bedevilling the music industry, the group is now preparing to make another comeback, 12 years after the release of Isatilo, their last album.
According to Salimu, this is not the last kick of a dying horse. Instead, armed with a wide array of songs that have been penned but not recorded, they are raring and ready to gallop towards the spotlight.
“We’ve put together a new album. People want to judge you with what you’re doing currently. With the Crooners people know we’ve got Blue Sky and Isatilo and that’s it. Perhaps they think we’re finished. As people with so much music we thought the best thing to do now is to make an album,” he says.