Bruce Ndlovu Sunday Life, Correspondent
THE life of Solomon Skuza, a man many regard as one of the greatest musicians to ever step inside a recording booth in Zimbabwe, is still largely a mystery.
If one turns to that goldmine of information, the internet, they are unlikely to get anything more than the bare details of the life of the man whose music touched so many. In fact, one would be hard pressed to find the exact date of death of the man whose dance songs seem to have not lost any of their flavour since his death. Solomon Skuza died in 1995, the internet simply says.
To this day, the sight of an imbiber on a dance floor, at a wedding or growth point, trying to match the frenetic pace of his classic song, Banolila is not a rare sight. For those nursing heartbreak, wetting their pillows with tears after a lover has deserted them, Skuza’s Love and Heartbreaks is a worthy companion on the road to mending what has been broken by a love affair gone wrong.
Love and Scandals was a unique song, with Skuza skilfully and successfully weaving together themes of love, heartbreak, politics and corruption. While such songs are well known, well loved and therefore unavoidable, his life is not as transparent. Skuza the man, not the musician, is still a mystery.
This week Sunday Life tracked down two people, one who knew him intimately in life and another who only got to know him only in death, to try to piece together the life of the legend that was Solomon Skuza.
Very often it has been written that Solomon Skuza, like many other Zimbabwean musicians before and after him, died a broken and broke man. It is a version of events that has rarely been disputed by those that knew him while he was still breathing. After all, a Zimbabwean musician dying poor is nothing new.
However, according to Chase, his brother, people have not bothered to dig deeper and find out the reasons why the man who sold over 70 000 copies of Banolila alone died in that state.
“People just say these things without looking at the conditions surrounding his death. Zimbabwe at that time was going through tough times and the record labels were taking their time with his royalties.
“When Solomon got sick we had to try everything to keep him alive. We tried doctors and while we were doing that, someone would suggest that we take him to this n’anga and after that another one would be suggested. That took a toll on his finances,” Chase said.
When Skuza died in 1995, Zimbabwe was anything but a bed of roses. The country was reeling from the Economic Structural Adjustment Programme (Esap) and a drought during 1994 threatened to knock the country out. The threat of the deadly HIV/Aids virus also loomed large. However, Solomon’s life did not begin amid such hardships.
Instead it began in the tranquil settings of Ntoli in Plumtree, where he cut his teeth as a musician under the tutelage Jackson Skuza, his father.
“Our father fought in the Second World War. He had learnt to play the accordion and was quite good at it. He was a professional music player in fact. While we were growing up, Solomon started to learn about music from our father. In fact, the songs that he sang in his first five albums were songs that were composed by our father,” said Skuza.
Solomon’s father was to pass away in 1973, leading Solomon to follow an older brother who had left earlier for greener pastures in apartheid South Africa. Both Southern African nations were unkind to anyone born with dark skin and were therefore ripe for African revolt.
In 1976 Solomon was to again follow his brother who had left for the Zipra military training camps two years earlier. The country’s war of liberation was to shape Solomon’s career as a musician in a way that he would not have imagined.
“Solomon was shot in the war and that’s why whenever he performed he couldn’t dance. They formed a band called the Zimbabwe Stars and they would go around entertaining other soldiers in camp. He was already very good on the bass guitar. After independence he decided to rename the band Fallen Heroes in honour of those that had died during the liberation war,” said Chase.
The 1980s saw Solomon come into his own as a musician, with his impact felt throughout the country.
“The great thing about him at that time was that he could already speak most of the country’s languages. After the end of colonial rule it was still hard for artistes to make an impact in regions they didn’t come from but he did,” said Chase.
Few artistes have managed to excel in a single genre let alone, something that Solomon did with the release of 1990s Love and Scandals. The story of how the legend of Jah Solo, Solomon’s reggae alter ego, was born is one that has not been told often enough.
“People say he decided to switch to English to appeal to more people but that wasn’t the case. Whenever he would perform people would ask him to do the covers of Bob Marley or Burning Spear and as someone who was always interested in reggae he thought it was time he had his own songs he could perform at his shows. He valued originality and he would be offended whenever someone copied someone else’s music,’ said Chase.
Solomon Jnr’s story
Mqhele Solomon Jnr Skuza’s story begins after his father’s death. As the eldest son from the musician’s last wife, he has no memories of the man whose name he carries.
“I really don’t know him. He died while I was still quite young so all I know about him comes from what I was told by other people,” he said.
While he was too young to remember anything about his legendary father, he is old enough to remember the battle for his royalties that ensued at the turn of the century.
“I don’t want to mention names because this person is probably friends with some of you guys in the media. If you go back to your archives you will find a story that said some nasty things about my mother. I think it was in 2000 or 2001. This person was basically saying that she wasn’t my father’s real wife and so didn’t deserve his inheritance. At that time, that person won basically. He took charge of everything and we were getting nothing,” he said.
According to the South Africa-based Solomon Jnr, he only managed to wrestle back his father’s royalties and music rights in 2013.
“Lwazi Skuza, Mcheznana, advised me to come back home and sort out issues with my inheritance. That’s when I came back to try and win back my inheritance. Considering that his music is old the royalties are satisfactory,” he said.
The Skuza name can be a hard one to carry and it proved to be a burden of note for Solomon Jnr while growing up.
“There was always that pressure to take up music. I really felt it. At school everyone would look to me to lead the choir or come up tops in music competitions. That’s why I ended up studying sound engineering and stage management.
“In South Africa I’m always meeting people who are just in awe of my father and they’ve got so many questions whenever they hear my name. It is really humbling to see how they still hold him in high regard to this day,” he said.
Despite being blessed with such an awe inspiring name, the young Skuza is doubtful he will pick up the mic like his father.
“I don’t think I can make that kind of music because I didn’t grow up in that environment. When I was young I moved to my mother’s side of the family so I didn’t have the same experiences as he did,” he said.