The one that got away: How Ilanga squabbles led to loss of a major international deal

07 Apr, 2024 - 00:04 0 Views
The one that got away: How Ilanga squabbles led to loss of a major international deal Ilanga band

The Sunday News

Bruce NdlovuSunday Life Reporter 

ON the night of 7 October in 1988, Zimbabwe played host to the world. 

At a time when the apartheid regime in neighbouring South Africa had its foot firmly on the necks of its majority black population, the Human Rights Now concert at the National Sports Stadium in Harare was held, giving the world a chance to sing with one voice for oppressed people in Mzansi and elsewhere around the globe. 

National Sports Stadium

The line-up on that particular night rivals any that has been seen in Zimbabwe before or since that occasion.  Bruce Springsteen, Tracy Chapman, Youssou N’Dour, Peter Gabriel and Zimbabwe’s Oliver Mtukudzi were some of the artistes that headlined the gig that drew 70 000 into the country’s biggest sports arena. Also slated to perform that day among these chart topping stars was a little-known Zimbabwean group by the name of Ilanga. Virtually unknown outside the country’s borders, Ilanga had begun to make a serious name for itself, after the release of the album Visions Foretold and the smash hit single, True Love. 

At that stage, Ilanga’s members were barely out of their teens and this was evident even from their almost amateur setup. For one, the group did not even have a spokesperson, something that was crucial given the weighty issues that the concert was tackling. 

“After Visions Foretold, we recorded True Love and that just exploded,” the group’s keyboard player, Keith Farquharson told Sublime Studios Africa in a recent interview. 

“We started getting booked for some big shows and one of those was the human rights concert in 1988. Mtukudzi played first, then Tracy Chapman, then the rest of them.  But that was quite an exciting time for me but I remember what was a bit strange about it was Don (Gumbo) saying ‘Keith you must be the spokesperson of the band’ and I was 20. I asked why and he said it’s because you can speak good English.” 

The Human Rights Now concert was not without drama. In the run-up to the show, while in India, Springsteen and the other high-profile acts discovered that the promoter had sourced equipment from South Africa. 

The stars revolted, and swearing that they would not touch any instrument from a country that was now the poster-child of segregation and oppression in the world. This was despite the fact that a large chunk of the audience was, in fact, coming from south of the Limpopo. 

So mouth-watering was the line-up that 15 000 visas, of mostly white South Africans, were processed at the Beitbridge Border Post on the run up to the gig. To avert disaster, Amnesty International officials secured a 100-kilowatt sound system from a firm in Lesotho. In such circumstances, Ilanga also wanted to shine its own little ray of light on the situation that was unfolding in South Africa. 

Without any formal spokesperson, the group was unprepared for this. 

“In hindsight, it was a completely stupid idea (to appoint me) because the majority of the issues we wanted to raise were sensitive because the majority of the audience were South Africans. Playing in Zimbabwe instead of South Africa made no difference because a majority of the audience came across the border and saw the show here. 

There were some issues we had with that and at 20, I probably wasn’t the best person to speak on them given my youth and my lack of experience in everything,” he said.   

Perhaps the group’s lack of preparedness in general was the reason why, on that October night in Harare, they squandered the deal of a lifetime. 

As they performed, it was clear that Ilanga was not dwarfed by the giants they rubbed shoulders with backstage. Their music demanded attention and they got it. Among the 70 000 that thronged the NSS was Miles Copeland, then manager of Sting, one of the world’s top selling musicians of all time. 

The late Cde Chinx

As 70 000 heads swayed and nodded to Ilanga’s music that night, Copeland was convinced. 

Here was a group that was worth taking a gamble on. He would take them from the seedy bars and pubs of Zimbabwe and open the eyes of the world to their undeniable quality. He offered them a record deal. 

Squabbles within the group, however, saw that opportunity go down the drain and left their members wondering about what could have been if they had taken it. 

“What happened at that show is that Sting’s manager was Miles Copeland who was the brother of Stuart Copeland who was in the Police with Sting. After the gig they said ‘Would you guys like to talk about a record deal?’ There were too many disagreements and differences of opinion within the band because of the individuals concerned. We couldn’t agree on it so we missed on that opportunity because we simply couldn’t agree on the way forward. 

“That could have changed things for us. It would have been great to have been signed by a label that got our music outside Zimbabwe which was what we wanted. These are the kind of things that not many people know about that time and that show. It was a great show but for us the benefits could have been so much greater but because of our own naivety we didn’t make the most of it. It’s easy to say in hindsight I guess,” Farquharson said.  

In the world of music, it is very rare that, when a popular group or band breaks up, almost all its members go on to forge successful careers. In most cases, after a fallout, one star soars higher than the others, putting the rest to shame as their career reaches new heights while others falter. 

Ilanga was an exception to that rule. Don Gumbo, Cde Chinx, Andy Brown and Busi Ncube went on to become highly sought after voices in the world of music, while Farquharson became a legendary sound engineer in his own right. 

Ilanga was the dream team that defied the odds, with each of its members providing individual sparks of brilliance that illuminated the music scene in the years that followed their break up. 

Yet, for all their compelling later compositions, there has always been a feeling that Ilanga did not ultimately fulfil its potential. For all their talent, did they flatter to deceive? Sure, they gave Zimbabwe arguably its greatest love ballad in True Love, but did the group live up to the lofty expectations that naturally came with possessing such a star-studded roaster of musicians? 

Ilanga band

Ilanga never attained the acclaim or fame of the Bhundu Boys and later Oliver Mtukudzi, for example, despite the fact that individually and collectively, they were a formidable force. 

Instead, Ilanga was a dish that was enjoyed by Zimbabweans who, like a child that brags about their mother’s cooking, have the impossible task of convincing the world that they once had the pleasure of being served by world class chefs in their own home. 

Ultimately, the disagreements within Ilanga made it impossible for the group to last. Perhaps such a star-studded crew was never destined to last long, given the big egos that naturally became evident as the group began to shine. What was never in doubt, however, was the diverse array of talent that they all possessed. 

“Don Gumbo was very much influenced by Ray Phiri and Stimela which you can probably hear in the songs because Stimela was exploding in South Africa at the time,” Farquharson recalled. 

“We did quite a lot of shows with them when they came to Zimbabwe. Don loved that style. So, we ended up sounding a little bit similar to them, and he was a great writer as well. His songs were different to Andy’s. Musically, Andy was probably one of the greatest musicians I played with because he was so versatile. He could play everything, sort of like Louis Mhlanga…Andy had a very accessible guitar sound and he was a good songwriter as well. Don was a great bass player. He played left handed which obviously affected his style. He had the ability to write pop melodies and at the same time, mix it with Zimbabwean guitar styles. That was his strength…I was very fortunate to work with two people that could do that,” he said.


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