The Sunday News
Bruce Ndlovu/Langalakhe Mabena, Sunday Life Reporters
HOW many people can claim to have at one time entertained Oliver Mtukudzi, Dan Tshanda, David Masondo, Moses Ngwenya, Hugh Masekela, Patricia Majalisa and Freddie Gwala in their home?
Considering that most of the names on that list have passed on, few among those that can claim to have entertained these illustrious names are themselves still alive to tell the tale.
One of the few men who can make such a lofty claim is Albert “Bra Jomo” Mkandla. Before he closed shop in 2012, Bra Jomo was one of the city’s longest standing shebeen kings.
The harshest of critics will say that when it finally folded, Bra Jomo’s illegal drinking spot went out with a whimper rather than the bang that it had been known for over the years.
Before then, when thick smoke used to snake towards the sky from Bulawayo’s still booming industries, men and women would drink the nights away at Bra Jomo’s Mpopoma home, a place that now, without the hustle and bustle of shebeen life, looks like any ordinary house in Mpopoma.
Back when Bra Jomo was in his prime it was a business. Now it is the home of a shabeen king who had the rare pleasure of hosting some of Southern Africa’s A-list stars.
“I started operating in the 1970s but by then I was specialising in selling alcohol only, in 1980 soon after Independence, I then opened a shebeen where I developed a concept of hosting people,” he told Sunday Life in an interview.
The 1970s were a difficult time. Iron-fisted colonial rule had chased black pleasure seekers from leisure spots nearer the centre of town towards the townships. It was an illustration of the senseless nature of colonialism, a system in which the colour of one’s skin could prevent them from enjoying the wise waters from wherever they fancied.
From such painful, prejudiced rejection, shebeens were born. These illegal social gatherings became a hit, providing a platform for black expression, fashion and music.
For Bra Jomo, these places were his chance to break social molds during an era when the shebeen king was rare, playing second fiddle to the much more common shabeen queen.
“It was very difficult to start the project because I didn’t know how people would react to my business. What made it worse was that during that time I was the only shebeen king around. However, because of the hospitality I had in hosting my clients, people started to gain interest, the place then attracted people from all over Bulawayo,” said Bra Jomo.
His shabeen, which hit its peak after Zimbabwe’s independence, attracted scores of people from all over Bulawayo. Soon word got around and it even reached the ears of the famous.
One of these celebrities that was seduced by tales of a place in Bulawayo where the beer was cold and the music loud was late musician Oliver Mtukudzi.
“Even though the shabeens were illegal, mine became known as far as Harare. In fact, it attracted the late Oliver Mtukudzi, may his soul rest in peace. Nzou is the first celebrity who visited my place and I was stunned because he was a hugely famous man.
“His reaction when he came to my spot shocked me because I always judged him based on what people and the papers wrote about him, only to find out that he was a social person who has an open heart and preferred to be treated as an equal and not as an idol,” said Jomo.
When Mtukudzi was satisfied with Jomo’s hospitality and services, he promised him he would bring a surprise guest at the shebeen, and Jomo reflects the so called guest was Tuku’s long time friend Bra Hugh.
Given his extensive knowledge shebeens, hosting Bra Hugh would not be an easy task. After all, this was the man who had performed in Kofifi, now known as Sophia Town, during the darkest days of Apartheid. When the trumpeter came, Bra Jomo would be ready for the task.
“Mtukudzi came for the second time and fulfilled his promise as he brought along the late trumpeter Hugh Masekela. Upon his arrival, Bra Hugh tipped me and said he grew up in eMalahleni (Witbank), a place that was famous for its numerous shebeens.
“He didn’t believe that he was in Bulawayo as he said the place was more vibrant than other shebeens in South Africa. Bra Hugh also inspired me to start the Sunday Jazz Chill Out sessions and sponsored me with a collection of Jazz records including some of his albums and that of other artistes,” said Jomo.
Mtukudzi and Masekela’s surprise visit would soon unleash an avalanche of celebrity guest appearances at Bra Jomo’s modest home as South Africa’s disco music princes and princesses made it their first port of call whenever they visited the City of Kings.
Splash Godfather Dan Tshanda, Soul Brother’s David Masondo (late), Moses Ngwenya, Jazz, Thabile Mazolwane of the Peacock fame, Splash diva Patricia Majalisa were some of the names that would make the shabeen’s Hall of Fame if it was ever written.
So smitten was Majalisa with the Mpopoma hideout that she still visits Bra Jomo from time to time. However, when Sunday Life visited Jomo at his house in Mpopoma, it became clear that despite the illustrious names that have walked through his modest home’s doors he has a particular soft spot for the Township Disco/Splash artistes. The men and women whose 80s and 90s hits are still the soundtrack of any party in any of Bulawayo’s surviving shabeens adorn the walls of Bra Jomo’s home.
“I have a spot in my heart for Splash music because its founder, the late Dan Tshanda, was my friend who later on became a brother. Every time when he came to perform in Bulawayo, he would come to my place with his crew. He took me to most of his gigs and treated me as a VIP. Patricia always visits me every time when she is around in Bulawayo,” said Jomo.
However, with his finances in the red and after a series of raids from the police, Jomo decided to stop operations. With the heavy traffic that used to characterise his place now reduced to a trickle, Bra Jomo was left only with the memories of his heydays, the glorious days when he used to compete with the late Special Mpofu from Mpopoma Block 48 and Magwegwe North’s Silver Ndlovu for the title of Bulawayo’s shabeen king.
Despite all that, Bra Hugh still has a spark in his eyes. It is a reflection of the flame of hope that burns within him as he says that, once the country’s economic stabilises, his shebeen will once again rise from the ashes and take its place at the top of the pile where it belongs.