AFRICANGLOBE – Six years ago, Lucky Dube was brutally murdered in a botched hijacking in Joburg. Japhet Ncube remembers the global reggae icon.
He remembers it as if it were yesterday. October 18, 2007. Downtown Studios, Joburg.
Thuthukani “Chief” Cele sits in his car in the almost deserted parking lot at Downtown Studios. Through his rear-view mirror he sees Lucky Dube drive around a sharp corner into the parking lot.
He parks his new Chrysler one more brake-stop away from Cele’s old, battered jalopy, almost bumping him.
He gets out of the sleek machine, at the time one of only five in the country, and swiftly disappears into the building.
Then, from an office window, Lucky shouts softly at Cele, who is still sitting inside his car.
“Ngifun’ukubona ukuthi uzophuma kanjani (I want to see how you are going to reverse out of that space),” he says. “Ngifun’ukubona ukuthi awuyithenganga eShoprite na le licence yakho (I want to see if you didn’t buy your licence at Shoprite).”
They laugh about it. Yet another of Dube’s many boyish tricks.
A few hours later, Dube is brutally slain in Rosettenville, in the south of Joburg, where he had gone to drop off his kids. He had become a victim of something he often sang about: crime.
When the call came to Cele that evening, it was mbaqanga music icon Ihashe Elimhlophe, real name Bheki Ngcobo.
“Come to Rosettenville now,” he ordered. “Lucky has been killed.”
When he got to the scene, fellow musicians including Ngcobo, Mzwake Mbuli and Deborah Fraser were there, broken, and in tears.
Lucky sat slumped in the driver’s seat of his car, not moving.
“It was as if he would get up, laugh at us all and then drive off. His usual games,” says Cele now.
Cele went back to his own car. He wept. He was a broken man. A dead man inside.
And you can understand why. He had been with Dube and other band members earlier that morning, when Dube had parked the same car behind him and played one of his many tricks.
The last thing they had spoken about that day was the authenticity of Cele’s driver’s licence. Not reggae. Not music. Not the one passion that had made their paths first cross: mbaqanga music.
Cele had been working with Dube since 1983. They met when Dube was still singing mbaqanga, before he took to reggae and became a world-famous star.
“I can still see his car, which was the first thing I saw when I got to the scene. I thought maybe it was a mistake, that somebody had been driving Lucky’s car,” Cele said yesterday from East London, where his band, One People, were attending the Satma awards ceremony at which their album, Spirit of Reggae (In Memory of Lucky Dube), was nominated.
Cele worked with Dube on his second reggae album, Think About The Children, in 1986. A year earlier, Dube released his first reggae album, Rastas Never Dies. Although it was banned by the apartheid government, it also flopped because many of his fans had known him all along as a mbaqanga musician.
“When Dube was trying reggae, the doors were shut in his face. Nobody believed in him or the genre,” recalls Cele.
Things took a better turn when Ray Phiri and Stimela returned from their Graceland Tour with Paul Simon in the UK. They did the Unfinished Story Tour in South Africa, and Dube asked to perform one or two songs as a curtain-raiser.
Dube was determined to follow the reggae path and from then on his career took off like a rocket, just as the new South Africa began to emerge.
“It was a calling for him. Lucky lived for reggae. That’s all he ever wanted to do: make reggae music,” says Cele, adding that if they won a Satma this weekend, it would be a fitting tribute to Dube.
They toured the world together, performing in France, the US and other destinations outside South Africa. They also toured extensively in Africa, performing in war-torn places such as Sierra Leone and Liberia.
Some say when Lucky Dube and The Slaves performed there, the sound of gunfire died down – even if momentarily – as the government troops and rebels shared a beer over Lucky’s infectious reggae sounds.
But the defining moment must have been in 1990 when, with Nelson Mandela’s release from prison, Lucky Dube and The Slaves packed the Standard Bank Arena in Joburg to record their Captured Live album and DVD. On stage was the star-studded Slaves band: Thuthukani “Chief” Cele on keyboards, Eugene Mthethwa (who later achieved fame with kwaito group Trompies) also on keyboards, Vulindela Yeni on saxophone, Chris Ntaka on lead guitar, Jabu Sibumbe on bass, Ray Mohono on drums, Chris Dlamini on percussion and drums, Ndumiso Nyovane on trumpet, Jabu Mdluli on trombone, Sister Phumi Maduna, Thembi Khumalo and Khabo Ntsele on backing vocals.
And the star of the show, Dube himself, on lead vocals.
Three hours of non-stop music. Dube, clad in his army gear and a red, yellow and green rastafari scarf around his sweat-drenched neck – and topless – ran around the stadium like a man possessed, to the reverberating sounds of Ayo Bayo (I Got You Babe); One Love (a classic Bob Marley composition); I’ve Got Jah; Together As One; Born To Suffer; Prisoner; The Hand That Giveth; Truth In The World.
And this was the kind of performance fans globally would come to know and expect from Lucky Dube and The Slaves. The energy. The professionalism. The talent. The respect for fans.
And over the years names such as Isaac Mtshali (drums), backing vocalists Marilyn Nokwe, Beulah Hashe, Phumzile Ntuli, Felicia Marion and Veronica Makhalimela would also become part of The Slaves family.
Dube was selfless – so much so that he allowed his band to record on their own. The band name came from Dube’s multi-platinum-selling album, Slave, released in 1989. They released their first album, Kneel Down and Pray, with Cele on lead vocals and keyboards. Their second album, Talking Reggae, was overshadowed by events that followed.
Mandela was free. We voted in the first democratic elections. Prisoner, one of Dube’s most successful albums to date, was selling like hot cakes.
They changed their name to Free At Last, and released one album, One People, under Task record company.
Since Dube’s death, the band have played on as One People.
“We wanted to continue and preserve Lucky’s legacy, by playing on, and playing the music we knew for sure he loved and lived for: reggae,” explains Cele.
“Lucky wrote mega hits such as Together As One and Different Colours, One People. We wanted to carry on with that theme, because that’s what Lucky preached and lived. We want to preserve the dignity of reggae music. That’s the best gift we can give Lucky Dube.”
And so does his record company, Gallo, who have released a deluxe two-CD set, The Life and Times of Lucky Dube: 50th Birthday Edition, to remember the artist. It is a must-have for all his fans.
Says Cele: “Like Lucky sings in Rastas Never Dies, rastas never die. Reggae music doesn’t die. The message lives on. They can kill the prophets of reggae, but never the message. It lives on.” Indeed.
* Dube’s killers Sifiso Mhlanga, Julius Gxowa and Mbuti Mabe were jailed for life. One of the suspects turned State witness and escaped prosecution. The kingpin they worked for is still unknown.