Lucky Dube (1964-2007)

8. 11. 2007 | Rubriky: Articles,Lives

[by Ken Hunt, London] On 16 October 2007, the powerful singer-songwriter Lucky Dube was murdered in cold blood in Johannesburg, South Africa, shot dead in what had all the hallmarks of a botched carjacking, in what many commentators portrayed as the current crime-wave. Lucky Dube had had two careers in music. Initially he had risen to become a major mbaqanga musician. Mbaqanga, he told me in one of our interviews, was “Zulu soul music”. Although his definition may have lacked musicological precision, it captured the music’s essence. Then, in a switch of careers, he changed his focus to reggae – Afro-reggae, as it was often called – and had an even more successful career in music, this time on the international stage. As a man, there was a great warmth, curiosity and humanity to Lucky Dube. It is no exaggeration to say those characteristics were tempered in the heat of the extreme institutionalised racism that applied in South Africa. As one of the foremost pioneers of Afro-reggae, he transformed his following from a mainly domestic, Zulu-speaking one into a domestic and an international one. Living under the yoke of apartheid had instilled a keen sense of social justice in him and his songs.

He was born Lucky Philip Dube on 3 August 1964 in a small town called Ermelo, about 150 kilometres from Jo’burg. His mother gave him the name Lucky because he survived after several earlier miscarriages. His father vanished, abandoning the family. (“I don’t know whether he’s dead or he’s alive,” he told be in 1993, “because I’ve never seen him.”) They grew up in extreme poverty. As soon as he could, he was earning what he could and the way he opted to earn money was to become a musician.

There was no history of musicians in the family as such. The family had worshiped in a Zionist denomination and he had sung in the church choir – and in the school choir – but that was par for the course. Singing in choirs sparked his interest in music as a career. “I think I was about eight when I started singing in church choirs and school choirs. That’s when I actually knew that I would be a musician,” he told me.

By 1979, that is when he was about 15, he was already working professionally as a recording artist. He played in his cousin Richard Siluma’s mbaqanga band the Love Brothers – a name reminiscent of the Soul Brothers, like Mahlathini and the Mahotella Queens, one of the major mbaqanga acts at the time. Whilst performing with the Love Brothers, Siluma arranged for him to record under his own name for the record company he was working for. This was called Teal Records (on the way to becoming Gallo Records) and the first fruit of this relationship was the mbaqanga album, Kudala Ngikuncenga, released in 1981. “It means,” he suggested, “‘It’s a long time since I’ve been begging you’ – something to that effect.”

The reception of his work went from good to better, from moderate sales to very good ones for the field and consequently the band changed its name to Lucky Dube and the Supersoul. Over some half-a-dozen albums and the semi-autobiographical film Getting Lucky (1984), he had become a major mbaqanga star.

By the age of 17 or 18 he was listening to reggae, the first great world music phenomenon. Tracking down Jimmy Cliff was comparatively simple. Tracking down Bob Marley and Peter Tosh – he referred to them that way in our interviews, never as The Wailers – was another matter. “Jimmy Cliff’s music was easily available in the country because he wasn’t as militant as Bob and Peter, so we could get some of his stuff quite easily. It wasn’t as direct as Peter’s or Bob’s [music].” In fact, Wailers’ recordings were really only available as smuggled samizdat cassettes copies from Swaziland or Zimbabwe. Peter Tosh’s Legalise It and Marley’s One Love were the first ones he remembered being able to get freely.

One important reason for the South African regime’s disapproval of reggae was its Rastafarian messages. “It was positively received which is the reason why the government kind of banned it because eventually it became a threat to the South African government. People were getting aware of some things that they had not been aware of. That state of awareness became a threat to the South African government.”

In 1984, despite his mbaqanga career going well and a number of good-selling mbaqanga releases to his name, he decided to veer off the chosen mbaqanga path. Instead of making a straight mbaqanga album, he cut Rastas Never Die (1984), much to Gallo’s disapproval. It must be said, he admitted that his new direction was not especially popular with his audience. It flopped. “The Zulu music was doing very well and everybody liked the Zulu stuff that I was doing so when I changed everybody asked, ‘What’s he doing now? Why reggae?’ Reggae wasn’t happening in South Africa.”

Although it tested his resolve, he decided to persevere. Think About The Children (1985) came next. “We recorded Think About The Children without them knowing it was a reggae album. They only found out about it when it had to go through to production.” Having blown a head gasket over Rastas Never Die, it never occurred to Gallo that he would rub their noses in it again. Rastas Never Die was very much seen as Lucky Dube’s Folly and clearly he was going to revert to the successful mbaqanga formula. “The other ones I had done before had been turning platinum, gold or whatever. They had no doubts that it was going to be a good album. And I’m glad they didn’t come to the studio to check on me.” What happened next can be construed as an act of complacency or goodwill on Gallo’s behalf. He delivered the next chapter in his Afro-reggae career. Too late for Gallo to change things, they released Think About The Children with the proviso that if it flopped Lucy Dube would pay back what it had cost.

“Unfortunately the album started selling,” he smiled, “and from there they were right behind it. And the others that followed.” With the third in the sequence – Slave (1987), his first truly rounded Afro-reggae album – he hit his stride. Lucky Dube succeeded against the odds, triumphing over domestic and international opposition.

I asked him whether he had encountered issues of authenticity about him playing reggae as an African. “I found when I got to Jamaica that they are very defensive,” he admitted. “And in such a way that sometimes we even argued about where the roots of the music are. I believe that the roots of this music are in Africa. Even though the music was popularised in Jamaica, the roots are in Africa. Which is the same for [black] people in Jamaica: they may be Jamaicans but their roots are in Africa. The Jamaican audience is peculiar in some ways because they feel very defensive almost about their music and, for instance, they’re not that open to a lot of African music in general. The number of African artists who have gained any real following in Jamaica is relatively few.”

Lucky Dube became the first African artist to be associated with Motown, signing to its subsidiary label Tabu in 1994. International success came in other ways. The year before, he toured with Peter Gabriel who sang his song It’s Not Easy from Dube’s 1991 album House of Exile. The year after he was part of what was nicknamed the African Prom at London’s Royal Albert Hall on the same bill as Khaled, Salif Keita, Baaba Maal and Youssou N’Dour. In 1999 he duetted with Sinéad O’Connor over the internet and in 2005 he appeared on the bill of the Johannesburg Live 8 festivities. Lucky Dube was both an important mbaqanga musician and one of the continent’s greatest Afro-reggae acts. The tragedy of his death is great. The legacy of his life is massive.

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