David Mungoshi Shelling the Nuts
YOU often hear people saying, “When days are dark friends are few.” In fact, the South Africa-based Ndolwane Super Sounds band had, before its split, a bouncy sungura song that opened with reggae riffs and “Jah Rastafari” chants. And this catchy refrain is what for me defined the song: When days are dark friends are few. That does sound like an eternal truth from the folds of time across the ages. It is the story of the prodigal son over and over again.
Bohemian laissez faire conduct and dissipation are two interlaced themes that have informed literature and story-telling since the world began.
In terms of Western decadence, being bohemian was the height of loose living.
And where men were concerned, this usually translated into wine, women and song plus the associated intrigue.
A laissez faire attitude is at play when one doesn’t care a hoot about anything, and when one lives only for the “kicks” so to say. When fun and frivolity reign supreme. This, perhaps, is the reason why pleasure is a huge industry.
But at the end of the day, everything we see around us has happened before; everything is a duplication of something else and the duplication is also a duplication of a duplication! The wonder of it all, however, is how we all experience uniquely and afresh every quaint little thing. When you fall in love, it’s the most wonderful thing in the world and you want everyone to know.
Even more surprising, though elevating, is our tendency to almost deify the object of our affections.
In our hearts they are queens and kings, practically divine, one might say.
When we are stricken with the love bug, we forget the wisdom of our people. A Shona saying goes: “Takabvako kumhunga hakuna ipwa (Believe it or not, we’ve been there too in our time; you cannot transform millet stalks into sugarcane). And the ageless Rolling Stones sing: It is the evening of the day/ I sit and watch the children play/Doing things I used to do/They think are new . . . The warning is to the Peter Pans of this world to never forget that time will get them too. One of these days their children will call them “Mudhara” (Old man), and tell them it is no longer their world.
This theme of repetition is a constant reminder of just how difficult it is to come up with something really new.
Look at fashion! Apart from some of those crazy garments that designers come up with, which can only be for the ramp and the catwalk. The touts would make a feast of it just ogling some sweet waif of a lady gliding down the road in a futuristic garment made from old bottle tops, for instance.
Many years ago a pop star called Gary Glitter, who had hitherto struggled to make an impression in the world of music re-packaged himself, name, wardrobe, sound and demeanour.
As Paul Gadd, he had had no impact whatsoever. At a time when the Jackson Five were taking the world by storm, with young Michael capturing the hearts of most music fans, pundits and choreographers, it really was a huge feat for Paul Gadd, now Gary Glitter to make it into the pop charts with very simple but oh, so catchy tunes like “Hello, glad to be back” sung to a noisy big band sound.
Gary Glitter and The Glitter Band were the new kids in town. Their music was good while it lasted and they had a really good time with their glittering attire, loud sound and stage antics.
Gary Glitter was very small of stature, physically and therefore needed to create an impression of height.
What everybody called platform shoes were soon in vogue. What with Gary Glitter in his six-inch heels. Yes, six-inch heels for men! In our part of the world, Tuku wore these oddities too (as many of us did) and appeared immensely tall as a result. Years later when I stood next to him, I realised just how much his shoes had added to his height. So the world of fashion owes quite a bit to the almost mediocre musician who became a heartthrob and a phenomenon and made heaps of money in the process.
To this day, Gary Glitter as a seventy-something old man donning a Ho Chi Mihn beard, is living comfortably on the proceeds from those heady days when people went to his shows as much for his infectious bubble gum music as for his attire.
In 1979, I spent about two weeks in Zaire (Democratic Republic of Congo today) and discovered a few home truths about the people of that country.
This may not be quite accurate, but I got the impression then that in Kinshasa it was more important to be well-heeled than to eat well.
One of the trendsetters in Kinshasa was Kabasele Yampanya, a.k.a Pepe Kalle popularly known as the Elephant of Zaire for his huge frame and tall figure.
Socialites in Kinshasa would not be seen anywhere near Pepe Kalle’s well-subscribed shows unless they were in new clothes imported from Paris.
And they would never remove the designer labels! Pepe Kalle himself was a fashionista of sorts and his audience went there to see what he would come up with each time. My liking for hats and caps can be traced back to my days in Kwantuthu/ Skies/Blues (Bulawayo for the uninitiated) as a marble-eyed teenager marvelling at most things and wanting it all. I guess I must also have been influenced by this clique of boys from Makokoba, whose speciality was thick-soled shoes, cleanliness and hats.
Despite one of them having the most curious name, these guys had all the luck with the girls. The boy in question was called Madzimayi. Yes Madzimayi! Madzibaba is an invention from many years later.
There were four or five of these wondrous boys who had begun to speak in Zulu, although at that stage they had never, any of them, been to South Africa at all. The glue that held them together was the one called Alick.
I first met Alick at a teen-show at the Stanley Hall in Bulawayo’s Makokoba Township.
A band called The Pirates was playing. Paul Lunga of Jazz Impacto, a trumpet player, who like Hugh Masekela also played the flugelhorn, was the drummer in the Pirates. In those days, we were dancing to amarabi music, a popular blend of township jazz.
The marabi beat made it possible for a natty dancer to shine on the dance floor.
These Zimdancehall types, who just leap about and walk the stage, would not have had even a dog’s chance in the arena. No offence intended. Just telling it the way it was. You either could dance or you couldn’t. And when you couldn’t, observers would say in IsiNdebele, “Asi bugxangu!”
This was an exclamation occasioned by the amateurishly clumsy attempts to dance made by someone with no sense of rhythm. A boy that we called Spingo was not the brightest in school, but he had other things going for him.
He became a body-builder quite early on in his life. In Fact, he was still at primary school when that happened. Spingo was quite muscular and liked to flaunt it. As you might guess, dear reader, hardly any of us were keen to test his physical strength.
Spingo was also the mainstay of the school senior soccer team’s defence, marshalling it with aplomb.
Above all, Spingo could dance! When the Pirates began to play a really good tune, only Spingo could take to the open dance floor. The rest of us stood around, watching and marvelling. Spingo was that good. You thought we had no swag?
That would have been the day. What we did not have was the word “swag”. We were as cool as we could have been.
So when I see all these young things in their short revealing dresses, I smile indulgently because I know without a doubt that it has all been just a matter of the pendulum swinging.
Their grandmothers wore skirts that were six inches above the knee and can still teach them a thing or two about daring and fashion. Something that I miss from the past is the reading culture and the hunger and thirst for knowledge.
By the time you were 15 or 16, you had read all the comics you could lay your hands on and graduated to reading the popular paperbacks: Ian Fleming’s “Goldfinger”, James Hadley Chase’s “No orchids for Miss Blandish” and many others.
My friends and I loved spy thrillers including Richard Condon’s “Manchurian Candidate” and we adapted as a mantra the dare-devil words of a character in one of the thrillers doing the rounds: “Live fast, die young and have a good-looking corpse”.
Would I turn back the hands of time if I could? Perhaps.
David Mungoshi is a writer, a social commentator and editor.