When Congolese icon, Papa Wemba breathed his last on stage at Femua festival on April 24, 2016 in Abdijan, every troubadour dreamt of dying live as parts of the world that enjoyed his music went into mourning. .
But even then, they were in the words of Chinua Achebe, outsiders weeping louder than the bereaved. The most palpable grief was felt in the community of Sapeurs, the dandy, immaculately turned out movement of gentlemen who provide quite a spectacle in the two capital cities of DRC Kinshasa and Brazzaville Congo, separated by two kilometres of yellow brown waters of the mighty river that is the artery and giver of life in the Congo Basin of Central Africa.
Sapeurs were the profoundly bereaved because their pope was no more. I am reminded of this most fascinating of sub cultures as we bury Dan Tshanda, who departed a fortnight ago to join the great gig in the sky with former band mates Penwell Kunene, Joseph Tshimange and the promoter, my friend Super Letshabo. Next to family and close friends, the fear that haunts every music fan is the demise of a much loved idol. Life is made up of building blocks that combine to make us complete individuals, and for every life ever conceived is accompanied by a soundtrack through all rites of passage till our final epilogue the spiritually-inclined have hymns, the hedonistic have rock, the suave and pretentious have jazz.
The more rambunctious have anything danceable for those moments when the music and emotions melt into one. Only a select fraternity of men and women are able to produce soundtracks that move us in moments of happiness, sadness and anything in between. Dan’s passing possibly closes a chapter in the output of soundtracks so integral to the lives of a particular community. With Papa Wemba, it was Sapeurs, or Society of Ambience Makers and Elegant People when translated from the French. Dan, too is mourned by many, but the most bereaved in this country are Mapantsola. For the uninitiated, they, like the Sapeurs of Central Africa, are individuals who place premium on elegance, snappy dressing in designer labels only exclusive to the community and for whom weekends present an opportunity for exhibitionism and showmanship.
Last week Thursday, they turned out in droves, many in their finery to reminisce at a memorial service whose attendance demonstrated the affection/adoration in which the man was held.
Those who made time ranged in age from adolescents, clearly initiated into the community by uncles or fathers to female practitioners bustling and arranging things. It was a sight to behold and gave a glimpse into the world of sub cultures this country has spawned. Known for their distinct dancing style, there was even an honour jive by a son and dad combo, and one could not but note that their routine could only be the result of hours of practice to achieve the precision and choreography that is so integral to the style.
Speaker after speaker eulogised Bra Dan. He was recognised as friend, mentor, advisor and for some of them, possibly the same age or older, in reverential tone even addressed him as father. This was serious hero worship at work. The nexus between Bra Dan and Mapantsola is a project for cultural anthropologists because he was not a practising member of the community in terms of dress choice or even manner of speech. Even in his shows or going about his daily business, the singer, composer and multi -instrumentalist did not carry himself as one of them, but in this country the Splash music phenomenon was anchored in support of the community.
I first saw Dan, well, Splash in my now dead town of Phikwe. Not at a concert because that time we were still at boarding school and under age to be out at night. As a mining town, it was a magnet for popular South African bands who would arrive for what were called ‘functions’ at month end to part many a miner from his money. Given that miners work hard, they could be pardoned for partying and also eating money to their heart’s content. In the 80s, practically all music came from south of the border. Radio Botswana played mostly tunes from the same country and live performers from there had Phikwe penciled in as one of the more lucrative venues in the country.
All the big names at the forefront of the explosion of township disco as a new cultural expression came to Phikwe for a big pay day. It was the era of Brenda when she was with The Big Dudes and the songbird from Langa with the voice of an angel held the southern tip of the continent in thrall with her singing talent and larger than life, self indulgent lifestyle. They all graced Area One arena in Phikwe, including Cheek to Cheek, Juluka, Stimela and I think my all time favourite Sello Chicco Twala who was riding the charts with a new sound never before heard in songs like Soldier and I Need Some Action.
It was the time of Yvonne Chaka Chaka, who was marketed as a more wholesome and family-oriented contrast to the bad girl, devil-may -care image of Brenda. Only years later, when fully grown up, did we get opportunity to see these artists live. But we always knew when they were in town. Radio and weekend record nights kept us wired to the music. As I recall, there was a record store at the market in town run by a guy who was also the town’s photographer and simply known as Take Me Foto Andrew. He also ran a taxi. Something of a local celebrity, when we snuck out of hostel, in uniform, we would drop by his shop to hear the latest sounds. That’s where I encountered some unknown, hungry looking band driving in a rickety minibus emblazoned with the name Splash.
From their scruffy appearance, I think the bus also alternated as tour change room and tour accommodation. No way could they afford a hotel and I felt a little sorry for them. We
Their new album had just dropped and a smash hit called Peacock was making its way up the charts. This was a promotional tour. From the eponymously named debut album, the song found traction and dominated the pop charts. For some reason Splash and its associate bands, primarily Patricia Majalisa, Machickos and Dalom Kids, started attracting loyal patronage from local Mapantsola enthusiasts who thronged their live shows and presumably bought their cassettes that being the pre cd and pirating era. Essentially, this was one large group playing different songs under its various brands with only the front man changing.
The magazines and radio told us the creative force behind the ensemble was a certain Dan Tshanda from Venda and to boot he was married to Patricia Majalisa. It was a combination of great sounds and a great love story. It took me time to warm up to their sound because I considered it a bit low end for my more discerning tastes. But things were changing in South Africa.
Freedom arrived and as more blacks joined the middle class, they decided they wanted to listen to music more appropriate to their new money, cars and relocation to the suburbs. Those remaining in the township also decided their aspirational tastes could only be served by mimicking the new trend. A new unflattering term bubblegum was assigned to describe this music loved by millions of people. And township disco, the genre that produced danceable tracks which played host to our best memories of youth just fizzled out.
The likes of Brenda ditched The Big Dudes and reinvented themselves to stay relevant and on the charts. But many of the disco bands just disappeared into oblivion. Dan Tshanda and his groups could have gone the same route, reduced to recounting sob stories of an ungrateful music public and exploitative promoters that threw them to pasture. Fortuitously, but also possibly because Dan had found love in the country after splitting with Patricia, the ensemble survived mainly due to the niche market they assiduously cultivated over the years with Mapantsola community.
Not to say the relationship wasn’t associated with notoriety. With Mapantsola in tow, their increasingly frequent shows in the country became scenes of crime and wanton drunkenness. Deaths from knifings, thefts and other anti-social behaviour became a by-word for live shows. At the height of notoriety, a fan was devoured by a lion trying to sneak into a show held adjacent to a nature reserve. In its years of existence, the Splash family experienced evolution in the economics of the music business. Piracy became rampant and so recorded material was not selling much. To earn money, bands had to keep up a punishing tour schedule.
From 2009, we pioneered roping in popular live bands to entertain crowds at political rallies and Dalom Studio groups became a drawcard and in turn other politicians utilised them, generating for them a new source of revenue. When I heard about his death, I surmised that years of non-stop touring all corners of Botswana, Namibia and Zimbabwe where his groups retained a large, loyal fan base had contributed to the cause of Dan’s illness. Whereas all the groups from those heydays folded, the Splash family some how managed to continue putting food on the table. Then a few years ago, something happened; Mapantsola underwent a dramatic image makeover.
As if they were following a script put together by a professional consultant they rehabilitated the sub-culture and became responsible citizens. Away from mainstream media attention, associations and branches sprouted all over the country. Gone was the thug image of knife packing pickpockets speaking tsotsi taal. In came family men, wives, chicks, kids, many of whom during a normal day earned a living as civil servants and even cops. They held charity drives and other socially progressive campaigns. They even went on YouTube and some of the dancing groups earned fame on the platform. At last week’s memorial service, one of the speakers was urban disputes arbitrator, Kgosi Arnold Somolekae who was a man transformed.
Fully kitted out in his best Mapantsola gear, for which he named the price of each item from head to foot, he represented the revamped image of the community as people worthy of respect. The value came to a handsome amount.
This was Sapeur culture in action; deriving and sharing immense pride in top quality clothing and it styling. At Splash concerts, there is a certain ritual that recognises the role of Mapantsola as stockholders of sorts. As the same musicians change roles and songs in the names of different bands in the stable, the party piece is reserved for when Bra Dan goes on stage for a solo performance.
As his mini bus arrives, some Mapantsola will peel off from the gawking crowd and form an honour guard alongside the slow driving vehicle. And when the boss, the big husband or Bra Dan emerges from the bus those Mapantsola holding senior rank are extended the privilege of escorting him onto the stage. It might seem contrived optics to outsiders, but for the community it is part of the code of the ties that bind them to the Splash family. Tributes and memorials have been taking place and culminate today with the final farewell to Bra Dan. Some, including myself feel he should have been buried in Botswana, his adopted homeland which provided love and sustenance when his own country couldn’t play his music on radio or even give him a gig.
And so in an echo of the day Sapeurs in haute couture converged in Kinshasa to bid Papa Wemba farewell, Mapantsola, resplendent in their stylish, perfectly tailored attire are today saying goodbye to their talisman. Farewell Dan.