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So long Dan, the talisman of Mapantsola

Ntuane and Dan Tshanda
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 

had  never heard of  them  and  they  looked  like they  were  going  nowhere  near, and  fast.    Clearly  my  bearings were off kilter. 

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.

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