Raising the reggae banner

Legendary icons such as Bob Marley, Peter Tosh and Jimmy Cliff were viewed as prophets whose messages were aimed at raising the banner of revolution or creating an alternative society that would be free, peaceful, tolerant, happy, and full of love.

That was the 1970s and 1980s. Reggae now appears to have been marginalised or gone underground.
In South Africa it became an outlandish cult that a few would indulge in. Only Lucky Dube emerged as a lonely star catapulted to fame on the wings of reggae. And even then he was viewed as a maverick and, worse, an imitation of and import from Jamaica.

If reggae and its higher sibling, Rastafarianism, have been treated like unwanted stepchildren in the past then Aura Msimang is now stepping forward to change its image and prospects.

Msimang has assembled about 14 bands for a three-day reggae festival in Johannesburg at the Yard of Ale near Park station. There will be more than music on offer — the whole sub culture of reggae will be on display — and it will “encourage reflection on solidarity, peace, love and respect”.

Born in the old Western Native Township, near Sophiatown, Msimang left South Africa as a child in the late 1950s with her parents who were on the first wave of those forced into exile. Within 10 years she had lived in the old Rhodesia, Zambia, Botswana, the Congo, Nigeria on the brink of a bloody civil war and Sierra Leone.

In 1968 she moved to the United States to carve out an artistic career.

“I arrived in New York City at the onset of the black consciousness era. Having lived in so many African countries I was already immersed in a universal black identity and I could relate to the search for African roots among black Americans.

“Although I enrolled at Hunter college in the city it was soon clear that academic life was not going to happen for me.” She dropped out and went to work doing hair, dancing, singing and touring with a motley troupe called Nkanyesi ze Afrika.

But it was theatre that changed her life. “Black theatre in the US then was becoming vibrant, becoming aware of the wider black world. Good repertory schools were sprouting. Workshopping was the in thing and inspired many works.” But she was excluded from many productions because of her “accent”.

She left the US for Jamaica to attend Carfesta, a quadrennial festival of the arts, and remained in Kingston to study drama at the Jamaican School of the Arts. “I walked pass the house of Jimmy Cliff on my way to school every day. He heard about a South African woman living nearby and called for me.”

“He asked me to go on tour with him!” she says with pride. They went to West Africa. “It was a wonderful experience being in Senegal.”

At the end of the tour she returned to Jamaica via London. A friend invited her to the Ireland Records studios, which was the hub of reggae recording. “When I walked in Bob Marley was recording. They were looking for another female voice so I got the chance to record with the maestro on Punky, Reggae Party.”

Back in Jamaica Msimang formed a female trio called the Full Experience. It was the first time, she says, that African songs were done to reggae.

With the break up of her group and first marriage she went to Miami and did odd jobs. Later Cliff’s management sought her out. “Though I was still pissed off with him for his bad treatment of me I jumped at the offer as I wanted to get back to music and make some money. That was to lead to a tour of Europe. But when he headed for South Africa I pulled out because of the cultural boycott.”

She then went back to New York to be a co-manager of a reggae night club on the Lower East Side and produce African music with West Africans.

France’s progressive minister of culture at the time, Jacques Lange, was a patron of Francophone African music and making it a leading part of world music. Msimang got a lucky break singing with leading French singer Maxime le Forrestier, whom she calls “the Paul Simon of France”. “I provided Zulu refrain in a song that won the Victoire de la Musique Award, the French Emmy, for him.”

Besides doing studio work for musicians such as Manu Dibangu, she produced a record, Azania, on which Angelique Kidjo was a support vocalist. Msimang has been part of the music scene in Paris and Brussels for a decade and before returning to her native land, after an absence of 30 years, she recorded Itshe, a musical voyage evoked from childhood memories that is a summation of the various genres she has worked with.

Reggae Vision is at the Yard of Ale in Smit Street, Braamfontein until Saturday. For more information call (011) 648 0493 or 072 109 2299

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