OBITUARY: Kelly Rusike: Is this it?

The late Jazz Invitation frontman Kelly Rusike

I WAS completely devastated to hear that legendary bass player, music producer, songwriter, sound engineer and Jazz Invitation frontman Kelly Rusike, aged 59, is gone.

He died from diabetic complications on Wednesday.

Kelly played the funkiest and most memorable killer bass riffs Zimbabwe has ever seen.

Where were you in 1980 when Zimbabwe attained independence from British rule?

Perhaps you were not yet born, but I must tell you about the exciting moments of the 1980s.

There was this pop band which came from Zambia with a big bang. They called themselves the Rusike Brothers. Kelly Rusike was one of them.

The Rusike Brothers were a family band made up of five brothers, just like the Jackson Five.

They were very popular in the 1980s and 1990s and were famous for their dazzling dancing styles and also for their weird sense of fashion as evidenced by their donning saggy and baggy gunshot jeans with holes in them.

Sometimes they went out of their way to tear the jeans in keeping with the fashion trends of the day.

They were one of the first Zimbabwean pop groups in the 1990s at most club nights as well as dance halls such as Arcadia Community Hall in Harare.

For two decades, the Rusikes dominated the changing face of post-independence popular music in Zimbabwe when everybody danced to the pulse of rhythm from the Rusikes.

The Rusike family band was formed in 1978 in Lusaka, Zambia.

With the influence of their father who was simply known as A, B, C (short for Abiathar Benjamin Chakuvinga), Tawanda (born on June 9, 1958), Abbie, Phillip, the twins Kelly and Colin (born on March 17, 1964) became southern Africa’s answer to the Jackson Five.

Most of their early music was influenced by the Jacksons and their dancing routines were modelled around top Black American pop acts of the 1970s. They even tried the famous moonwalk.

It is difficult to separate Kelly from the Rusike Brothers, although at a later stage he formed his own band known as Jazz Invitation (more about that later).

The Rusikes had moved from Zimbabwe to Zambia in 1965 during the liberation struggle. Kelly was only one-year-old at the time.

Their father was also a musician in a band called The Boogie Woogie Stars in the 1960s.

He was also a teacher and journalist in the then Rhodesia.

After finding it difficult to continue to write freely in an oppressive State, he chose to move his family to Zambia, a country which had just attained its independence from Britain.

Kelly and Colin, the twins in the family, were only close to two years old at the time of their move to Zambia.

Kelly, in particular, told me about the moments he and Colin started school at the Dominican Convent in Ndola, where he learned to speak Bemba just like any Zambian.

From the albums his father bought, they used to listen to music from Sonny Sondo, who sang in Bemba.

Kelly had mastered the language to the extent that on April 28, 2015, he sang two songs when he shared the stage with the former President of Zambia, the late Kenneth Kaunda, one titled Tiende Pamodzi , and another called Mupende Bwino to which they both received a standing ovation from the audience present.

In 1980 when Zimbabwe attained Independence and after performing in front of large audiences in Zambia, the family packed their bags and returned to the newly independent Zimbabwe, where they were an instant hit with Saturday Night, their debut single.

With an aggressive push from ABC, who was also their manager, they were given several advertising jobs.

These included voice-overs on the Post Office Savings Bank advertisement, Roller Meal videos, Merlins linen, newspaper and video advertisements.

The most popular jingle they ever did was Ngwerewere Sadza, which advertised Ngwerewere mealie-meal, Zimbabwe’s staple food.

Two singles were released between 1981 and 1985 and despite this seemingly lack of progress in the recording business, the Rusikes made a lot of business in top night clubs of Harare and Bulawayo. They also made a great impact at live shows.

In 1982, they were the supporting act for ASWAD, a reggae group from England, when it toured Zimbabwe. In 1988, their debut album Rhythm of My Heart was released.

This included their hit single, a version of Simon Garfunkel’s Cecilia which featured on Radio 3’s (now Power FM) HitPick for 12 weeks.

In 1990, the Rusikes became the main support act for Randy Crawford’s show in Harare.

Work on a second album began at the same time, but a few snags at the studio plus the untimely death of their father, ABC, forced the Rusikes to abandon the work on the album.

Instead, a re-mix version of Saturday Night was released.

In 1992, I was part of the team that went to the United Kingdom with the Rusikes.

Due to poor planning on the part of their Malawian promoter, Jeff Macadam, their trip did not make a big impact overseas.

The Rusikes became Zimbabwe’s top family group which stayed together for a long time as performers.

It was also the Rusikes who started off artistes such as the now-internationally acclaimed Rozalla Miller whose hit single, Everybody is Free to Feel Good wowed the world a few years ago.

In 1995, they recorded an album that included a Paul Simon classic and hit song entitled If You Really Need Me.

Now back to Kelly as I promised:

I negotiated the contract for the jingle Ngwerewere Sadza with management at the Grain Marketing Board.

The band went to shoot a video of the advertisement. The contract was supposed to last one year only, but because the video was so popular in Zimbabwe, they kept playing it beyond the agreed 12 months.

Kelly came to me and suggested that I go with him to stop the advertisement.

We negotiated with the management and they gave us a cheque of an extra $10 000 on condition that the band changed from the black and white video to a colour one, which they would continue to use for another two years.

I suggested that the cheque should be written in Kelly’s name. Kelly went to cash the cheque and did not share the money with his brothers. Tawanda and Abby were upset.

The dispute rose to the extent that Kelly decided to quit the Rusike Brothers band.

It was a difficult decision as he remained part of the family which had a long and rich history together as a band.

By 2000, Colin and Kelly, the twins, had both left the group. Kelly formed his own group, The Jazz Invitation, with female singer Prudence Katomeni-Mbofana, Bernie Bismarck on keyboards, Simba Dembedza on drums, Matthew Ngorima on guitar, Vee Mukarati on saxophone and also Patience Musa on vocals.

Besides being the band leader of Jazz Invitation, Kelly also owned Shed Studios, which recorded songs such as BP Yangu Yakwira (written by Filbert Marova and sung by Prudence Katomeni-Mbofana).

Kelly, like Michael Jackson who decided to split from his brothers after the Victory Tour in 1984, also decided to go solo when he formed Jazz Invitation, which started to play a different genre of music from the Rusikes.

The concept, Jazz Invitation, was originally conceived by drummer and musical entrepreneur from Mutare, Sam Mataure, who initially invited different musicians to play at Jazz festivals around the country.

The novel idea caught on like wildfire as it brought together musicians of varied styles and tastes.

The band’s line-up changed several times over the years with Kelly (bassist/vocals) remaining the only constant.

It started with Victor on the drums and eventually incorporated Mataure, Richie Lopes, Kudzie and Louis Mhlanga.

When the Frontline Kids split up, Kelly took Filbert Marova as Jazz Invitation’s keyboards player.

I asked Kelly whether he no longer belonged to the Rusike Brothers and why he found it necessary to form a band without his brothers. 

Here is what he had to say:

“I will always be a part of the Rusike Brothers, because, and most importantly, we are family. I owe a lot of my musical journey to my brothers. Even though Jazz Invitation is my pride and passion, I still do play with them from time to time and will continue to do so when time allows. We might have our differences, but the important thing is that we are family”.

Indeed, in June 2014, a music promoter in Slovakia visited the social media platform, YouTube, and saw the Rusike Brothers doing their thing.

He likened them to the Jackson 5 and was amazed to know that such a group existed in Africa. He was impressed. He called Zimbabwe to find out how he could get in touch with the group.

In no time at all, he had invited the Rusikes to do a two-week tour in Slovakia, where the three brothers Tawanda, Philip and Abbie teamed up with their prodigal brother, Kelly of Jazz Invitation, Jose on drums, Kurt Rusike on vocals and Isheunopa Jera on keyboards to showcase to the rest of the Czech Republic and Slovakia what the promoter saw and liked.

Missing from the original team was Kelly’s twin brother, Colin, who went to the UK during the Rusikes tour of the UK and has not been heard of since. There is speculation that he might also be dead.

Kelly’s skill and passion is legendary. He will be sorely missed.

His passing leaves a big void in Zimbabwe’s music legacy. May his dear soul rest in eternal peace.

Related Topics