01/06/2013

Skokiaan : the story by Peter Bowbrick from United Kingdom (2009/3/28)

Complete e-mail sent to me by Mr. Peter BOWBRICK :

2009/3/28 Quality Economics <quality.economics@blue...

August Musarugwa trained in the BSAP police band, with the bandmaster hitting him on the knuckles if he made a false note. Attached is a photograph of police bandsmen at BSAP Depot 1936. (Photo S.A. Bowbrick)

He was employed as a clerk by another ex-policeman, Syd Bowbrick (1907-1978) who was personnel manager for the Cold Storage Commission, the government meat marketing board from the end of 1949. Bowbrick organized works sports, cinema, etc. and the works band – the African Dance Band of the Cold Storage Commission under August Musarugwa.

Syd Bowbrick was strongly into preserving African music and dance, organizing village dance groups from the Zambezi valley to travel to Bulawayo for festivals or the Eisteddfod. He stopped abruptly when a police friend told him that the Special Branch (security) had opened a file on him. However he continued to support the works band.

There was an attempt to launch the band commercially. They got a well paid job in the Congo, but all their instruments were stolen. Neither the players nor their sponsor could afford to replace them. So it was back to the day job, clerking, plus playing local gigs with the firm’s instruments.

Bowbrick had met Hugh Tracy recording in the bush in the 1930s and arranged for him to record Musarugwa.

He also arranged for Gallo Africa to record Skokiaan somewhere between August and December 1953, in Bulawayo. The musical arrangement of this recording was influenced partly by the fact that they had to employ a session musician who played both the piano and the trumpet (He was paid 5 shillings (70c). He later became a full time member of the Bulawayo Sweet Rhythm Band.) Bowbrick prevailed on the band not to all play at once as they wished, but to let solos stand out, in deference to his unsophisticated western ear.

Bowbrick sent copies of the record to major record companies. Decca replied with a letter saying that Ted Heath, the top bandleader in Britain, did not think that it had any potential. Eventually it was picked up. Bowbrick always regretted that nobody picked up Musarugwa’s Tinochimero, which he thought would have been a bigger hit. The Chishona vocals probably put western bands off.

Spokes Mashiane recorded Skokiaan in 1955, some years before his hit, Kwela Claude, made the penny whistle acceptable.

After he got enough money to buy instruments, Musarugwa launched the Bulawayo Sweet Rhythm Band.

At the time African contestants in dance competitions wore white tie and tails. A 30 inch watch chain was de rigueur, going from the fly buttons to the right trouser pocket.

The tune came from the one played in shebeens to warn staff and customers that there was a police raid and staff and customers should dispose of the evidence. The sheebeen might indeed have been supplying skokiaan, but was more likely to have been selling lager or spirits – it was illegal to sell Natives (Black Africans) anything but the traditional beer – looking like a dilute maize or sorghum flour porridge with 2.5% alcohol. Skokiaan was sometimes traditional beer fortified with methylated spirits, which could blind or kill. Musarugwa was well acquainted with sheebeens as a policeman and as a customer.

When Louis Armstrong visited Bulawayo, some years after his hit, he arranged to play with August at his concert. Louis was shocked to hear that August had spent all his earnings. August was startled to hear how much he should have earned in royalties. On investigation, it turned out that this was because he had been asked to sign the standard contract, under which an African artist only got royalties on sales in Southern Africa. However, Bowbrick had vetted the contract and crossed out the relevant sentences before Musarugwa signed it, so he was entitled to full royalties. His lawyers, Coghlan and Welsh, took it up.

The name was definitely pronounced Musarugwa, but they were switching to a new orthography in the 1930s which could explain spelling differences.

I have a strong recollection of it being Bulawayo Sweet Rhythm, not Rhythms, Band – we had all the records at home.

It is my impression, but only that, that August joined the Cold Storage at about the same time as my father: they were certainly not allowed to leave the police during the war.

As a police bandsman he would have played several instruments. I never heard of him playing an mbira.

I have never heard of a 1947 recording. [what did I say about the year of first published ???]

Sources:  I knew August from age 5 to age 11, when he left the Cold Storage in 1954. My father Syd Bowbrick kept up with him until 1966 when Syd left the country after UDI. My brother, who was also at the recording session, worked for his solicitors. Peter Bowbrick.

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