Isaac Musekiwa: Zimbabwe’s forgotten gift to Congolese Rhumba

By Ranga Mberi

A lot has been said about the influence of Congolese and East African musicians on Zimbabwean music.

We know about rhumba and Kanindo, and how they gave Sungura to Zimbabwe. We know about the Congolese guys that moved to Zimbabwe over the years, making a major impact; Andrew Ngoyi and Joseph Kishala with their OK Success Band, which provided a base for many Zimbabwe legends.

There was Real Sounds of Africa, Ghaby Mumba’s band, who released soccer songs, like Dynamos vs Tornados and I am a football fan. Later, we had the likes of TP Nyekese (Ndochi), Diamond Musica and other DRC acts who came to Zimbabwe.

That, we knew. What many may not know is the story of one musician who went the opposite way. 

His name was Isaac Musekiwa, an auto mechanic who went to the Congo in the 1950s and was to later become a key member of guitar legend Franco’s TP OK Jazz Band, regarded as the most influential rhumba band of all time.

His is an intriguing and unlikely story.

Isaac was born around 1930 in Bulawayo. He moved to Salisbury in his teens, it appears. There, at a police camp, he would watch a local police band play, and would sneak into the rehearsal room where he taught himself how to play saxophone.

In 1949, a young Isaac moved to Lubumbashi, then known as Elisabethville, the capital of the mineral-rich Katanga province of the Congo. There, he worked as a mechanic and a driver by day, and a sax player in the local bars by night.

In Elisabethville in the early 1950s, publisher and saxophonist Ralph Benatar was doing the rounds in the pubs when he heard Isaac play. Within days, Ralph had convinced Isaac to travel with him to Kinshasa, Leopoldville then, where a new band was being set up.

Sax players were rare then. Isaac Musekiwa’s sax totally set apart the new band, African Jazz, from other acts. They had the sax player, and others didn’t. He even wrote some English songs sung by Joseph Kabasale, band leader. This was a first in Congo. Most music was either Lingala or French. 

Isaac’s sax had helped redefine the rhumba sound then, developing a unique sound that came to be known as “The OK Jazz School”. 

Isaac became a much sought after studio musician. One of his best, earliest performances is with the Satchmo-style Seven O’clock twist with Vedette Jazz.

He then made a big move, joining Franco Luambo’s band, OK Jazz, in 1957. Over the years, with Isaac by his side, Franco was to become Congo’s greatest rhumba star.

The band came to be known as TP (Tout Puissant, French for “all powerful”) OK Jazz. Isaac became close friends with Franco, for decades. The toured through Europe in the 1960s, a rare feat for African bands in that era. In 1983, the band toured Europe and the US. 

Isaac Musekiwa, 2nd from left. Franco is far right

Another member of the band was Sam Mangwana, the renowned Kinshasa vocalist born of a Zimbabwean father and Angolan mother, whose ‘70s songs Zimbabwe My Love and Tshimurenga Zimbabwe – songs of longing for home – would have resonated with Isaac.

In his book Rumba on the River: A History of the Popular Music of the Two Congos, Gary Stewart interviewed Isaac while he was on tour in the US with TPOK in 1983. He spoke about how the band had completely changed how rhumba was played.

“There was music. Another kind of music. But when Kabasale started to sing, he changed everything. And when Nico and Baraz started to play the solo for the guitar…you see that’s how the music started,” he says.

In 1989, veteran journalist Ish Mafundikwa met Isaac in Amsterdam during TPOK’s tour of Europe. Mafundikwa wrote an article on Franco for Parade magazine, in 1990. 

After what had been only a brief chat, the two arranged to meet again on the band’s next scheduled visit to Holland. Sadly, Isaac was to die before the band’s planned return. 

There isn’t much else out there on Isaac Musekiwa. Just his music; the wailing sax. He was on top form on tenor sax on Como Quere, a salsa-inspired track released in 1961. He appears on videos of the band performing; in Abidjan in 1980, in Utrecht in Netherlands, and in Brussels.

We want to know how he did it. How does a guy in his teens leave his country in the ‘50s, to settle far away in the Congo, and make it? He was in the Congo when the country was in upheaval. Congo’s 1960 independence, the Lumumba assassination, the rise of Mobutu, and all the events that followed. He played sax through it all.

It seems Isaac fought diabetes for many years, and was even taken ill while on that US tour. In 1990, a result of gangrene caused by diabetes, Musekiwa had one leg amputated. So ended his music years.

“We just liked music…”

He performed with Congo’s biggest and most successful band, under its most celebrated guitarist, but never made much money.

In one interview, he spoke with regret about all the many years wasted without getting what was due to them from all the big tours and record deals.

“We were very young, all of us. We didn’t know that some records, you can get some money from that. We just liked music…”

In 1989, Franco died. Tens of thousands lined the streets for his funeral. Mobutu declared four days of mourning. There are streets in Kinshasa named after the great.

Two years after Franco died, Isaac Musekiwa died in Kinshasa. That’s how it ended, this stellar career of 30 years with one of Africa’s iconic bands. It ended in obscurity, far away from his country of birth, virtually unknown to his people.