By Arthur Choga
The conversations around Kelly Rusike, the talented jazz bassist who recently passed away in Harare, have been very interesting.
They paint a picture of how musicians who are not lead singers are often painted into the background of the music, like the tracks they lay with their instruments.
Zimbabwe does not have a great history of recognising the musicians behind the person holding the microphone, and Kelly Rusike is a prime example of this. Revered by fellow artistes, and recognised and acknowledged far beyond the borders of Zimbabwe, some people still asked “Kelly who?” when news of his passing was announced.
Easily one of the greatest bass players this country has ever produced, it is sad that many people recognise him more for an advert for a super refined maize meal from the 1980s than for his extensive body of work spanning over six decades.
Kelly Rusike began his musical journey in Zambia. His parents were based there in the 1970s. Like many at the time, the family had moved there to escape various challenges associated with aligning with the liberation struggle.
His father, Abiather, had been in a band called the Boogie Woogie Songsters, and the genes clearly flowed through to the children. His mother, Jane, sang in the Methodist church choir. The musical DNA was inescapable.
I had the pleasure of interviewing Kelly Rusike in early 2022 for a show I was doing. He told me the story of how one day their father came back home and found the children performing in the living room. The Jackson 5 owned the family band space in those days and, inevitably, the boys – Tawanda, Phillip, Abby, Collin and Kelly – were singing and performing songs by the Jacksons.
Being an artiste, their father saw the potential and encouraged them to take up instruments and sing. Kelly picked the bass.
Just to show how deep the musical blood flowed through these brothers, a cousin of theirs, Brian, would shape one of Zimbabwe’s most innovative bands, The Pied Pipers.
At that young age, the boys began performing in Zambia and even shared the stage with the Zambian luminary Emmanuel Mulemena (Yes, everyone knows at least one lyric from the Mulemena Boys.)
Kelly would grow his skills on the bass. Soon, he owned the instrument, developing a playing style that allowed him to easily switch across genres while maintaining his control of songs.
The Rusike Brothers, as the group was now known, would score a hit after Zimbabwe’s independence, with Saturday Night.
Their pop influences were obvious, from the outfits to the choreography. The public was stunned and fell in love instantly. Kelly was the one in the background, keeping the thumping basslines coming as the Rusike Brothers dominated charts with hits like Cecilia, their rendition of a Paul Simon and Art Garfunkel classic.
The Rusike Brothers became the bedrock on which Kelly built his formidable career. He helped launch Rozalla Miller’s path to stardom, playing with his brothers on her debut hit Party Nights.
When the band released their first records, they signed with Shed Studios in Harare. Ever the music devotee, Kelly got involved in the business of music, trying his hand at production with Shed Studios. Such was his range as a producer, he helped record musicians from diverse sounds – he was to produce everything from jazz to Gospel Trumpet, the popular gospel band that found stardom in the late 1990s.
Kelly remained involved in Shed Studios, as the head of the company, till his passing.
In the 1990s, famed drummer Sam Mataure created a concept that he called Jazz Invitation. He wanted to build an ensemble that could play anywhere and at any time. It would be a “moving jazz café”, Sam would say. One of the first people he invited to be part of the vision was Kelly Rusike. The concept caught on, and when Sam left Zimbabwe to relocate to South Africa in the 2000s, Kelly remained in charge of the Jazz Invitation
Members would come and go. Their most famous recording would come with their debut album Rehearsal Room in 2004. Featuring Victor Duarte on drums, Richie Lopez on saxophone, Manasa Majawo and Filbert Marowa on keyboards and Prudence Katomeni- Mbofana on vocals, the lead single off that album was called BP Yangu Yakwira. It was catchy, it was relevant and it captured the imagination of the nation. The bassline that trips playfully in the background was vintage Kelly. Almost two decades on, BP Yangu Yakwira remains a staple on jazz playlists.
As a testament to the song’s crossover appeal, BP also gained much popularity among football fans when SFM presenter Tymon Makina used it as a post-match background song for what he called “The BP Check” in which he would go over the day’s football results and play the song as he asked fans how they were feeling.
Kelly’s children Courtney and Cole were members of Jazz Invitation and they carried forward the musical genes.
Kelly played for a multitude of local and international bands. He has performed with Talking Drum, Oliver Mtukudzi, Louis Mhlanga, Jimmy Dludlu, the Cool Crooners, and a host of global artistes. Kelly’s basslines were in demand and he would on occasion spend months on tour in places such as the famed Ibiza resort, playing before the world’s rich and famous.
Through it all, he remained laid back and easy to reach out to.
One of the most common comments after his death was that he was “always helpful”
It speaks volumes about his nature.
Just like the basslines he laid down without overpowering the songs he helped create, he was always ready to make every song he touched better.
Michael Lannas of Talking Drum said in a post on Facebook: “Kelly Rusike had more music in his left foot than most so-called Zimbabwean music ‘legends’ have in their entire head.”
Lannas knows music, and he knew Kelly. His word carries weight.
The hope is that more people will now take the time to listen to this genius from the Rusike family and appreciate just how good he was. And that more people will take time to take in the music in their favourite songs so they never again have to ask, “Kelly who?”