Home » Arts & Culture » When Sizzla Met Transit Crew

I meant to write this article in 2010 when Jamaican dancehall artiste, Miguel Orlando Collins aka Sizzla Kalonji was a guest at the Red Fox Hotel in Harare.

What stopped me from writing it then was due to the fact that I had relinquished my position as manager of Transit Crew, the group that was backing him during his Zimbabwe tour. I did not want my critical analysis of the event to be construed as sour grapes.

The band, for financial reasons, had refused to go to Bulawayo to back Sizzla at President Mugabe’s 86th birthday party. Sizzla ended up using his own CD’s as backing tracks.

Number 19 Greendale Avenue, opposite Food Lovers’ market in the suburb of Greendale was at the time described as “the nicest booting place in Harare” by many punters who liked to spend time outside the hustle and bustle of the city.

Managed by Robert Zhuwao and his team, the Red Fox had become a hive of activity for reggae and dancehall music lovers in Harare.

Up to this day, although under renovations, The Red Fox Hotel is still vibrant, although the ladies of the night who used to mill around the venue no longer find viable business there. The venue itself is still suitable for reggae and dancehall.

On one side inside the venue, the tables and chairs crowd the floor space. Before the bar, the other section is clear except for a pool table and two braai stands.

The front of the room is one large area stretching the width of the building where low pallets are laid to form a stage.

I had not been to the venue since my band, Transit Crew, which used perform there every Friday night, left after a fall out with management there.

Last week, I decided to visit the venue once more to reminisce about the past. The building had been renovated. The rusty steel stands of bygone days had been re-painted.

The streets which used to be flooded by hookers, looked deserted and forgotten. The old odd job man, whom I had last seen five years ago was still there.

As I greet him, the old man pauses in his work, leaning on the broom to catch his breath.

Life has never been particularly easy but recently even his own body seems to have been against him. He told me that there was a touch-and-go period a few months ago when he had been uncertain whether he would ever sweep this floor again.

That time he had won the fight and now he stands, half lost in memories, surveying the room that has been his second home for the past five years. A casual passer-by might mistake him for the janitor but the first of his regulars who are beginning to drift in know him well enough.

His name is David and this is his club. David, five years ago was behind the bar to break open beers and soft drinks for the group of young brothers who had strung themselves out around the room. For a couple of minutes, he swaps small-talk, smiling indulgently at their jive and boasts. Five years ago, I remember he was less forthcoming to the same group of brothers when they asked him about the Sizzla show which had been billed for Monday, the March 1 though, as nothing had been confirmed by Nhamo Chitimbe who seemed to be in control of the artiste’s movement in Zimbabwe. All he could say was “There’s a rumour something big, really big, is going to happen”. “Stick around. Who knows?” He shrugged and disappeared out back into the kitchen to arrange the evening’s food.

On this occasion, five years ago, the fellas take their drinks and disperse to their favourite positions in The Red Fox. One asks the DJ to play some favourite reggae tunes, it may be an old club but it gets the latest sounds. Two take up their running battle on the snooker table.

The others just sit around on the low stage or by the open doors where they whistle approvingly at Shelter and Nelia or any passing waitresses. It’s early evening on a steamy Monday and they are tuning up for the best night of the week.

By 9pm, The Red Fox is livening up. There are about forty people in the club now and more arriving all the time. Up on stage, Transit Crew is well into the first of several long, hard, sweaty sets. Their accent is on rhythm.

Elsewhere and across the nation, rhumba, sungura, gospel and more complex productions have taken hold of the charts but here they still like the conscious reggae beat, sharp and simple.

Rhythm heavy but crisp and tight, down-to-earth singing, emotion from the gut. In two words – “Pure Niceness”.

Tonight, the Transit Crew singer is J. Farai, a local favourite with one or two records to his credit but no hits so far like small-time groups everywhere, J. Farai and his band entertain by hammering out competent versions of Jamaican singers’ hits. The crowd wants to dance, drink and have a good time and they want tunes they can recognise: “Nice Nice To Know You, Let’s Do It Again”, “Waiting In Vain”, “Satamasangana”, “Addis Ababa” “Love Fire”, “Zimbabwe”, “Ganja Planter” “You Don’t Haffi Dread To Be Rasta” and “Stir It Up”. Sometime during the evening, J. Farai will slip in a couple of his own songs, “Lord If I Cried The First Time I Came into This Life” and “Unity”. But for the most part, he and the band take the various sounds and styles of Jamaican reggae hits and turn them into an endless stream of gritty, conscious sounds.

Soon, although it is on a Monday, the club is as crowded as on Friday nights.

Up to a hundred noisy patrons dancing, sitting around the tables, laughing and joking, leaning across to shout good-natured jibes at their neighbours. Two or three “waitresses”, indistinguishable from the customers, pass around the tables dishing out bottled drinks ranging from Castle Lager and Zambezi to Lion Lager and Hunters Gold.

A steady flow of people who include dread-locked Rastas jostle between the dancers to the bar or out onto the street for a spliff.

Just after midnight, the commotion intensifies. Over by the door the crowd seems to have suddenly got thicker. Shouts and squeals waft in from the outside.

More and more patrons drift over to catch what’s happening or they lean across the tables, straining to peer through the crush.

The dancers stop their gyrations, the men at the bar forget their orders, all heads turn towards the door. Transit Crew band plays on but only half-heartedly now.

No one is listening and they too are trying to see what’s happening in the corner.

The mass breaks away from the door, flowing clumsily back into the club. It parts like the Red Sea, leaving a narrow passageway.

Through this human corridor, strides a lanky, determined-looking man dressed in black with a Winky D type bowler hat covering his dreadlocks.

There’s not much of him to see, yet he immediately dominates the room. Everyone has on their party best but his suit is sharper, finely tailored to his slim frame, clean to the bone. Most of the crowd are more expensively clad than the newcomer.

But his few pieces are large and genuine, glinting with the fire of a small fortune. More than anything else, it is his face that sets him apart. It is a face of marked contrasts.

A broad mouth, now split into an engaging smile full of expensive dentistry as evidenced by his gold tooth, the smile belied by penetrating eyes, alert, probing and seldom soft. It is, in the truest sense of the word, an attractive face.

A face that commands attention and demands respect. A face that in the preceding few years has finally been recognised the world over.

As soon as I exchange greetings with him, I go on the stage, grab the microphone from J.Farai and announce loudly (You can check this out on You Tube),”Please welcome to the Red Fox, all the way from Kingston, Jamaica, the hardest working man in show business, Mr Sizzla Kalonji.”

While he acknowledges the tumultuous reception, a waiter is dispatched to escort the honoured guest and his small entourage to hastily located sofas opposite the stage inside the venue where they are joined by the proprietor, Robert Zhuwao. The band finds its beat again, the customers struggle back to their tables, the club picks up the rhythm of its party. But it is now on a keener pitch.

This is no longer any old Transit Crew Friday night.

The word goes out. Within minutes the crowd has swelled to twice the normal capacity of the club. The floor space is soon blocked by expectant fans, most of them content just to stand and watch Sizzla, others eagerly jostling for a position from which they can talk to the star.

He’s used to this game. Usually, it’s nothing more than a ritual greeting, a stylized catch-phrase or two, “Greetings in the name of his Imperial Majesty, King of Kings, Lord of Lords, Conquering Lion of Judah, King Sellassie JahRastafari”.

Occasionally, there’ll be a sour grape in the bunch, juiced up and spoiling for a fight. But not here.

Not tonight! At The Red Fox, Sizzla doesn’t have to prove a damn thing to anyone.

They already know his music. They all know where he’s coming from and he is aware of it.

Although he was not paid to sing on this particular night, on any visit to any night club, Sizzla knows he is going to be asked to sing at least one number with the house band. More often than not, he’ll decline, preferring to relax and socialise, understandably chary of performing with unknown, unrehearsed musicians, but not at the Red Fox.

As if on cue, I stop the band and beg him to take to the stage. Sizzla is ceremonially escorted through the crowd, organises a hasty conference with Transit Crew to discover which of his hits these local boys know best, then grabs the microphone. There are no further preliminaries. No flippant introduction. No polite “Hello”. Nor does he check again with the band except when he commands them to “pull up” and “freeze”.

They have assured him they can cope, now they’ve got to prove it. He’s not about to follow them. They’d better be ready to keep up with him.

“Jah Rastafari! Is everyone feeling irie?” he chants.

The response from the crowd is immediate and ecstatic. “We feeling irie!”

Sizzla and the crowd toss these words back and forth, forming a hypnotic chant that rises in intensity with each call and response.

At this final screeched command, the band rips into Sizzla’s own compositions, “Thank You Mama” and “Zimbabwe”.

Like a jumbo jet soaring into the sky, the night ends with Sizzla, Transit Crew and The Red Fox Team feeling triumphant.

Source : The Herald