Don Gumbo, the King of Cool

Don Gumbo / youtube

Don Gumbo was every bit the bass player stereotype: the cool, mysterious one in the band. The one always with the shades, with that arrogant swagger about him.

He was also more; as lead singer of Zimbabwean 80s-90s super-band Ilanga (“the sun”), Gumbo helped create a sound that broke from the “traditional” Zimbabwean sound, creating a new Afro-jazz fusion that inspired a new sound in Zimbabwe.

It was with his bass guitar that he pushed that revolution. Left handed, legend has it that, early in his career, he couldn’t find a left-handed bass. So he got the right-handed instrument anyway – and played it upside down!

Never one for tradition, he slung his bass lower than most bassists hold theirs, at the same time providing Ilanga’s lead vocals.

Meshing together various sounds from Southern Africa with Zimbabwe’s old rhythms, Ilanga had created a new sound they called “Hybrid”, and Gumbo’s bass was the heart and soul of Ilanga’s rhythms.

His bass commanded Ilanga’s music, whatever the pace; On Tshisalanga, one of the band’s biggest hits, Gumbo puts up one of his best ever bass performances. Gumbo’s bass swings between a haunting, mournful strain to a thumping rhythm at the chorus. And let’s not even talk about that sequence in the middle of True Love there. Yes, the part where he ‘spars’ with Andy Brown. That one.

He was as strong-willed as he was talented. When band members disagreed with the direction the band was taking, they simply left, and he would never express regret. Munya Brown, a Jamaican drummer who had joined the band after touring with reggae band Misty in Roots, left the band after differences with Gumbo.

Gumbo was to later tell music researcher Fred Zindi that Brown’s departure was a blessing in disguise. Munya left during recording; his replacement was an electronic drum machine. You’d expect Don to be all purist about using a drum machine, but nah. The machine used on the smash hit Shosholoza, became the “magic formula” the group needed for the break out hit they needed then, Don remarked!

With its all-star cast, Ilanga was bound to break up. After the split, Gumbo left for South Africa, where he formed a new band, “Tshisalanga”. I always find it awesome that band members formed bands whose names had to do with the elements: Don’s Tshisalanga, Andy Brown’s The Storm, and Busi Ncube’s The Band Rain.

Don later appeared as a session bassist for many singers. These included Jabu Khanyile, with whom he appears on the video for Ten Times Love.

And, on that video, shot on stage, there he is, our Don, the mysterious guy in the background, the cool dude with the glasses on, swag-game on 100.



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