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By Leonard Koloko
Great musicians, like great statesmen, are not that easy to replace or erase from memory.
This can rightly be said of the late Keith Mlevhu, one of the inventors of “Zamrock” and creator of inarguably Zambia’s most popular patriotic anthem – the evergreen ‘Ubuntungwa’!
Born on September 14, 1950 in Chingola, Shem Michael Mlevhu, the lonely and only son of Mr and Mrs Mlevhu was a highly accomplished music maker whose name keeps popping up now and again on the Zambian and indeed world music scene. His masterly is still revered by fans and fellow musicians alike.
A naturally gifted artiste, Keith was barely thirteen years old when he started hanging around elders from a Chingola group called the Dynamite Mixies led by Goodwin ‘Agudu’ Chimenya.
He graduated from playing tin banjos in Kabundi North to honing his skills on the same band’s electric guitars and drums while helping out as an instruments handy boy. Together with his friend Teddy Khuluzwa (a.k.a Doctor Footswitch), he formed his first band, Dyna-Magic which played whenever the Dynamite-Mixies were on break at the then exclusive Nchanga Hotel.
After ‘Agudu’ left Chingola, the Mixies (renamed as The Tones) eventually broke up. Keith, Teddy, Joe Phiri and Jerry Mausala took over at Nchanga Hotel as the New Orleans band.
In 1969 the youngsters stormed Lusaka where they recruited drummer Baldwin Watson Lungu to become the Rave Five, a captivating teeny rock group modeled on the Rolling Stones. It was with the same Rave Five that ‘Shem’ picked up the ‘Keith Mickson’ nickname, derived from his Stones idols Keith Richards and Mick Jagger. Interestingly the other band members also adapted European names – ‘Teddy Jagger,’ ‘Jerry Edwards,’ ‘Joe Richards’ and ‘Baldwin Watts!’
The Rave Five were unsurpassed when they scooped First Prize at the ‘Mini Woodstock Festival’ held at Jubilee Hall (Lusaka showgrounds) in 1969. The following year they splintered with Keith forming a three piece band, The End, which featured bassist Ricky Banda and drummer Elly White Zulu.
Popular around the Chingola and Chililabombwe entertainment circuit they went on to win First Prize during the 1971 Zambia Agricultural and Commercial Show ‘battle of the bands’ contest. Later they undertook a residential tour of Congo-Kinshasa (now Congo DR) where Keith and Ricky Banda were pursued by the legendary Tabu Ley’s Orchestre Afrisa International band. On return from Lubumbashi the End disbanded with Keith, Watts and Mausala reuniting to form Mac Beth in 1972.
Immediately Mac Beth broke up in 1973 the star studded Aqualung was born in Mufulira with Keith on lead, Ricky Banda (Bass), Jux Kasuba (drums), Teddy Khuluzwa on vocals and guitar and Cosmos Zani (Organ). It was during this same period that Keith also enrolled for his diploma in music at Evelyn Hone College where he would later be retained as a lecturer in 1976.
Keith turned solo in 1975, launching his best seller Zam-rock album Banafimbusa, recorded at Lusaka’s ZBS studios soon after his debut humanism promo single, ‘You, Me and the Other Fellow’. Re-issued by ZNBC in 2009, the album still rocks out his modernised traditional music gems like ‘Liyense’, ‘Nko nko nko Kuchibi’, ‘Banafimbusa’, ‘Dzikolino ni Zambia’, ‘We Mayo Tula Chula’ and ‘Mwana O Panda Bambo’.
His second album, Love and Freedom, was recorded at Sapra Studios (Nairobi) and issued by Teal Record Company in 1976. It carries vital social comment messages like ‘Fwe Bana Ba Nomba’ (youth moral decay) and ‘Bwelenimo Kumushi’ (pro agriculture). Other tracks include ‘Ubuntungwa’, ‘Inkongole Tashwama’, ‘I Am your Star’ and ‘My Gun’. This folk-rock classic album was re-issued in France on the Warner Electra Atlantic (WEA) label in 1978.
Keith recorded and produced his third and fourth albums, Through Fire to Heaven and Touch of the Sun, at dB Studios (Lusaka) and Malachite Film Studio (Chingola) respectively. In 1977 Through Fire to Heaven earned Keith his first and only victory over Rikki Ililonga in the local music media polls and live contests after previously finishing second to his arch rival for two consecutive years as ‘Best Solo Artiste’. The album would also finish second to Ngozi Family’s UK recorded Heavy Metal in the 1978 polls.
Keith, a devout Christian SDA is said to have, ‘never embarked on anything musical or otherwise without first singing praises to the Lord.’ This aptly explains the genesis of his spiritually inclined songs like the heavy but touchy Kaonde gospel-rock masterpiece ‘Lesa Wethu Yewayuka’ (Only God Knows), ‘Adam and Eve’, ‘Through Fire to Heaven’, ‘The Rich and the Poor’, ‘Touch of the Sun’, ‘Repenting My Sins’, ‘The Bad Will Die’ and ‘Lord My Saviour’.
On all his works Keith stood out as a fabulous ‘one man band’, intricately playing multiple musical instruments in addition to doing all vocals, producing, writing and arranging his music all alone. He also once co-mixed an entire album (Through Fire to Heaven) with dB Studios veteran sound engineer Peter Musungilo.
Keith further showed flair at producing and directing others as early as 1976. Beneficiaries include Cosmos Zani (Humanism, solo album), Thomas Mambo (‘Kumalembe’), Chris Chilangwa (‘Chishimba Nabwela’ and ‘Ichalo Chesu’), James Phiri (‘Little Miss Cloud’) and Violet Kafula (‘Theresa Mubanga’ and ‘Maganizo’, and the now lost unreleased Bashi Mulenga album).
In 1983 he was embroiled in media controversy over a hot tempered radio interview with the late Lawson Chishimba where he castigated government and phony fans for paying lip service to the promotion and appreciation of the local music industry.
“They are the same bastards who never bothered to buy my records”, he was reported saying. Advising upcoming artistes he retorted: “They better hang up their guitars because Zambians have nothing to offer.” In his closing remarks he uttered: “… yeah, we’ll meet at the grave or in hell.”
Times of Zambia journalist Hicks Sikazwe, following up the same story, was nearly manhandled at Savoy Hotel and told to: “…get your scruffy face out of this place! Go and tell your boss I don’t want talk to you people (the press)”.
Largely igniting Keith’s frustration outbursts were unexpected low record sales and high entertainment tax (pegged at 30% when artistes earned 5 – 10% royalties). Seemingly under protest Keith retrieved all his master tapes after terminating his contract with Teal.
But interestingly, he onetime announced, “…I am killing two birds with one stone”, further revealing that he was recording Zambia’s first ever double album rightly titled ‘One Man Band’ and producing a debut for his newly revived Aqualung band.
Of his unreleased album Keith bragged: “People say I am too classically inclined for their taste, therefore this time I am coming up with some simple stuff.” Sadly, the album sampled on tape by the late Times of Zambia reporter Richards Mwanza remains lost.
During his ‘AWOL’ Keith continued performing live with the bands he was mentoring in Mufulira and Chingola – New Aqualung, Mulungushi Beat and The Ark Angels. He also ventured into film, recording the music score for a short ZCCM docudrama, For a Secure Future in which he starred as a ‘Pick-Pocket.’
Eventually in 1983 he was employed as Sound Engineer at ZCCM’s Malachite Film Studios, replacing his mentor and Chingola town mate, the Zambian folk legend Emmanuel Mulemena after his demise in 1982.
Keith relocated to Ndola after the studio was moved to join other ZCCM Public Relations Units (Mining Mirror and ZCCM Archives) at the North Rise offices. Malachite was now re-named Ulubuto Productions. The New Aqualung also moved along and became The Wanderers and was now resident at New Savoy Hotel.
It was at the same Savoy Hotel that one evening he met the love of his life in an interesting romance story. During that Congo visit in 1971, Keith befriended a Brazzaville-Congolese guy whose 11-year old sister secretly admired him
Ten years later the two met in Zambia and eventually tied the knot. Sadly the fairy tale love story ended on March 5, 1988 when Keith Mlevhu passed on at Luanshya Mine Hospital, leaving behind a daughter named Vivian.
In a Zambia Daily Mail interview with the late Music Columnist and musician Wapolina Mkandawire Keith’s widow, Matilda, revealed that the two had vowed that when one of them died, the survivor would remain single in the other’s honour. At the time of the interview she said she was single and only married to Keith’s music.
With old Zambian music recently being rediscovered and reissued internationally Keith’s music is on high demand for repackaging and reissue by overseas producers like Strawberry Rain Music and Now Again Records who have already unearthed many forgotten Zambian music legends like The Witch, Amanaz, Ngozi Family, The Peace, and The Black Foot. This has been done with the help of his fellow legends, Rikki Ililonga and Jagari Chanda.
Though some of Keith’s music from the known four albums have been digitalized the major bottle neck to its official re-release is that the international record producers are seeking close relatives with whom to legitimize the deals.
“It is sad that Keith’s next of kin have been difficult to find but we are doing our best to locate them so that the family could benefit from the talented man’s works once again as it has happened to many others,” says Rikki Ililonga who has brokered similar deals for Jagari Chanda (WITCH), Keith Kabwe (Amanaz), Mike Nyoni and Ngozi Family.
Editor’s Note: Anyone with information about Keith Mlevhu’s close relatives can get in touch with this paper or call Rikki Ililonga (0961094919) or this writer on 0966808521.