CROSSBONES // An Interview with Violet Kafula

Music came from my parents because my mother was a singer and my father used to play in a band called the Black Voice Quartet. When I was in primary school, my teacher thought I had a beautiful voice and encouraged me to sing. We had community clubs where children would go and exercise their talents. Every time I went, I told my mum that I was going to play netball but I would go to where the band was. I started rehearsing and singing and my mum didn’t know about it until one particular occasion when she knocked off from work. As she was passing the club, she recognised my voice. She gave herself away because she came in shouting, “She should not be singing! She’s just a young girl! She’ll never be married! She’ll never finish school!” Somebody warned me and I ran like nobody’s business, out the window of course, and disappeared home.

In 1971, after my national service, I joined Mwaiseni Stores in Lusaka. There was a group called Born Free and I used to hang out with them quite a lot. After work, I would follow them wherever they were and they asked me to sell tickets. I told them I could sing but they didn’t believe it until much later when Born Free merged with Crosstown Traffic (which was another rock band) to form the Crossbones. That’s when Nicky Mwanza said, “Ok, we’ll give you an opportunity to sing.” I was told to take three polished songs to perform at the Woodpecker Inn. I got the songs from the person I admired most when I was young - Miriam Makeba. So I chose “Malcolm X,” “Iphi Indlela” and “Pata Pata” and from then on I never looked back.

In early 1974, President Kaunda declared that he wanted mostly Zambian music to be played by our broadcasting services so we went into the studio. I was told, “You come up with two tracks. You can’t just be on backing vocals. You’re also a lead singer.” So I came up with “Mweba Lume Bandi” and “Say That You Love Me.” I remember when we were recording I was so embarrassed but the engineer, Nikki Ashley, encouraged me and said that the song was going to be a hit. Nikki and Graham Skinner at dB Studios said we should produce “Mweba Lume Bandi” first because the song would sell the album later on. And in two weeks, it sold about 14 000 copies. And it’s always been a hit. Up to now, it’s still a hit. That’s what made me the first female artist in Zambia because there were no female musicians on the scene.

Around 1975, there was an incident at the University of Zambia that I’ve never forgotten. They had been studying Leninism and Marxism and when I went there I sang “Malcolm X” and all hell broke loose. They wanted to pull me from the stage and the band had to stop playing and help me. They unzipped my boots so the crowd took my boots and I got away. On another occasion, “Mweba Lume Bandi” was playing on a jukebox and this guy shouts, “Look! She’s here!” The owner of the bar had to lift me up and throw me over the counter to save me from the crowd. I couldn’t work for three weeks so you can imagine what my mother was feeling. She kept on saying, “I told her this is not the line to go.”

Being part of Crossbones was a beautiful experience. They didn’t look at me as a female and I didn’t look at them as men (or boys at that time). I was one of them and we used to share jokes and adventures. When the WITCH came to Lusaka from the Copperbelt, they stayed in my house. We toured together and at a certain point we decided to be adventurous and form Crosswitch. I recall when we went to perform in Botswana, we stayed at Polytechnic College and the first show was at the University of Botswana. I never used to drink but the guys tricked me. They said that milk stout was not alcohol and gave me a can. Half way and I was drunk. I still had to perform and I managed to sing but when we got back to the college where we were staying, we found the guard was sleeping and we waited for almost 45 minutes. Then I said, “I will climb! I did national service!” It was a really high wire fence and they told me I wouldn’t manage but I said, “Wait and see!” So I climbed up nicely but when coming down I cut myself and still have a scar as a souvenir. When I went to shake this guy up, he was so shocked that he almost hit me with his baton. He knew he was alone there and couldn’t believe that anyone could climb inside. So that’s how naughty I was.

Wise Man holds a lot of sweet memories. From the time we were rehearsing to the time we went into the studio, the togetherness of the Crossbones band was marvellous. When we were recording, we were a group of six. Now almost everybody is gone. It’s just me in Lusaka and lead guitarist George Mlauzi in Livingstone. We are the only surviving members of the Crossbones. When I received the phone call from Jason Connoy of Strawberry Rain in Canada saying he wanted to reproduce the record, at first I was a bit hesitant. I said, “This is Zambia! Canada? How did you get the music?” And he explained his research and I thought it was a great idea. It’s so amazing and so touching because we never dreamed that our music would be recognised abroad. Maybe even Zambians will rediscover it now because Zamrock is forgotten and not really appreciated in Zambia. I’ve talked at length with George Mlauzi and what we would like to do is bring other musicians of the 70s on board and rehearse the music we were playing to see if we can do a tour. I think that would be beautiful.

Interview conducted by Calum MacNaughton in Lusaka in August 2013

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