Jo'burg Riddim

Released from apartheid, Lucky Dube faces a new enemy

Lucky Dube sits in his office and watches the busy lunchtime hustle from his Johannesburg window. Back here in South Florida, the sun hasn't even risen yet. It's too early to contemplate even coffee at this hour.

Dube reflects on how things have changed since the end of apartheid in South Africa nine years ago. "Even though the old monster has died, there's a new monster in town that we have to deal with," he tells New Times over the telephone. "Things have changed politically, but it doesn't mean that all is well. Some changes are for the better, but there are new challenges and new problems that we have to face."

Born Ermelo Lucky Dube in a town 200 kilometers south of Johannesburg, the singer has become one of the nation's best-selling recording artists as well as one of its most outspoken performers.

What's the word? Johannesburg!
What's the word? Johannesburg!

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"Growing up, there were five of us on my mother's side of the family, as well as other family members who lived with us," he says in a soft South African lilt. "We were very poor, and sometimes, no one in the family would be working. My grandmother kept the whole family together. I used to think of her as a magician, as she would multiply nothing by nothing and come up with something. Things are different now -- I don't have to worry about whether I'll eat today or not or whether I'll have a place to stay, things like that."

His first shot as a professional musician came when he joined his cousin's band, the Love Brothers, which in 1979 recorded its first mbaqanga (a traditional Zulu/soul style), heavy on the percussion with intertwining melodious rhythms. Staying with this type of music, he released his debut solo album three years later. It was eventually certified gold.

Years earlier, Dube had become acquainted with the Rastafarian religion. While at school working in the library, he passed time by reading the encyclopedia, which was his introduction to Jamaican culture. This interest stayed with him, and as he progressed playing indigenous South African music, his fascination with reggae grew stronger -- especially the contraband works of Peter Tosh and Bob Marley that had to be smuggled into the country from Swaziland and Zimbabwe.

"The situations they were singing about in Jamaica," Dube explains, "were the same as I was going through in South Africa at the time, and I wanted to pass on the same messages of black identity and liberation to the world. However, reggae music wasn't freely available here and rarely played on the radio besides the occasional Jimmy Cliff or an unthreatening Bob Marley tune, because the government was very much against it. They banned most of the good stuff, and if they found you with a Peter Tosh tape or something similar, they would arrest you. Or you could just disappear one day, simply because they didn't want the people to hear what was being said in the lyrics."

Risking the consequences, Dube in 1995 recorded his first reggae album, Rasta Never Die -- the first such recording in South Africa. "I didn't tell anyone what I was doing, and only my producer and the sound engineer were with me," he recalls. "I played what instruments I could myself, then re-created the missing links on the computer. It was pretty crazy."

An out-of-place "Yeah mon!" rears up as an otherwise relaxed and pensive Dube continues his tale: "When people found out what I had done, they were very concerned for me, as they knew I could get into trouble for recording this type of music and that they would get into trouble for owning or liking it. I'm sure some of them thought I was crazy, as I moved from the well-known mbaqanga styles into something where there was no guarantee of even getting airplay, let alone a hit song."

Rasta Never Die was immediately banned from radio. Dube didn't let this stop him and went to work on his second reggae album, Think About the Children, which went gold. His third reggae album, Slave, was soaked with his incisive politics and sold in excess of 500,000 copies; his 1989 album, Prisoner, reached double-platinum status within five days of hitting the streets.

His early, angry material was characterized by anti-apartheid songs such as "Together as One." The bias of the state-run South African Broadcasting Corp. finally ended when it at last aired the tune. Then there were party songs such as "Feel Irie," a catchy ditty overflowing with authentic dub.

Dube remains in the shadow of his biggest influence, Peter Tosh. Sadly, though, Lucky's most recent material is diluted with softer-sounding melodies, occasionally slipping back to his familiar African rhythms, including the mbaqanga and soukous (South African soca) but sometimes becoming so mellow that UB40's ultracommercial reggae springs to mind. The lyrics now center mainly on personal demons from childhood, separation, apologies, and regrets. On Dube's newest album, The Other Side, nothing truly stands out as a winner, though his commitment remains clear.

"I've met people from all over the world while on tour who say that they want to return to Africa; yet certain people in Africa can't wait to get out of the continent," Dube says of the title track of his new album. "We have people here in Africa who change their African names to Western names, so that's really what the song is about. People think the grass is greener on the other side until you get there and see it for yourself."

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