Constance van Niekerk
Published by The Southern Times
Vereeniging – It is a common belief in many African societies that musicians are poor, losers and uneducated.
This stereotype is particularly associated with those who are into reggae music.
Many people associate reggae with smoking marijuana and other substance abuse.
Although the stereotype might apply to some musicians world over, it is just that: a stereotype.
Take the case of a Zimbabwean man who throughout his career has been a barrier breaker.
He is not only educated – a Professor of Ethnomusicology at Michigan State University in the United States no less – but is also a devout Christian.
This is that man who brought Zimbabwe’s first Grammy Award nomination (Best Reggae Album) in 2010.
Ladies and gentlemen, meet King Isaac.
But where did this phenomenal journey start?
Born Isaac Gabriel Kalumbu in the high-density suburb of Mufakose, Harare, in 1965, he was dubbed “King Isaac” on his first visit to Jamaica in 1998 by Joseph “Bragga” Russell (Bob Marley’s former aide) at the Bob Marley Museum.
Having started writing poetry at the age of 14, he found the colonial regime’s censorship of reggae lifted round about the same time as Zimbabwe gained its independence.
“At around that time, Bob Marley came to Zimbabwe, and he was followed by many other reggae acts including Jimmy Cliff, Gregory Isaacs, Aswad, UB40, Dennis Brown, Culture, I Jah Man, Eric Donaldson, Don Carlos and many others.
“Reggae was the in-thing when I was young and impressionable. Singers like Peter Tosh, Sugar Minott, and Bunny Wailer were played on the radio.
“We heard the best reggae, so it was natural to be drawn to this ‘new’ music.
“DJ Mike Mundwa popularised reggae in Zimbabwe in the early ‘80s,” narrates King Isaac.
And naturally, King Isaac fell in love with the music of the late reggae great, Gregory Isaacs: a man who he came to idolise.
A dream was to come true when King Isaac was to later record an album with Gregory Isaacs, an experience the Zimbabwean describes as “surreal”.
Gregory Isaacs’s album, “Lonely Lover” was the first album King Isaac ever bought.
It was this album’s title that was to become one of the late icon’s two nicknames (though there was no song titled “Lonely Lover” on the album), the other nickname being The Cool Ruler.
By 1986, King Isaac was writing reggae lyrics and he recorded his first song, “Simuka,” with the band Mighty Force.
The song was produced by one of Zimbabwe’s finest in the industry, Louis Mhlanga, who now resides in South Africa. At this time, King Isaac was studying for a Bachelor’s degree in Economic History and History at the University of Zimbabwe.
In 1991, he left Zimbabwe to study for his Master’s and PhD in Ethnomusicology at Indiana University in the US.
“Coming to America brought me closer to Jamaica, which was my dream. Some people might call me a purist, but the only way to get that authentic reggae sound was to record in Jamaica.”
Once in the US, he and some colleagues formed a reggae group, “Zimbeggae”, that is Zimbabwe and reggae as named by their guitarist, Juan Dies.
What was to follow was King Isaac’s debut, self-titled album, which was released in Zimbabwe in 2002.
On this album was the song “Keeping It Away”, recorded on his first trip to Jamaica.
Radio favourites included “Peace, Love and Harmony”, “Moto Pasipo”, “Famba Zvakanaka” and “Kuchema Kwedu”, the last being a collaboration with the famed Mahotella Queens and guitarist Ntokozo Zungu.
Next came the “Munokokwa Mese” album released in Zimbabwe in 2004. This offering had smooth jams such as “Pangu Pangu” and the song for the jilted lover, “Kundibatisa Dombo”.
What inspired “Kundibatisa Dombo”, which loosely translates to something like “you left me stranded”?
King Isaac, dubbed The King of Love, laughingly explains: “Nothing really, just imagination. When you are a songwriter, you have to write about different situations and experiences that people go through so that your songs can relate with people.
“You have got to write about what people experience, so being stood up is something that happens to many, therefore it’s a good topic to write about.”
In 2004, the late Jamaican reggae veteran, Sugar Minott, invited King Isaac to perform at his annual “Reggae in The Hills” concert in St Catherine on the island.
The King Isaac charisma was on full display there and thereafter he and Sugar Minott recorded a duet titled “Rudo/Everlasting Love”.
This song was to be included on the 2006 album “Legends of Reggae Present King Isaac”.
King Isaac collaborated with several Jamaican artistes, including Gregory Isaacs (“One Cocoa”), Frankie Paul, Pam Hall, Leroy Sibbles, Dean Fraser and the legendary U Roy.
But the highlight in terms of international recognition was to come in 2010 when his collaboration with Gregory Isaacs was to be nominated in the Best Reggae Album category of the prestigious Grammy Awards in the US.
Unfortunately, though, The Cool Ruler died before he heard that the album “Isaacs Meets Isaac” had received such an honour.
Naturally, it has not been smooth sailing.
“When you are doing something that is positive or constructive, negativity is plentiful around you, plentiful like dirt.
“But, you just have to shut out the naysayers out and deal with the reality that work is better than talk any and every time.
“Negativity also comes from the difficulty of doing the work. Again, you just have to believe that you can overcome the obstacles. If you have this confidence, half the battle is won before you even start,” he says.
And one of the crushing moments was losing out on the 2010 Best Reggae Award in the Grammys to Buju Banton (now serving jail time on a narcotics charge), after the euphoria of having been nominated.
Regardless, King Isaac is still a winner to his numerous fans.
Consider this comment from Rejoice Mutibvu, a reggae fan based in far away Afghanistan: “King Isaac has proved that he is at par with the Jamaicans.
“The lyrics he writes are great. The only thing that gives him away as an African is when he sings in Shona, for example in “Rudo/Everlasting Love”. Otherwise I would never have thought he is Zimbabwean. His work is just splendid.”
Refreshingly, success has not gone to this superstar’s head. After congratulating him on his many successes, King Isaac responds: “As we say in Zimbabwe, ndeedu tose.” The direct translation is, “It’s for all of us.”
For King Isaac, all success comes from the Lord whom he worships.
So, what next for a man who sings like the best in the business and has a PhD in the bag?
King Isaac and Kevin Isaacs – son of the late Cool Ruler ‑ are planning a “Tribute to Gregory Isaacs Show” in Zimbabwe. And King Isaac is also working on a gospel album.
• Constance van Niekerk is based in Vereeniging, South Africa. She can be contacted on firstname.lastname@example.org