columnBy Ben Phiri
THE Big Gold Six is probably Zambia's oldest band after the Cool Nights, but the only difference is that the outfit is miraculously still alive.
Unlike the Cool Nights who were formed in 1961 and are now no more, this Big Gold Six's heart is still throbbing, determined to live much longer than anticipated.
This is a big surprise and one has to question himself over and over to truly believe that this band actually exists.
The band has been around for more than 45 years from the time of its inception as the Lusaka Radio Band in 1965 then sponsored by Zambia Broadcasting Services (ZBS), the forerunner to the Zambia National Broadcasting Corporation (ZNBC).
"We started as Lusaka Radio Band in 1965 when Zambia was looking for its own identity in music and our mission was to come up with locally composed songs with a traditional touch," said Agrippa Kalela, the band leader.
Unfortunately, Kalela and Alfrey Sinkala are the only two surviving members of this legendary band while the rest passed on during the last two decades.
"Although almost all members have passed on, we have a new team of young musicians who have kept the name alive all these years," Kalela said recently in Lusaka.
Kalela started music in the 1950s when he jammed with a band called Lusaka Municipal Band before joining the Mandevu Jazz Band in 1956.
He later joined a band called De Black Moods that immediately embarked on a tour of Southern Rhodesia (Zimbabwe) where he met Champion Banda, then performing in a band called the Golden Rhythm Crooners.
After a short stint, the band left for the Democratic Republic of Congo (the former Zaire) where they spent a year before disbanding in 1960.
Kalela joined a Congolese band called Tino Mambo which also toured Northern and later Southern Rhodesia and performed at Shorty's multi-racial restaurant in Salisbury (Now Harare).
In 1961, the band went back to Congo but Kalela formed the Afro Cuban which also went to perform in Zimbabwe, before veteran folk musician and broadcaster Alick Nkhata clinched a deal for them to play at Jameson Hotel in downtown Salisbury, becoming the first African outfit to perform there.
In 1962, Nkhata fetched the band from Salisbury to come back home to campaign for the then political party in the offing, United National Independence Party (UNIP) during the run up to Zambia's independence in 1964.
The band, which changed the name to Unip National Band, had also recruited Rhodesians Simangaliso Tutani on bass, Timothy Sikova and Andrew Chakuyoke (both on drums) and John Mwarumahoko on Rythm guitar.
After Independence, the band broke up with the four Zimbabweans forming the then famous Broadway Quintet, while Kalela revived the Afro Cuban.
But in 1965, the band changed its name to Lusaka Radio Band after landing sponsorship from ZBS.
Much of the music that characterised the local scene during the mid-1960s was mainly foreign but the arrival of the Lusaka Radio Band made a great difference and was set to pioneer the crusade for national identification.
The band was formed along the same lines as the Malawi Broadcasting Corporation and the Chichiri Queens, solely to promote indigenous music.
The band is the most travelled outfit in the Zambian music history having been to almost all the countries in Eastern and Western Europe, the Far East and the United States of America (USA).
It is indeed a legendary band that made a big impact on the local and international scene and helped change the direction of Zambian music.
The band comprised Ezron Kolala on rhythm, Kalela (bass), Philimon Tembo on drums, Affrey Sinkala (Conga), Champion Banda (lead guitar and vocals) while Bestine Banda alternated with Kolala on rhythm guitar.
The backing members were Betha Mulenga, Alick Ngoi and Isaac Musonda.
In 1968, the group recorded a hit song called Ubulofwa Bwakale in reference to the colonial days when authorities used to arrest the unemployed and those who did not have permits (Chitupa).
Other songs followed and these were Chando, Ubushimbe (Bwalimpesha amano), Ndelila Injabi (Mayo), a Lamba song, Balume Bandi (Njiswileniko), Kanya Tiyi Tiyi (Kolila), Basankwa baku Nakambala (Tonga) and Titwe Titwe.
The euphoria that followed encouraged the band to compose more songs like Bana Mayo Banomba, Tichose Smith Pampando in apparent reference to the former Rhodesian rebel leader Ian Smith, Msinje Wazaza, Bo Lisabeti Nanatanula, Abena Ndola te kwenda Nabo, Jibende Mpuku (Kusongola kwabanike), Naile Kwi Mwinilu'nga (Nakusompa), Omama Yami (tubahangenuba ee) and Kalindawalo (Ni mfumu), among the many songs too numerous to mention.
The same year, the band was contracted by British African Tobacco (BAT), the manufacturers of a one-time popular cigarette called Players Number Six, which also went by the name of Big Gold Six.
The main role of the band was to promote and market the cigarette throughout the country.
"We became fully sponsored by BAT who demanded that we change the name from Lusaka Radio Band to the Big Gold Six to be in line with the promotion of their product and this is how the name came about," explained Kalela.
The band's profile rose high and in 1969, it was invited to the All Africa Festival in Algeria where it rubbed shoulders with Congolese rhumba maestro, Luambo Makiadi a.k.a. Franco, and the afro rock band Osibisa, before it came back to embark on another tour of East Africa, the entire Europe, Asia and the USA.
Big Gold Six also performed at the Expo 70 in Japan where it went for a month, touched Russia for another festival and by the time they came back to Zambia, the BAT deal had expired.
The band later clinched a contract with Ridgeway Hotel (now Southern Sun Ridgeway) in Lusaka, before they were invited to perform at the FESTAC festival in Nigeria.
The Big Gold Six won a number of accolades such as the most disciplined, the best dressed and best song awards for Chando, all coming between 1986 and 1987.
The band, which is now mobile, still wants to record some songs but the aim of Kalela, now working on a gospel album, is to impart his knowledge to the upcoming musicians through a music academy so that they could take up the reigns.
"We are now grown up and can't play music continuously the whole night as we used to do in those days.
"This is why we want to teach the youngsters as much as possible so that they can take over from us and the Big Gold Six lives on," Kalela said.