“When sorrows come, they come not single spies, but in battalions,” wrote Shakespeare. In the past two weeks, it’s been true. Close on word of the passing of singer Pinise Saul, her closest musical collaborator of recent years, Lucas “Lucky” Madumetja Ranku has also left us.
Born in 1941 in Lady Selborn, Pretoria, Ranku followed a learning pattern almost traditional for aspiring guitarists here: honing his skills on a home-made oilcan guitar before he could scrape together the cash for a real instrument. Malombo music was his traditional grounding, and by the time drummer Julian Bahula split from Philip Tabane’s Malombo in the mid-1960s, Ranku had become so admired that he took the guitar chair in the newly-formed Malombo Jazz Makers alongside reedman Abbey Cindi and Bahula ( https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=8Ds1d0mAWAo ) ( https://soundcloud.com/strut/malombo-jazz-makers-hleziphi ) The group won acclaim and a recording contract at the 1964 Cold Castle Jazz Festival.
Politics was always in his life and his music; his grandfather had been one of those who rallied the community of Garankua against forced removals. Ranku did not work only with malombo musicians: the Malombo Jazz Makers formed a short-lived partnership in the early 1970s with white psychedelic pop band Freedom’s Children. Member Ramsay Mackay recalled a 1972 joint concert where the band attempted to evade onstage segregation by wearing skeleton costumes and masks. “I remember in the midst of all the madness guitarist Lucky Ranku turning to me with tears in his eyes: ‘I can only play in my own country if I look like a spook.’”
Eventually, apartheid drove him and his band-mates into exile, as it had done to so many others. In London, he found a nascent South African music scene, but also cold, racism and loneliness to which the warm, gentle player never fully reconciled. But his musical career flourished. As well as working with Bahula’s Jabula and all the greats of the South African scene – bassists Ernest Mothle and Johnny Dyani, saxophonist Dudu Pukwana, trumpeter Mongezi Feza and of course singer Pinise Saul – he was also an in-demand session guitarist across a surprising range of musics. Jazz, of course (he guested on Courtney Pine’s 2012 House of Legends, and worked with Mike Oldfield), but also such oddities as this 1983 minor hit from UK pop group Jimmy the Hoover, Kill Me Quick, (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=D03LCG-hWpo ) where his uncredited guitar lifts a slight hook into something truly memorable and dancefloor infectious.
Because the rent still had to be paid. I got to know Ranku when he and artist Dumile Feni shared a cramped flat in Streatham close to my own, and saw a domestic side of both: borrowing an iron to iron gig attire, watching football, cooking (and in Feni’s case, sketching nonstop on anything from table napkins to the backs of discarded receipts). In public, Ranku was a self-effacing and restrained talker; in private, his analysis of why apartheid must end, and his stoic acceptance that even gigs that never paid must be played in that cause were vehement. Most famously, that commitment is expressed in the 1978 Jabula album Banned in South Africa (it was) from which this track, Raining in Amsterdam, is taken. ( https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=z0apzygK-Aw )
Meanwhile, Ranku’s star as a guitarist in all contexts was rising. American critics compared his gift for fearless improvisation to that of James ‘Blood’ Ulmer (something that quietly amused him – as far as he was concerned, he was merely playing as he always had). At his shows, young English boys sat at the foot of the stage intently watching his fingers – later, some of them such as Eric Richards went on to play in South African bands themselves. When he toured with the SA Gospel Singers, the New York Express called him “truly, a one-man marvel of the fretboard.”
In 1997, he and Saul co-founded Township Express, and for more than 40 years before and after that Ranku played a major role in shaping what British audiences understood by “township jazz”. For many, “township jazz” had come to mean music underpinned by that dancing, chiming, astounding, malombo-rooted guitar.
But Ranku’s musical vision always sought wider horizons. He had no problems with being labelled a jazzman, so long as it was also acknowledged that, as he always declared, “Jazz originates from Africa.” So when he founded and toured with the pan-African African Jazz All Stars, he declared “it wasn’t difficult to put musicians from everywhere in Africa together.”
In 2005, Ranku played a solo concert at London’s South Bank, an unprecedented accolade for a South African guitarist. He did, intermittently come home, to play the Cape Town International Jazz Festival, and to tour with Adam Glasser and Pinise Saul. He found South Africa changed, in both good and bad ways, and the need for his music and its messages undiminished. “It was political… is political,” he told a French interviewer. “And I’m still playing it. The struggle isn’t over yet.” He was still playing it in 2014, in this (unfortunately rather poorly recorded) concert at London’s Vortex club (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Iiv4Oivlu6U ) During 2015, his health declined. A benefit was held for him at the 100 Club, traditionally the home of South African jazz in London. The range of musicians who appeared demonstrates the respect his British musical village had for one of its most talented elders. And now he has left us. Too soon – but then it’s always too soon. When a musician dies, they say in Timbuktu, a library burns. We are immeasureably poorer without this one.
Hamba kahle Madumetja.