Ras Willie: The kings rhythm is no more


JUST last week, he asked for friends to remember to pray for his mother who he said was not feeling well. Within that same week, he expressed sadness at the passing on of former national soccer team striker Dennis Lota.
“I’m saddened by Dennis Lota’s death. Dennis, who lived with me in my flat in Johannesburg. Cool guy, easy and very simple…I will miss you bro ba Denn…MHSRIP,” he had written on his facebook page.
A few days later, Ras Willie’s facebook page was full of messages from people expressing shock at his death.
“Ras Willie! I will always remember you as the one who put up a calling in the newspaper calling Rastafari children in Zambia to get together at the UNZA Goma fields for a get together which further led to where we are today…
“I last saw you at the launch of the Zambia Association of Musicians (ZAM) Strategic Plan. My brother-in-law, your ideals will live on!” Thomas ‘Ras Tamuz’ Kapakala, the Arthur Davison Children’s Hospital deputy executive director, wrote.
“Young brother, we know that Jah giveth and Jah taketh, but we will never get used to that fact. We will always grieve and miss our beloved ones even though knowing too well that they are by their father’s side…that’s nature. But rest assured we will ensure that we forward what you set out to do.
“It is with great shock and deep sorrow to learn of the death of Ras Willie, a veteran musician and seasoned percussionist who has just died in Lusaka. The music fraternity mourns you knowing very well that the gap you have left will take long to fill.
“You were noisy and jovial yet very enterprising as a farmer and businessman. May the family find strength in the Lord Jesus. MYSRIEP,” veteran musician Brian Chengala Shakarongo also wrote.
These were just some of the many messages that were posted online when news of Ras Willie’s death filtered through.
Indeed, the death of Ras Willie (William Wamudambo Mbewe) on Saturday morning at his home in Zani Muone in Lusaka, came as a huge shock to many people.
According to family spokesperson Clotilda Kunda, Ras Willie bade farewell to his wife Bridget and children before his death.
“He called his son William and told him that he was about to die but his son laughed off the matter,” Ms Kunda said.
Not long ago, Ras Willie graced the Weekend Mail pages when he was captured performing at the ‘O’ Hagans in Lusaka’s Woodlands.
Earlier in the evening, he had attended the launch of the ZAM Strategic Plan at Pamodzi Hotel, and it is true to say he was one of the loudest voices in the room.
In all fairness, Ras Willie was always noisy, on-and-off the stage.
His death came shortly after he released his third album Ras Willie and the Kings Rhythms Original Sounds of Zambia in Jazz. Infact, as this sentence was being typed, one of the songs on the album titled Kwamporokoso was playing.
Other than Original Sounds of Zambia in Jazz which was published by Sting Music of South Africa, Ras Willie, who described himself as a singer, composer, writer, percussionist and music engineer, also had Songs of Joy (1993) and Luba Lunda (2001).
Most people are perhaps more familiar with Luba Lunda which was distributed by the renowned Universal Music Label. This album, with a very captivating video, went on to win several awards including Best Traditional National Award at the AZAMI Awards and a nomination at the Kora All Africa Music Awards.
The title-track of the album talks about the Luba-Lunda migration with Ras Willie saying music was inspired by the mystics of Mwata Kazembe and the Mutomboko dance.
But before this one, he had released Songs of Joy in 1993, which was distributed the world over by Teal Records. The album hit number one in Japan on the African music charts.
Born William Wamudambo Mbewe in 1970, he is said to have changed his name to Ras Willie after listening to the sounds of Burning Spear, Israel Vibration and Bunny Wailer, and ultimately embracing Rastafarianism, in the mid-80s.
He took those influences and incorporated them into a unique and energetic reggae style which blends jazz, rock, ska, rumba and African with the result being phenomenal.
However, he also had influences from the likes of Keith Mlevu, Blackfoot, Peace, Tinkles and Five Revolutions as well as Witch, where his brother, the late Chris Mbewe was the lead guitarist.
Infact, as road manager for the Witch, Ras Willie got a lot of Zamrock influence. He actually used to see himself as playing mainly Zamrock.
However, it is also true that music runs in their family.
His father is said to have been playing music to the local community during beer parties. And with his brother having made a name for himself, it is not surprising that after Ras Willie left Mungwi Technical High School in Northern Province, he joined the Witch as road manager.
When his brother left for Botswana, he too followed suit, and together with Alex Kunda of the Mosi-ou-Tunya fame, they formed the Afro Sunshine Band.
His biggest break came in 1986 while in Botswana when he appeared with a British reggae/pop group UB40 at a show.
“It was a big surprise when I appeared with UB40 and we performed along with a Zambian band, the Broadway Quintet, Afro Sunshine where my brother Chris was and Maluba,” Ras Willie explained to the Times of Zambia in an interview.
Later, he crossed into South Africa where he continued gaining exposure and played alongside the likes of late Lucky Dube. It was while in South Africa that he clinched a record deal with Gallo Records, which probably made him the first Zambian to get an international recording contract.
A story in the St Loius Post Dispatch in 1993 read: “A major perk of any record reviewer is the possibility of discovering music that most certainly would be overlooked otherwise. Case in point is a recent package from South Africa which contained Songs of Joy by Ras Willie.
“Beginning with the intense Rub-A-Dub-A-Musica, the eight tracks on Songs of Joy are relentless. Willie’s emotionally-charged vocals are accented with plenty of horns, infectious beats, dynamic drumming and scorching lead guitar (courtesy of George The Greek). The tunes are above average in length and each becomes an exercise in this reggae-fusion style.
“This superb release is Ras Willie’s debut. If you dare to give new sounds a chance, this powerful disc will knock you out. If you can’t find Songs of Joy, order it. It’ll be worth your while.”
But hey, one moment stands out in his life.
During the burial of Ackim Simukonda attended by then Vice President Godfrey Miyanda, Ras Willie courageously stood up to say no speech should be given by the National Arts Council of Zambia  representative.
The reason why he took such a stand should perhaps be left to those who remain behind to contemplate!