Choose a year, any year, maybe 1990… That is the year that Talking Drum recorded the Album “The Song The Dance”. The album title works like a mirror reflection of a reflection. Lannas says “Nobody understood the meaning. I had to climb up the walls and do cartwheels until the word came down and said, “let him call it what he wants to call it”.
The River… the most beautiful, eloquent, simplistic, intricate, and savagely remorseless examination of the down side of love ever recorded. Words like shards of glass, lyrics cut down to the bone. Lines that can rhyme the track of time, the edge of pain, the tame off sane.
The songs are filled with poetry, despair, love, sadness, triumphs, rejection, faith and deep feelings of isolation. Lannas remarked to his old friend Kelly Rusike “A lot of people told me they enjoyed the album. It’s hard for me to relate to that… people enjoying that type of pain”.
Some of the songs were written as early as 1984. Hapana Mazwi was not written for a woman; it was written as a love song to Zimbabwe. The album was recorded one and a half years before Paul Simon’s Graceland, but the record companies were not interested in cross over African music. Indifferent it would seem.. at least until Paul Simon came to Africa to teach Africans the meaning of African Music… that is Michael Lannas’s dry take on the subject.
Some of the songs are about a love affair that lasted too long. That outlived the notion of love and crossed into the borderlands of despair. They function in much the same way as the American Delta Blues. Songs aren’t going to save the world. But they can change the way people think. The political passion of the Talking Drum message lay in bringing injustice, warmongering, poverty and racism to the forefront of mainstream Africa’s consciousness. All of this was done with incomparable musical virtuosity. Legends like Brian Rusike, Louis Mhlanga, Saba Mbata, Henry Peters and Jethro Shasha. Musicians that could simultaneously make you weep with joy and break your heart. The band had it’s own instincts; willing to go back in time in order to go forward in art.
Benny Miller, who engineered the album, said of it “Oh, I get it… you don’t want to be cute anymore”. The lyrics are acerbic and slightly bittersweet. The band was moving away from innocent songs. With the new politics that type of music was on it’s way out. It had no chance of meaning anything. There’d be no future for that stuff in the future. It was all a mistake. Lannas sang his own songs. His singing style was imperfect, passionate and stinging. He sang like a soldier of fortune and sounded like he paid the price.
Michael Lannas in many ways is Talking Drum. He is also a paradox is ever there was one. Though he is known to many, he shuns publicity and organisations preferring the company of his own family and friends. He is constantly adopting people into his family. If he calls you “Brother” he actually means it. When he does go public, he is a different monster and he can freak out a whole city block just by himself. Talking Drum was actually never political. Their politics was that of the citizen. Their early fans confused a belief in justice with a belief in political programmes, and mistook a dislike of illegitimate power for an identification with mass movements.
It is a music-industry truism, nevertheless, that some songs become hits thanks to the serendipity of context and timing. These songs were not political. There is nothing as lofty as ideology involved, and no concept more complicated-or more valuable-than the simple idea of dignity.
From that point on the band was on the road for almost five years. It wore them down. They were performing the length and breadth of the country. But Kumbuzuma was their spiritual home; were the crowds always expected more and got blown away. Promoters were always owing them money but it didn’t seem to phase them out. What kept them and the fans going was the sweet, luscious, cherished, nostalgic, homesick and soulful sound of their music. It was hard. Yet Michael still managed to record a solo album and the band completed “Red Sun” which many regard as quintessential Talking Drum.
The title song was certainly novel. The mass audience was not accustomed to “philosophical” hits. Red Sun functions at many conscious (and subconscious) levels. Patriotic yes.. but also protest. Lannas says “All my songs are protest songs. All I do is protest. You name it, I’ll protest about it. Tap your foot and hum a tune and I’ll give you a protest song,” he says with a wry smile. In fact he has also written many beautiful love songs.
But by now for Talking Drum, life had lost it’s toxic effect. The band had nothing more to bitch about. They all saw different visions, heard different voices; followed different callings.
It’s nice to be known as a legend. And people will pay to see one, but for most people, once is enough. You have to deliver the goods, not waste your time and everybody else’s, but then the unexpected happens; life comes round full circle and suddenly Talking Drum is BACK with a vengeance! Look out for the forthcoming concerts.