Friday, 26 July 2013

Elvis is still in the building

In May 2012, the South African music scene was rocked by the claim that a Zulu singer had returned from the dead. Police were investigating a man who says he is Kwakhe “Mgqumeni” Khumalo, one of the best known figures in traditional maskandi music, who died in December 2009.

The man who claimed to be maskandi musician, Khulekani “Mgqumeni” Khumalo who died in December 2009, is now behind bars. Police say that his fingerprints indicate he is actually one Sibusiso John Gcabashe but will use DNA testing for a final determination. They have also applied to have Khumalo’s body exhumed.

The fascinating aspect of the story is that hundreds of his fans had gathered in Nquthu, in KwaZulu Natal, to see their resurrected idol and his family are now divided on whether he is the real McCoy. Among them, two of his common-law wives and his grandmother and daughter, believed that Khumalo has returned from the dead.

Several of the over 30 articles running with the story focussed on the supernatural aspect. In his public address to fans “Khumalo” claims that he was captured by zombies and escaped before he could be turned into a spirit (tokoloshe). One editorial, however, considered the fact that events are not really that exceptional.

“Every now and then some nostalgic middle-aged individual will claim they have spotted Elvis Presley at some remote resort. Presley, the king of rock ’n roll, died of a suspected drug overdose on August 16, 1977.” [Moses Mudzwiti, The New Age assistant editor]

Mudzwiti may well have put his finger onto something here. He is looking at the issue from a much broader context instead and did not fall for the tokoloshe story of Gcabashe. It is tempting to heighten the occult aspect of the story as a few articles have done. It makes for quite an exotic story: a bizarre and strange account that indicates that “traditional” communities are weird and trapped in an unscientific world.

To avoid this framing of the story, many focus on the “modern”: the law enforcement officers, the fingerprints, the DNA testing, the forensics, exhuming the body and the law court. We will then have irrefutable “evidence” that this is an imposter.

But perhaps there are other discourses at play here, other frameworks that looks at our fascination with the Elvis Presleys that have not yet left the building, the inability we have of letting go. After all it is religion that gave us the “the second coming of Christ”, the rise of Lazarus from the dead, the return of the Prodigal Son. So appears as if this hankering or yearning for the return sits deep in our collective psyche.

I think, though that sometimes it actually is just a practical issue.

When the story of Khumalo initially broke, I was reminded of a movie I saw in 1984 at an Indy movie theatre in Cape Town. It was called The Return of Martin Guerre and tells the story of a French soldier, played by GĂ©rard Depardieu, who returns to his village after an absence of many years. Now there were those who had their doubts but when his wife confirms that it is Martin, the others embrace him.

The Return of Martin Guerre is set in France during the Hundred Years’ War. Imagining herself a widow, Nathalie Baye is astonished when her husband Gerard Depardieu returns after nine years. He looks like her husband and sounds like her husband, and certainly has a working knowledge of the couple's prior relationship. Still, neither Baye nor her neighbors can shake the notion that Depardieu is an imposter – especially since he's a much nicer and more responsible person than the man who marched… [From Rotten Tomatoes]

So is Gcabashe a nicer guy, nicer son, nicer husband or father than Khumalo? Or is the family who confirmed him as the original artist hoping for a return to a celebrity lifestyle? We might never find out because, since his arrest, “Gcabashe is charged with three counts of theft allegedly committed in Durban, kidnapping, assault and rape allegedly committed at Ixopo, fraud and an attempted escape from custody at Nquthu.” (The Witness)

The Return of Martin Guerre was remade in 1993 and starred Richard Gere and Jodie Foster in the American version of Sommersby.  I am sure that the French version with Depardieu did not get half the audience that Gere got in the reinterpretation.  It just goes to show that sometimes if you change the context, the main actors, the language, you will get better attention.

Gcabashe almost made it were it not for those pesky fingerprints. I mean his fans believed he was the maskandi artist including two wives, a daughter and a grandmother. I really think that if this guy could sing, he would’ve been home free!
Adli Jacobs, July 2013