by Lily O’Brien
When Zulu Spear burst onto the Bay Area music scene in the 1980s, there was simply no other band like it. Originally founded by South African expatriate singer, composer and dancer Sechaba Mokeoena and fellow South African singer, percussionist and dancer Gideon Bendile, Zulu Spear was one of the first groups to perform world beat/South African roots music–introducing traditional South African “mbaqanga” rhythms and harmonies, and mixing them with American rock and blues.
Bendile, who had been traveling the world with Ipi Ntombi, a South African musical, was in Las Vegas when the tour ended. “He [Mokeoena] called me when I was in Vegas to come and join him. So I came here and we became partners,” Bendile says by telephone from his Santa Rosa home. We all came from the show and ended up in the Bay Area, and that’s when we formed Zulu Spear.”
But the real story behind the band is historical. Back in the ’80s, apartheid was brutally being enforced in South Africa, and Zulu Spear wanted to call attention to the atrocities. “We were focused on apartheid,” Bendile says. “Very few people knew what was going on in South Africa … we were singing freedom songs … and we were asking Americans to put on sanctions—and they did, and thank God for that.”
In fact, when the late South African President Nelson Mandela came to the Oakland Coliseum in 1990, Zulu Spear performed for him—and a crowd of more than 60,000 people. “We played our music and that’s when we saw that what we did, had worked,” Bendile says. “We saw our leader right here in front of our eyes.”
Known for both musically and visually exciting shows—many of the members wear Zulu warrior outfits—Zulu Spear has toured all over the world, sharing the stage with groups like Ladysmith Black Mombasa, the Neville Brothers, Dave Brubeck and even the Grateful Dead.
The band has had many incarnations, and recently went into the studio to record a new album, Dancing in the Jungle, with five of the original members: Ron Vanleeuwarde (guitar and vocals), Matthew Lacques (guitar), Jerome Leondard (drums), Morgan Nhlapo (vocals, dance) and new member, Pope Flynn (congas and percussion). Bendile says that they would like to tour again, but that this time, the music is being inspired by something different. “Now we are singing mostly about peace and ‘Ubuntu’ (human kindness),” Bendile says. “I am passionate about it … because there is a lot of greed and corruption and there is a lot of war, so we are all about peace now.”
Zulu Spear performs on Friday, August 28 from 6-9pm at Pacheco Plaza, 366 Ignacio Blvd., Novato. Free. 415/883-4648; pachecoplaza.com.