The time is twenty years ago. The place is Robben Island. There is a man walking alone, along the sand next to the sea. This man is prisoner 282/63.
The prisoner stops, walks, stops again, bends, picks up something and walks some more. He is looking through all the bamboo, plastic, sticks and other things that the sea brings in.
Prisoner 282/63 is a member of the PAC (Pan African Congress). He is serving a twelve year sentence for sabotage. He is 21 years old and he has only been on the Island for three months. His name is Vusi Nkumane.
Vusi looks like he is trying to escape but he is not. Vusi is making a saxophone. And he is looking for things that he can use on the beach.
THREE MONTHS HARD LABOUR
“It took me 3 months to finish.” says Vusi. “It was hard work. I worked everyday during my lunch hour. Sometimes I didn’t even eat.”
“I had never seen a real saxophone before — I had just seen saxophones in the movies and magazines. So I had to build it out of my head. Lucky for me I knew a little about the pennywhistle…”
” But,” we said to Vusi,’ ‘even if you know about pennywhistles, making a saxophone is a very big thing to try. What gave you the idea?”
“On the island we had many great musicians.” Vusi said, “Shumi Ntutu and Hector Ntsanyane were two of the best. I had been on the Island for three months. It was Christmas and Hector wanted a band.
ALL OR NOTHING FOR HECTOR
“Prisoners had nothing in those days. So someone said Hector must make a reed flute. Others could use buckets for drums and the rest of us could use our voices to make the sounds of the different instruments.
“But this was not good enough for Hector. He wanted a real band. So I said to him, “O.K. let’s make real instruments. And that is where the idea began.”
Shumi Ntutu became the band leader of the “Island Band”. He tells us what other prisoners thought of Vusi’s idea. “The prisoners thought he was mad” says Shumi with one tooth sticking out of his smiling face.
OF PAP AND PAPER
Shumi carries on talking, “Vusi went about collecting bits and pieces of everything. He collected old newspapers and plastics. Once he even took pap and mixed it with newspaper. Then he tried to get the newspaper to stick in the shape of a sax. He let it dry.
But it fell apart. Later he tried using bamboo and plastic pipes. But I think he had trouble getting the right size. ”When the prison warders found out what Vusi was doing, they left him alone. But they also thought that Vusi was mad. They used to say to him, “Jy gaan dit nie regkry nie.”
Vusi didn’t listen to these people. He just carried on trying this and trying that. In the end he found something that he thought he could use. He tells us about it:
BLOWING ON BAMBOO
“I don’t know where bamboo grows but every year lots of bamboo was washed up by the sea. The prison warders made us pick it up. They used bamboo for manure. But when the bamboo is left on the sand to dry, it becomes very hard.
“When my pap and paper sax failed, I took a piece of dry bamboo and cut it. Then I looked for some old copper piping. When I found some, I shaped it like a penny-whistle mouthpiece.
“Then I made holes in the bamboo. I made sure my fingers reached all the holes. I used my school science. When I finished, I tested my “sax”. It made a powerful sound. But the sound was not right — it sounded like an alto sax, not a tenor sax.
NO ALTO FOR VUSI
Vusi did not know what to do. So he got books on music and science from the prison library. He also talked to the island musicians. They helped him to sort out his problems.
Vusi said, “I had to get the sound right. So I tried to make another sax. This time I took a piece of wood and I shaped it to look like a bamboo. Then I took it to the prison carpenter — I think that it was Lombard Mbatha.
“Lombard made the wood smooth. I added some plastic. Then I made the holes. The holes had different sizes for the different sounds. I even used my blanket. I cut it into small pieces to make note pads. All along I used very old tools.
“I tested the new sax in my cell and it sounded better than the first. The sax had a loud, rich sound. Now I could play lots of music.
“The other prisoners called my sax an ‘Nkumanephone’. They said it was like the first saxophone. It was named after the Frenchman, Adolphe Sax. So my ‘sax’ must be called after me.
“CONCERT ON THE ISLAND
Shumi, the band leader tells us about the band’s first concert. “I think we had the first concert when they gave prizes for sports. The prisoners were happy and proud — even the life prisoners. The life prisoners were not allowed to watch but they peeped through their windows.
“We tested Vusi’s sax when the band played — we tested ourselves as well. Some of us had not played for a long time. The band didn’t sound bad.
“Our band had no name. But we played many favourites — like Zakes Nkosi’s numbers. But people liked “Tamatie sous” the best. It is a very old number — I grew up with it but people still loved it.
“We played jazz, kwela, mbaqanga, everything. Since I was the band leader we played my own songs too. My own best was “umuntunombonawake” — which means a person with his maize.”
THE NKUMANEPHONE LIVES ON
When Vusi finished his sax, he did not stop. His dream was to make a full band. In between breaking stones and working in the fields with the “landbou span”, he built more instruments. He made a double bass, and vibes. And when he was freed in 1975, he worked on a wind organ.
Vusi was lucky. When he left the island, they let him take his sax with him. Since then, many people have asked Vusi to sell them his sax, but Vusi just laughs.
“The biggest offer came from a man overseas. He said he would pay R10 000. I refused. I told him that now I am out of prison I will make him a better one. He refused. All he wanted was my sweat.”
Then Vusi showed us his ‘Nkumanephone’. He holds his sax gently and he rubs it like a favourite pet. We see that Vusi has a great love for his ‘sax’.
MY LAST WISH
“What I really want is for us, the Robben Island band, to come together and play for the people” says Vusi. “We will play our songs from the Island — choir songs, jazz, and freedom songs.
“We musicians on the Island were from different organisations — some people were PAC, others were ANC. But we all played together. I look forward to the time that we will all play together again.
“And we at Learn and Teach cannot wait for the day that concert happens.