Lucky Dube

Pioneer of a distinctively South African variant of reggae
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The Independent Online

Lucky Philip Dube, singer, songwriter and musician: born Ermelo, South Africa 3 August 1964; married Zanele Mdluli (four sons, three daughters); died Johannesburg 18 October 2007.

The most successful African reggae artist of his generation, "reggae king" Lucky Dube cut a sprightly and warm-hearted figure on the world stage. Inspired by Bob Marley and Jimmy Cliff's messages of black pride, and with a vocal style largely modelled on that of Peter Tosh, he pioneered a distinctively South African variant of reggae, which, while not musically radical, was lyrically progressive and politically informed.

His songs were spiced with dashes of soul, gospel and the occasional power-ballad flourish, but also influenced by the local style of mbaqanga ("township jive"), which he began recording in 1981. Singing initially in Zulu and even Afrikaans, but later almost exclusively in English, he switched to reggae in 1984, and by the early 1990s had eclipsed Ivory Coast's Alpha Blondy to become Africa's biggest selling reggae artist.

He found his first success outside Africa in France in the late 1980s and then the United States, soon after establishing a devoted and very wide-ranging international fan base through tireless touring. Dube released more than 20 studio albums and was a frequent visitor to the UK.

He eschewed the misogyny and homophobia that blights some contemporary Jamaican music, and as a non-smoking teetotaller and devoted family man, confounded popular stereotypes of those who embrace a Rastafarian identity. Before his most recent UK tour in April of this year, he told me: "When it comes to being Rasta, I say if 'Rasta' means smoking ganja and . . . going around shouting 'Jah Rastafari!', then I am not Rasta. But if it means fighting for justice, fighting for togetherness, the oneness, the love and brotherhood, then yes, I am Rasta."

Born to an impoverished single mother on a desolate farm 150km west of Johannesburg, he was given the name "Lucky" six months after his birth, because the boy born before him had died, and he looked likely to do the same for some time. His mother Sarah was forced to find work to support the family, so he and his siblings Thandi and Patrick were cared for by their grandmother. Lucky also had to find work as a child, skipping much of his formal education, though he eventually entered a local school.

He joined the school choir and his natural talent as a singer and leader soon became apparent; when the choirmaster abruptly left one day, he assumed the role. It was also during this time that he first read about Rastafarianism in an encyclopaedia, while working as a library assistant. On discovering some musical instruments in a cupboard, he and some friends formed the Skyway Band, but the group were forced to disband when a teacher reclaimed the instruments.

While still at school, Lucky joined his cousin Richard Siluma in the Love Brothers. Heavily influenced by contemporary South African artists such as the Soul Brothers and Mahlathini and the Mahotella Queens, they played mbaqanga in local venues. At that time, Siluma was working at Teal Records (later to become Gallo), where he became a producer and secured the group a deal. The resultant album Lengane Ngeyethu was released in 1981.

By the following year, Dube had become more involved in writing material. After leaving school, he persevered with his music while studying at Kwazulu Natal University. However, he shelved his plans to study medicine as the band became moderately successful on a national level, recording five more mbaqanga albums, with the last, Umadakeni, released in 1987. The year before that, Dube had also released the satirical cassette Help My Krap – sung in Afrikaans – under the pseudonym Oom Hansie.

However, the seeds of his future career were sown when he learned English in order to deal more confidently with the music industry, and by his meeting the sound engineer David "Rabbi" Segal, with whom he took his first step into the then-untested reggae market with the mini-album Rastas Never Die in 1984. Banned by the South African censors, it bombed commercially. Even his record company disapproved, as they were keen to market him as a traditional mbaqanga artist in the wake of his appearance in a semi-autobiographical film Getting Lucky (1984) for which he also recorded the soundtrack. Undeterred, Dube released a second reggae mini-album, Think About the Children, in 1985, which finally launched him on the road to becoming South Africa's most successful contemporary artist.

Slave (1987) was his first full-length reggae album, and sold over 500,000 copies, after which his band became the Slaves, making Dube's opposition to the apartheid regime clear to fans. The next year, the album was released in France, where he subsequently toured, following up with his first trip to the United States and an appearance in the feature film Voice in the Dark (1990).

There were further tours of the US and France in 1989 to promote the album Prisoner (which eventually become his biggest hit ever, with sales exceeding a million), and recognition from the Jamaican reggae establishment came in 1991 when he became the first South African artist to be invited to perform at the Reggae Sunsplash festival, performing a rapturous and unheard-of 25-minute encore.

In 1992, he joined Peter Gabriel for the Real World Recording Week, and performed at the Womad 10th anniversary festival. The following year, he toured across Europe and the US with Gabriel, who sang "It's Not Easy" from Dube's album House of Exile (1991) with him each night.

Dube's star continued to rise throughout the 1990s. In 1994, he became the first South African artist to have a record signed to Motown (through the subsidiary label Tabu) and in 1995 appeared at the Royal Albert Hall in London alongside Youssou N'Dour, Baaba Maal, Salif Keita and Khaled for "The African Prom".

The title track of his 1997 album Taxman found him bemoaning the amount of taxes he had to pay, leading some to accuse him of losing touch with his original constituency. However, he continued to consolidate his career, playing to huge crowds in other African countries, exploring new markets such as Brazil, and receiving numerous awards. In 1999, he recorded an internet duet with Sinéad O'Connor, and in 2002 the compilation The Rough Guide to Lucky Dube celebrated his career. He was also one of the performers at the Live 8 concert in Johannesburg in 2005.

One of the keys to Dube's artistic longevity was the stability of his working relationships with his band, record company and sound engineer Segal, who remained with him throughout his reggae years. When he appeared at the Coronet in London in April to promote his newly released album Respect, it was with the same musicians he had worked with for the past decade. With his dreadlocks flying as he danced tirelessly, he was backed by a large keyboard-dominated band providing the Soul Brothers-style flute-like riffs that were a trademark of his sound.

Dube was shot dead on Thursday night in Johannesburg in an apparent carjacking attempt.

Jon Lusk