Dukes Combo Rock On. By Farook Khan.

DURBAN’S longest serving dance band, Dukes Combo, have landed a plum gig – they
are now the residents at the spanking new Blue Lagoon Convention Centre.
What’s more, come September, the current membership celebrates 58 years of commanding
the most prestigious bandstands in the country. Led by Gabriel Joseph, who
is in his third decade as a Duke (trumpet), and backed by Don John with 12 years experience
with the band (guitar), Tyrell Subramoney (bass), Selwyn Appalsamy (drums), Anthony
Joseph (keyboard), Ashleigh Joseph (lead singer), all have
been five years with the band. Then there is Raphael Ebenezer (saxophone) who recently
joined due to founding leader Dees Sharma being ill. The Blue Lagoon venue was
packed on opening night, almost entirely by 40, 50, 60, 70 and 80-somethings. The wear
and tear was clearly visible on their faces, shapes and sizes. But when the Dukes struck
their opening note, they converged on the dance floor, creating intricate patterns and holding
their respective partners tight, and there seemed no end to the night.
Ashleigh Joseph belted out one number after another about unrequited love, the loneliness
created by separation of lovers by distance, and of course, celebrating nights of
intimacy by love-besotted partners. She unleashed a thousand dreams, created a flood of fantasies
with her own body rhythm and flashes of brilliance as a bandstand performer.
When it was time for dinner, the crowd – all survivors of yesteryear
– took a break to tuck into the old favourites of mutton, chicken and bean curries
with either rice or roti; from the gentry to the Don of the Styles Gang, they lined up for
their spice-laden meals. All this started way back in the 1950s when the son of a
clarinetist, Donday Sharma Roopnand, and his violinist wife, Prodhun Parmesar, sent
their son, Dhirendranarth, to Danny Veeran’s Academy of Music in Victoria Street. The
boy started with the humble penny whistle – kwela music, as it is known, was all the rage
back then, and he played it like a master. By the time he emerged with a Licentiate issued by the
Royal Academy of Music, which is a prestigious college of the University of London, the
lanky beanstalk had mastered everything from the humble flute to the General Motors of
woodwind instruments, the saxophone. “I just wanted to play. I did not go out and start a band.
Whenever I did a gig, any who wanted to play alongside me were welcome,” said Dees.
“This led to legendary musicians like Harry Naidu, Moon Gratian, Midget Vahed, Lassie
Naidu and David Royappen and I just moulded ourselves into
the Dukes Combo. “We played music for the people and we put together a
five-hour programme which spread from Latin American to ballroom, to foxtrot to the vastrap
and of course the rock and roll.” It was in 1962 that the Dukes Combo made the big time and
commanded first place in all bandstands throughout the country. Anyone who wanted to
have a posh event had to have the Dukes.
Even the Durban Girls’ High School booked the Dukes Combo to play at their debs
ball. Remember that the finest of Durban’s young women were introduced to ballroom
by kind courtesy of the Dukes Combo.
To add to their popularity, leading singers like Miriam Makeba, Thandi Klaasen,
Daphne Hlomuka, Essop Gani, Edna Newman, Vivienne Kingsley, Dave Bestman and so
many others fronted for the Dukes.
“They tried to stop us from playing to mixed dance sessions, but we just went ahead
and broke the law. No cop was so tough that he would dare to come and break up one of our
gigs,” said Dees. “I remember the time when we took on the job of resident
band at the Executive Hotel in Umlazi. Non-Africans had to have a permit to enter any township. We just ignored it.”
Neither did the criminal syndicates bother the Dukes – everyone was treated the same. As Dee recalled, when the Pelican
Club in Chatsworth opened its doors, two of Durban’s toughest gangs, the Crimson
League and the Salots, were in attendance. All of them were ordered to
leave their guns, knives and iron rods in their cars and to respect the occasion.
The legendary Soobrey Pillay, the only known barman in the world who became a millionaire,
stood between the two warring factions to ensure a peaceful night.
“We are a people of peace. Violence was not part of our lives. For all of us music and
dance is the ultimate entertainment. It gives everyone the chance to express themselves
in the most civilised manner and to have great fun,” said Dees.
Even when he took an assignment with the navy, he made sure that he continued to work with the Dukes Combo.
At the SAS Jalsena, he was able to build a magnificent band which provided entertainment
for the armed forces. Neville Naidoo, who handled the finances of the band, said that the group was in
demand each Friday, Saturday and Sunday night.
“Then there were those people who held midweek functions and insisted that the
Dukes be in attendance. I think that the dedication of the members made the Dukes so popular,”
said Neville. He recalled that one night in Swaziland the group was about
to take the stage when the then drummer, Teddy Peters, suddenly
went blind. “Guys, he said, I have not vision. I cannot see. However the
guys held their nerve. We played that evening and obviously
we were very concerned. “We had to get back to Durban
as soon as possible to consult with doctors. However
they said that Teddy would not be able to see again.
“But he kept his place in the band. For 30 years Teddy
played on and not many people were aware that the Dukes had
a blind drummer. That is sheer dedication,” said Naidoo. He pointed out that a deadend
kid, Moon Gartiah, came from Tin Town. “Yet he turned out to be a talented musician and he sang
in the true tradition of rock ’n’ roll, remember Be-Bop-ALula by Gene Vincent?
“This man had to eventually quit when his arthritis got very bad,” said Naidoo.
Dees Sharma himself, the man hailed as the founder, life president and number one
saxophonist in South Africa, played in every single one of Dukes’ performances.
“Then illness struck him after 50 years on the bandstand, and he is not taking it as if his
career is over. “He is working on hishealth. He will be back,” said Naidoo.
So what about the future? Gabriel Joseph said that they would continue to play the music
which made the Dukes a household name: “Successive generations have given us the
vote of confidence by keeping coming to our gigs.” It was Dees Sharma who
said, “We always close with the same song, The Peanut Vendor – our people know then that it
is time to go homeScreen shot 2015-05-11 at 12.11.38 PM Screen shot 2015-05-11 at 12.11.22 PM Screen shot 2015-05-11 at 12.11.12 PM Screen shot 2015-05-11 at 12.10.57 PMDukes Combo Rock On

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