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Percelle Ascott, the Zimbabwe-born actor, who’s on a roll on Netflix

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His beginnings were in a two-bedroom apartment in a South London estate he shared with his mother, aunt and cousins.

That’s all Zimbabwe-born Percelle Ascott had, besides a childhood filled with beautiful memories.

“I remember riding my bike everywhere, playing football and making treehouses. All the kids who grew up on my estate knew each other, and it was probably where my love for acting grew from.

“I had a wild imagination for all the things I didn’t have. I would make something out of nothing.”

Such mental calisthenics obviously helped. Today, the 25-year-old Ascott is a British actor with a plum role on the Netflix sci-fi romance series The Innocents.

His family moved to London when he was three. His recollections are a mixed bag – struggles and triumphs, and a mother who is his role model and motivation.

“I’m sure every family has struggles, especially financially, when you live in London, but I was blessed to have a hard-working mum and aunt who always provided for me and my cousins,” he says.

There are an estimated 700,000 Zimbabweans in the United Kingdom (UK). Most jokingly call the UK ‘Harare North’.

Ascott didn’t need much coercion to take to acting; his first stint was at the age of 11, in a school play.

“I played Mowgli in Jungle Book. My mum told me how I would recite everyone’s lines if they forgot them. But it wasn’t until I went to secondary school where I came across an exceptional drama teacher who instilled so much confidence in me.”

He dreams to be a part of some exceptional storytelling.

“We only remember the stories that shaped us, shaped our perspective on the way we view the world. I hope I can create meaningful real characters people can relate to; [they] can laugh with me, cry with me and go through a journey together.

 “I remember watching the film Philadelphia starring Tom Hanks and Denzel Washington and couldn’t help but think about Denzel’s character. The journey his character goes through is so powerful given the timing of the film. At the start, he has this ignorance toward HIV/AIDS which is shaped differently when he meets Tom and becomes his lawyer fighting his case. I’m sure it must’ve informed the opinion of audiences who had the same perspective on HIV/AIDS.”

Ascott’s new role in The Innocents has been since June 2018. 

“The casting was a lengthy process that required me to do a few rounds plus chemistry tapes with different actresses, but I guess that’s what it takes when you’re trying to find Harry and June [the lead protagonists]. Their romance being so crucial to the story, that energy between them being something that just has to fit,” he says.

 Ascott proudly represents a country many wish they didn’t come from.

“Since the launch of the show on Netflix, I’ve had a huge number of fellow Zimbabweans reach out to me. I find that special because it’s not something a kid from Zimbabwe has as their career trajectory, to be a lead on a Netflix show.”

In the future, he plans to lead film projects in Zimbabwe.

“There are more and more projects being funded in Africa as a whole. South Africa has a fast-established industry growing there. Why not Zimbabwe? I told my dad already we’re going to build a film studio in Zimbabwe one day. There are so many stories from Zimbabwe because of its vast history. Let’s show the world what the real Zimbabwe looks like…”

Other than acting, Ascott produces, writes and directs films. He is also co-owner of The Wall of Comedy, a platform on social media with a following of eight million people.

For young African aspiring actors, he also has some advice.

“Hard work, determination, and perseverance. Ultimately, I would say love. A love of what you do. A love of why you do it and to always use that as a compass for the choices you make.”

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30 Years And Still Grooving

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Emotions run high as Mango Groove celebrate three decades of one of their biggest-selling albums. The mixed race band, formed during the apartheid era, reflected the pain and politics of the time in their music. 

South African music has evolved over the years but its African authenticity remains in the notes of the 35-year-old pop band Mango Groove.

FORBES AFRICA shared a few moments with them as they rehearsed in their North Riding studio, 40kms north of Johannesburg, one glorious summer afternoon in February.

To celebrate 30 years of their 1989 eponymous hit album, the band will be performing a one-off anniversary concert at Teatro in Montecasino, Johannesburg, in March.

Vocalists of Mango Groove at 30 years. Picture: Motlabana Monnakgotla

We first speak to Claire Johnston, the lead singer of Mango Groove, who has been with the group for 34 years. Johnston started at the age of 17 when still in school.

Those memories are still fresh. 

Born in England, she had moved to South Africa when she was three with her parents at the height of apartheid. 

“In 1989, things went big for us [Mango Groove]. Prior to that, we had been playing around clubs and small venues. We had a few singles on the radio between 1985 and 1989, and then we had this lovely record deal that got us to all South Africans and huge exposure at the right time. South Africa was ready for a mixed race band called Mango Groove,” Johnston recalls.

In one year, the band sold out six shows at the Standard Bank Arena.

“The album had just come out – we were all over radio, television, and magazine covers; it was very exciting and we were putting on a show at the arena which accommodates about 6,000 people.

We sold the one show, then the second, then the third, the fourth, fifth, sixth and eventually we had to do the seventh, but because tickets were pirated, we had to put on a show for free for all the people who had been conned.


Claire Johnston

That was the night Johnston saw ‘the Mexican wave’ for the first time.

It wasn’t easy being in a mixed race band, because of the racial segregation laws that existed in South Africa. It was during this tense period that they released their Another Country album with a song written by group founder John Leyden about the state of the country. It was an overtly political song, however, their African tunes saw them through. 

There were also instances when the band couldn’t play together at certain venues. They would play in downtown clubs in Johannesburg where black and white South Africans would jam and interact as if restrictive apartheid laws did not exist.

Post democratic elections in 1994, Johnston says she was proud to be South African. She recalls the band’s performance at Nelson Mandela’s inauguration that year as one of her most memorable.

“That experience was amazing. It was just an amazing sense of optimism and possibility. South Africa was on the world stage for a positive reason and for change. Then, we performed for a massive crowd at the Union Buildings, it was black and white South Africans, it was the best time, it was mostly emotional,” she says.

The band, nonetheless, has lost a few members over the years and Johnston sobs as she remembers the late Mickey Vilakazi.

“When I joined the band in 1985, Mickey was 64 and he passed away prior to 1989 and he missed all the excitement, he missed the changes in the country, he missed the wonderful release of The Hotel Room.

John Leyden of Mango Groove at 30 years. Picture: Motlabana Monnakgotla

“It makes me sad that he wasn’t around to have seen that, and of course Banza Kgasoane who’s the father of Mo T (band member of popular South African house band Mi Casa). He was our trumpeter for many years. Phumzile Ntuli has also passed on. We ultimately had to keep going, move on. I imagine if I go, I hope Mango finds someone to replace me,” she says.

As the conversation flows and the band rehearses in the background, a cheerful man wearing khaki shorts appears bearing a glass of whiskey, walking towards a water container to mix his spirit. He is Sydney Mavundla, a trumpet player and one of the new members.

“I joined the band in February 2008, just after getting married. The trumpeter before me was Johnny Bower; I used to play for him when he was not available. He got a full time with an orchestra, that’s how I got the job,” he says.

Mavundla describes the band as family. He used to listen to them growing up; little did he know he would be a part of it. He was fortunate to work with legendary artists such as the late Hugh Masekela.

“We recorded two albums with Bra Hugh and then an album with the late Oliver Mtukudzi. If we are talking about Mango Groove, I want to believe it is different from the beautiful energy the old-timers had. Now it’s a bit youngish in terms of the horns, it’s not the original horn players who started the band,” he says.

Playing a tune, Mavundla talks about the freedom they now enjoy as newer artists.

“I am very excited about the upcoming concert. The first time you heard Mango and the very last time you heard Mango – that is what you should expect to hear. Thirty years is a long journey and that is 30 years of what you are going to hear. Better than that, you are going to see a very energetic, groovy Mango Groove. Come with your dancing shoes if you want, you won’t be disappointed,” he says.

The trumpeter wishes Africans would read more about South African music instead of western artists and their music, and recalls Masekela’s quote:

One day, our kids will be asked ‘who are you’ and they will respond ‘we used to be Africans, they used to call us Africans’.

The band’s founder Leyden also joins the conversation, saying he just wanted to be in a band as a teenager.

Leyden is Zambian-born but came to South Africa at the age of eight. He lived his life through the political transformation of South Africa and as an artist, never affiliated himself with politics. Instead, he started a band.

“In terms of the influences of Mango and what drove me, it was a pop act but we were very easily influenced by South African urban music forms from the 1950s and 1960s like kwela music, marabi music and African jazz sounds. They were music forms we loved.

“Mango was a funny little group of people, some came, some went, it was totally an organic process and we did what we did. When the first album broke big, we were more surprised than anyone.”

Sydney Mavundla of Mango Groove at 30 years. Picture: Motlabana Monnakgotla

For the upcoming concert, Leyden and the gang are working on a huge production. They want the event to be about memories of the late band members, as well as celebrating the band’s journey.

Elaborating further, Johnston says the big night will be about nostalgia, energy and emotion.

It will be the eighties all over again in a country that has neither forgotten its bitter apartheid past nor the music that defined the long hard years of pain and political fervor. 

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Oliver Mtukudzi The Soldier With A Big Voice – Yvonne Chaka Chaka

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In January, Africa lost Oliver Mtukudzi. His friend and fellow musician Yvonne Chaka Chaka fondly remembers the global icon. 

In October 2012, Zimbabwe’s Oliver Mtukudzi, South Africa’s Yvonne Chaka Chaka and Kenya’s Suzanna Owíyo produced Because I Am Girl with musicians from around the world.

It was released to promote the global launch of Plan International’s ‘Because I am A Girl’ campaign, marking the first UN International Day of the Girl Child, on October 11.

READ MORE | Tribute To Oliver Mtukudzi – Zimbabwe’s ‘Man With The Talking Guitar’

Dressed in African prints, they sang together, spreading the word about the empowerment of the girl child.

Mtukudzi’s bass and Chaka Chaka’s soulful voice in harmony, they became more than co-artists; they become brother and sister. It was the first performance of many for the two.

Seven years on, Chaka Chaka is teary-eyed about Mtukudzi’s death 23 days into 2019, when not just she, but Africa lost a music legend.

In a strange coincidence, Mtukudzi died the same day the continent lost the father of South African jazz, Hugh Masekela, last year.

On the phone for this interview, Chaka Chaka describes Mtukudzi as a soldier at work.

“When he was on stage, he was a totally different man. When he had his guitar, it was like a soldier. Like a soldier who has a gun at work,” she tells us.

“I think there were two different people. Offstage, he was just an ordinary man, and on stage, people ate out of the palm of his hand.

“I’ve never known Oliver to never be fit. He has been a skinny man and he would just twist that body with a guitar and that gravel voice of his. A big voice in a small body,” she says.

“He has never called me Yvonne, he has always called me Fifi… Fifi means sister.

“The man was always humble, he never raised his voice, I have never seen him angry and all he has ever wanted is just to see Africa thriving. He wanted to see Africa beautiful. He wanted to see Africa with less disease, less hunger, less corruption, a happy Africa – that was his wish.”

One anecdote Chaka Chaka shares is when Mtukudzi was made a UNICEF Goodwill Ambassador in Zimbabwe in 2011.

“You know he sat there with me and asked, ‘so, what does this entail, my sister? You have been a goodwill ambassador for a long time. You will tell me what needs to be done. How should I act? How should I react? How should I do things?’

“And I’m like, ‘no, but you know, you are more of a star than me and you have been in this industry long before I’. He was just so down-to-earth and had no chip on his shoulder.” 

The last performance the two did together was in October last year in Harare during the Jacaranda Festival, attended by more than 2,000 people and other artists around the continent.

“Oliver was not in his changing room or at home. He stayed there and watched other artists perform, which was so great,” says Chaka Chaka.

“This year, he promised that we would do it [the Jacaranda Festival] in Bulawayo,” she said. They had planned to make it a big show and use their status as goodwill ambassadors to encourage and inspire more youth.

 But sadly, that promise will never be fulfilled.

“The legacy he will leave behind is a legacy of love, the legacy of pro-African and I think for me he was a pan-Africanist. That’s what he was,” she says.

READ MORE | Zimbabwe’s Oliver Mtukudzi Dies At 66

To this day, Neria is still one of Chaka Chaka’s favorite songs by him.

 Mtukudzi, who died aged 66 of diabetes, was laid to rest on January 27 in his home village of  Madziwa.

Thousands sang and danced to the melodies of his songs.

President Emmerson Mnangagwa declared him a national hero, posthumously, a status that has previously been reserved for ruling party elite and independence veterans.

He may be gone but his music will live forever in the hearts of the fans that loved this legend who soldiered on until the end.

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From Fishing Village To Gastronomic Heaven: Tables Turn For Wolfgat

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In a small fishing village on South Africa’s rugged west coast, restaurateur Kobus van der Merwe is struggling to process his meteoric rise to gastronomic stardom.

He recently got back from Paris, where four days ago his 20-cover Wolfgat was named Restaurant of the Year at the inaugural World Restaurant Awards, also winning the remote location prize.

“In our category, which was for the off-map destination… there are restaurants that we literally hero-worship and we were like, this is insane,” the food-journalist-turned-chef told Reuters TV on Friday in his first interview with foreign media since returning home.

Others on that shortlist included Japanese wild dining sensation Tokuyamazushi.

Of both prizes, he added: “We never dreamed of making the shortlist, let alone winning.”

Situated in Paternoster, about 160 km (100 miles) northwest of Cape Town, Wolfgat’s speciality is seafood.

Van der Merwe’s seven-course tasting menu pays homage to the region’s long-gone indigenous inhabitants, and his signature dishes are flavored and supplemented with ingredients foraged locally, such as seaweed and succulent plants.

They include Rooibos tea-smoked yellowtail with dune spinach and buttermilk rusk, and freshly baked bread served with bokkom (salted dry fish) butter and infused herbs.

Guests at the 130-year-old whitewashed restaurant, nestled above Wolfgat cave within hearing distance of crashing waves, pay 850 rand ($60), or 1400 rand including drinks.

Van der Merwe, who took the plunge into full-time cooking before completing his culinary studies, said he had no wish to expand or replicate Wolfgat in an urban setting.

“We certainly don’t aspire to be in the city because the west coast is our muse and I can’t see Wolfgat existing anywhere else,” he said.

His clientele is split evenly between foreign tourists visiting the village and well-heeled South Africans.

But those who make the two-hour drive from Cape Town had better be sure of their reservations before they set out – because he’s fully booked for the next three months. -Reuters

– Wendell Roelf

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