An Ode to DJ Peter Johns

The Lewisham Letter to a Fallen Zimbabwean Disc Jockey

Dear Peter Johns,

The sad news of your passing hit me as I woke up this morning, 28th April 2020, in my home in Johannesburg. I had just finished my morning prayers and switched on my phone when my inbox started screaming.

I sat still in the dark for a few minutes, in shock and silence. My mind did a mental rewind on our interaction, from the last time I saw you alive in that restaurant in Lewisham in 2006, going back all the way to the day we first met outside Scamps in PARK Street, Harare, a full 30 odd years back. Everything flashed before me. It was when certain particular moments came that my thoughts seemed to go into slow motion. I know you won’t mind if share these with the readers, not to violate your privacy and the unwritten rule we somehow had of a cordial co-existence but because many of them were impacted by and know us both, albeit to varying degrees. I am hopeful that some may be inspired by something they read and realise that one can be professional and respectful towards your contemporaries whilst in the same competitive industry.

When I got the call that you wanted to meet to touch base, I was at home in Brixton London where I was staying not far from the Tube station. Two nights prior to this we met at a gig in Milton Keynes where you were playing. It was the first time since 1987 that we were in the same room. Unfortunately, I didn’t get to listen to too much music as I was reunited with friends I hadn’t see for an even longer time but I recall hearing my favorite old school track you loved playing, The Real Thing’s You to me Are Everything. When that song came on my mind flashed back to the late Ted Jones, Bunny Nelson and the rest of the guys in Morgan who loved crooning to it at break times by the bicycle shed. Boy could they sing!

Then later on you played Sharon Redds Never Gonna Give You Up, a song I first heard you blast at Scamps when I was just about to break out. We had a brief DJ box chat as usual, so I could let you focus on doing what you were so good at, making people dance. The gig may not have been full house that night in MK but I had myself a ball of a time. We exchanged numbers and two days later I got your call to meet. I had never heard of a place called Lewisham but your directions on bus usage were spot on. I followed the instructions and within minutes after disembarking I saw you waiting in the restaurant where we agreed to meet. But perhaps I need to backtrack a little so the reader can understand the importance of this meeting.

Up till then back home in Harare, we had what could best be described as a tolerable relationship. You were the main Coloured club DJ when I arrived on the scene with a large following and a music collection that was second to none. No one can take that from you sir. I was the new swashbuckling kid who was pushing the envelope and trying to break into the elite league. Foolishly at the time I thought it would take a few months or maybe one year to do that but I would soon learn that it wasn’t that easy. You had just broken into mainstreaming yourself after Josh left Scamps so the time almost overlapped with my arrival. So whilst were not from the same generation, it was pretty close although you were a few years, maybe two, ahead of me. Every Saturday after Ken Sutton would let me play for an hour as I sharpened my tools, I would stay behind for about an hour so I could listen to your presentation and watch your crowd inter-action.

I must confess though that most of the time it was to look for a chink in your armor, find the gap that I could then master so I have a different offering when my time comes. I also marveled at the things you did good. At those things you were blazing. I took mental notes and went home to work things you were not so good at and try to match those you were good at. I believed even then that to attain greatness one must learn from it. Later on when I worked with Josh Makawa, your main rival, I did the very same. You were two totally different DJ’s but both very good at what you both did. Those days your gigs attracted mostly Coloureds and his drew Blacks. I purposed to myself that I would bridge this gap one day and be the first multi-racial crowd pleasing DJ. It was a gap that could be taken as Zimbabwe had just become independent and racial segregation stopped. The money you both took was probably the biggest motivation!

As I climbed the ranks you and Josh were firmly ruling the club scene so I had to almost split myself in two to keep up. He was the charismatic entertainer and you the more reserved but both were champions. We spoke a few times but almost never beyond the pleasantries of hi howzat. I didn’t want to appear like a groupie and you had money to make. But it was always with politeness. I recall having to drop you off at Castel Court one time when your Golf gave trouble after the scene and a few other times we had a drink or two when you stayed for a bit after the Scamps groove. So it wasn’t a closeness but we were being friendly. Being a naturally shy person when I’m not in character, you appeared the same so not many words were exchanged. But make no mistake, you were on fire. I would alternate between being a fan and being a critic so I can get to do better where I was of the opinion you were not so good.

But the music was phenomenal. If London had a hit song today, a few days later you would introduce it to Scamps. This was long before you made Radio 3. Whilst you were running the show, I was busy building my brand in distant Masvingo. I developed new respect for you and all those who rose the hard way. I realized it wouldn’t take me two months like I thought. This elite level DJaying was no child’s play. I see many new guys think it’s about changing records and even today others think if they master Virtual DJ, they can come up against the bulls. They are often blown away to go and start all over. I saw you blast some wanna be’s off stage often and stayed clear of the line of fire. I had discovered that it was not as easy as you and Josh made it seem. So I worked harder, longer, until I was exhausted. There was no downloading service those days, nor internet to see what was trending overseas, so just procuring the music was an incredibly great task. You did it with aplomb. Even Makawa who got onto radio before you, didn’t possess the collection you did. I bear witness to that. I was under no illusions what I was up against.

When I eventually made it to Harare after a few years on the road and countless mobile shows and weddings, we got re-acquainted when I landed the Archipelago gig as you would come by a few times. I recall you saying, “This afternoon session is growing man.” I felt empowered! There is nothing as uplifting as one’s peers validating your work. I moved to Bretts shortly there-after and you came more often as we hit sold out status on most Saturdays. I felt much more confident and had by now laid the shy KG to rest. Many afternoons both u and Josh would be in the house and I made sure I unleash the beast. It was partly to say hey guys I’m here too, but mostly it was inspired by the need to do better.

Unfortunately, or expectedly when session began eating into the night crowd, we had words many times that were not so pleasant. I attributed it to occupational banter and didn’t pay it much mind.

What was clear now was that I seemed to have moved from wanna be to a DJ with growing support and it began to grow from an irritation to a downright nuisance. You didn’t seem comfortable or able to deal with it as you conceded in Lewisham. Its ok, I also have things I am clueless about. None of us is perfect. One day you got so angry you told me to go to hell. We were arguing on the staircase at Bretts. I responded, “As long as you lead the way.” You stormed out of my packed gig. Some fans told me it’s because the majority of your fans were now at session and having house parties at night instead of trekking all the way to Rosalind’s in Avondale. I called up the owner of Rosalind’s as unbeknown to you, Kizito Mahove was my uncle! lol. The previous week Josh and I also had a furious run-in where he came to fetch the bass bins DURING my show. But as we both know, you can’t stop the music. We went on to pack the house as per normal.

I remember the surprise on your face when you saw me arrive with him at Rosalind’s that night.  Lol

From there our relationship went downhill at top speed. The more I rose the more we seemed to not get along. I didn’t take much of it personally and just carried on. You were raking it in and so was I so there was enough space in the game. Besides I never ever saw myself as running in the same lane as I had by now become a multi-racially supported DJ with a different audience. Yes, there were overlaps but by and large our target markets were distinct and different until the night time Rosalind’s lot started to do Bretts. Then u were there almost every Saturday. U would arrive about 4pm and leave just before we closed. Many times I saw u enter and leave but you stayed clear of the DJ booth. I understood that.

However, what didn’t change was the respect for how you rose as I had been through the same hell on the way to where I now was. I suspect it was the same hell you ordered me to go to lol…Just kidding…

It wasn’t easy and must have even been more difficult for you. For that you had my utmost respect. Many people don’t know how hard it was in racist Rhodesia to make a mark if you were not white. You were awesome at your peak sire and in the lane where you ran, none could touch you.

But as in each game, new blood comes along and I was in that category. Very often new arrivals take what we teach or what they see and add their own spice to become even better. And many times reigning champs don’t see it coming and have no idea how to deal with it, leading to acrimony and even a break in friendship. I noticed that hip hop was growing so I learnt how to rap. The new kids wanted to see that. I also noticed mixing up a storm was not your forte so I spent hundreds of hours developing music blending techniques and mixing. Then I added the best I saw you and Josh deliver with a touch of another DJ’s smoothness and bang…. I had me a niche!

By the time we met in Lewisham much had happened. You had moved to London and I was now in Cape Town after years in Johannesburg. You were studying digital media you told me and it was great to hear. Zimbabwe would certainly benefit from your new skills if you ever went back. Sadly, this was not to be as our country seems to specialize in ostracizing its own on racial, tribal and just about any other line they can find. It was their loss as you would have applied yourself with the excellence that you always personified.

We had some lunch and tea as we both were never drinkers of note and you told my about your health problems. I will not share what we spoke in confidence but the respect was now mutual as you had some glowing things to say about my own DJ career.  The comment that stands out was, “You were not going to let anybody push you out of the way. Respect for what you achieved Kenny.”

It reminded me of the same words Josh Makawa also spoke when he said, “Mfana, maita basa rakanaka.” (Young lad, you did a marvelous job”

I gained a new respect for you that day in Lewisham. To acknowledge the greatness of another is something only other great people can do. Petty fools try and minimize each other so they can appear bigger than the other. Our chat ended and I had to jump the last bus back home. As we shook hands and promised to stay in touch, I had no clue it would be the last time I see you alive.

But today at the news of your passing, I realized that that particular trip to the UK may have been solely to let the two DJ personalities we had become step aside and to let the two shy guys we basically were, acknowledge each other as two contemporaries who made a whole country happy and got them to dance to the music. I salute what you have accomplished and may your spirit rest in peace. You ran your race. You finished in style. They say Heavens music is perfect. It’s your time to rest and absorb it.

With Brotherly love

DJ Kenny Gamble.