Performing Arts

Nostalgia as Ronald Bell of Kool & the Gang dies at 68


Ronald Bell, founding member from the funk band Kool and the Gang. AFP PHOTO

The scene was the Kenyatta International Convention Centre, Nairobi in November 2016. A group of American musicians, long past their prime were getting on stage, met with great anticipation from the large crowd. Once they got the music playing, it sounded every bit as good as when the songs were hits back in the 1980s and the eager fans had a thrill singing along.

Despite personnel changes through the years, this was Kool and the Gang still retaining at its core the two brothers Robert “Kool” Bell and Ronald “Khalis Bayan” Bell.

The death of Ronald Bell on September 9 at the age of 68 marks the end of an era for a musician who created one of the most formidable bands of the soul/funk era combining heavy instrumentation, and multi-layered catchy harmonies.

Their first-ever performance in Kenya was at an HIV/Aids awareness festival at Uhuru Park in 2002 and just as in much of the world, their music still appeals to different generations.

When the Bell brothers formed the band along with their school friends in 1964, they were known as the Five Sounds, having been inducted into jazz by their father, a professional boxer who was friends with legends like Miles Davis and Thelonious Monk.

The band changed names to the New Dimensions, the Jazziacs, Kool and the Flames, and eventually, Kool and the Gang, in 1969.

Ronald Bell, a self-taught saxophonist and singer, composed, arranged, produced some of the band's biggest dance hits of the 1980s like ‘Fresh’ ‘Let’s Go Dancing (Oh La La La) ‘Get Down on It’ and ‘Ladies Night; and his personal favourite ‘Celebration.’

Kool and the Gang built a catalogue of 23 albums, sales of 70 million albums and a host of honours including two Grammy Awards and seven American Music Awards.

Throughout the decades, the band has been held together by Robert “Kool” Bell who started the group when he was just 14 and his younger brother, the saxophonist Ronald. Other founder members still in the group are drummer George Brown and alto saxophonist Dennis “D.T.” Thomas.

The band has thrived on the same high-energy, signature bass grooves and horn section as witnessed during their last show in Nairobi when the band performed with no less than 10 instrumentalists.

Their music has remained relevant through the decades, being sampled into pop and hip-hop songs in the 1990s as the band continued to tour playing their popular songs to crowds around the world.

The death of Bell came just two days before the death of another influential musician of the last 50 years. Toots Hibbert founder of the legendary Jamaican band Toots and the Maytals and the man who took credit for coining the term “reggae” passed on at the age of 77 in Kingston, Jamaica.

The veteran musician was tested for the coronavirus and placed in the intensive care unit on August 31.

Fredrick Nathaniel “Toots” Hibbert brought the word “reggae” to global attention with his 1968 song “Do The Reggay” from a slang word “streggae” that was used in Jamaica to describe people with an awkward sense of dressing. His style, however, defied genres, transcending gospel, soul, R&B and country, fused with Jamaican rocksteady, ska and reggae. His distinctly powerful voice was the vehicle for messages about the struggles of the underclass in Jamaica.

Among his signature songs was “Bam Bam” recorded in 1965 that inspired the dancehall anthem for artists like Sister Nancy and Chaka Demus and Pliers, and “54-46 (That's My Number)” a reference to his prison number after he served time in 1966 for marijuana possession.

Toots and the Maytals was one of the reggae bands, along with Bob Marley and the Wailers, signed to the Island Records label in the early 1970s which grew their reputation and transformed the genre outside the island.

The label founder Chris Blackwell described the band as “unlike anything else, sensational, raw and dynamic” and Toots voice as “one of the great musical gifts out rime.”

Toots won a Grammy Award for Best Reggae Album in 2004 for ‘True Love’ which featured collaborations with Eric Clapton, Keith Richards and Shaggy.

His last album 'Got To Be Tough' was released in 2020, including a version of Bob Marley's 'Three Little Birds' recorded with Ziggy Marley.