Donald "Jumbo" Vanrenen (F, 1967) RIP
We are very sad to pass on the news of the death of Donald "Jumbo" Vanrenen who died on 18th November 2019.
This obituary to Jumbo was taken from The Telegraph, London (27th December, 2018):
DONALD “JUMBO” VANRENEN, who has died of cancer aged 69, was a music industry executive who did much to establish reggae as a musical force in Britain. An early champion of world music, he described himself as “a philanthropist with no money”.
He was born in South Africa on June 6 1949, the youngest son of a well-to-do farming family; his sobriquet, inherited from his father, referred to his bearlike size. His first rebellious act was in his late teens: when white settlers barricaded roads to prevent black locals from using a post office, Jumbo hired a lawyer to stop them.
He moved from an isolated bush household to the University of Cape Town to study Economics and English Literature: he took his reading selection from the government’s list of banned books.
One night a friend played him a new local release, The Indigenous Afro-Jazz Sounds of Philip Tabane and His Malombo Jazzmen, a mélange of jazz and local music. “I’d never heard anything like that,” he recalled, and the record inspired his lifelong love of mbaqanga, traditional Zulu musical styles.
In 1971 he moved to London, where an old school friend, Simon Draper, was involved with the Virgin record label founded by Richard Branson. Vanrenen initially worked in their early London shops, then when Draper became Virgin’s head of A & R, he took Vanrenen on as his assistant.
Towards the end of the decade, Vanrenen ran Virgin’s Front Line reggae label, while also overseeing Virgin’s headlining controversialists, the Sex Pistols.
“There was a chap at the label called Jumbo, who I really liked,” John Lydon, the former Johnny Rotten, recalled. “His love of reggae was truly great … he was absorbing all aspects and angles of the musical force.”
The fact that Vanrenen, was a white South African who had left his country due to his hatred of apartheid was part of the label’s reputation. But his South African passport prevented him from entering Jamaica early in 1978, when Branson and Lydon, newly dismissed from the Pistols, moved to Kingston to do deals with Jamaica’s hottest reggae talent. Lodged in nearby Nassau, Vanrenen assailed Branson with a list of essential signings for Front Line: Culture, Gregory Isaacs, Johnny Clarke, I Roy, the Gladiators and Tapper Zukie, to name a few.
When the bottom fell out of the reggae market, Virgin folded Front Line in 1983. Vanrenen then invested himself more fully in the music of his own continent. On his Earthworks label he put out compilations of South African township music, as well as music by Mahlathini and the Mahotella Queens, and the great Zimbabwean, Thomas Mapfumo. Unfortunately, his belief that Mapfumo was “the new Bob Marley” proved unsubstantiated, losing him his house.
Introduced to Chris Blackwell, the founder of Island Records, Vanrenen took over the label’s Mango imprint. Quickly he signed the Malian Salif Keita, the Senegalese Baaba Maal and Angelique Kidjo from Benin, all of whom had global success. In a Paris nightclub he discovered Kanda Bongo Man, introducing him to Peter Gabriel and international stardom.
Jumbo Vanrenen was a gentle, funny and kind man; only an occasional cantankerousness suggested another character strand, an abiding anger over his country’s racial policy; he refused to return to South Africa until Nelson Mandela was freed from prison.
In 2003 he did return, to care for his ailing mother. He continued on his musical course, working with young township players. “I am an African,” he would insist to his children. “He was not some colonial white South African,” his daughter Nyusta said. “He loved Africa and African people.”
Vanrenen is survived by the daughter and son of his marriage to Mary Crocker, which ended in divorce.
Donald ‘Jumbo’ Vanrenen, born June 6 1949, died November 18 2018