Oct. 13, 2018: I received the sad news that Sheft-Hãt Khnemu Ra has passed away. He was a multi-talented musician and a remarkable man. It was an honour to play music with him as part of Bluz Explozion and to have known him as a friend. This profile first appeared January 2012.
He was two years old when his parents nudged him out onto the community centre stage to sing a duet with four-year-old sister Linda. The two children launched into “Christmastime,” a song written by their mom. And so the toddler became a performing member of The Singing Cole Family of Freeport, Illinois.
Life has taken many twists since that day: from the community centre in a village outside Chicago to the bars and restaurants of Baja California Sur, from singing Gospel in his mother’s church to joining the priesthood of the Fahamme Temples, from being little James Cole in a family of seven singing brothers and sisters to being Sheft-Hãt Khnemu Ra, soul of Blúz Explozión and Riddim Forz. Through it all, he has dedicated his life to making music.
His father, James Alfred Cole, was one of 12 children. “My dad was a piano player and a singer, Sheft-Hãt says. “His style was rock-and-roll — Fats Domino, Chuck Berry, Brook Benton type of stuff — calypso, too, so I got that music from him.”
His mother, Erma Davis Cole, is a singer who still writes songs and poetry. “She gave us the other side of it. She took us to church, so the first thing we learned was Gospel music. We were prohibited from singing anything else for awhile.” Erma Cole would write songs for her children to perform on Christmas and other special occasions — “so she pretty much organized us, the Singing Cole Family.”
Sheft-Hãt laughs when asked what it was like for the two-year-old, stepping out onto that stage. “I was probably terrified.” He laughs some more. “But then, I think I took to it like a duck to water.”
Sheft-Hãt grew up listening to his uncles play guitar, so that was his first instrument. “I used to walk through the snow in Freeport to take lessons, carrying a guitar that was bigger than I was.” Then, when he was 11, for Christmas he got an old Kay semi-hollow body bass that had belonged to one of his dad’s friends, blues guitarist ¨Rockin¨ Robert Earl Pearson.
“It became my favourite instrument. I think I liked the role that the bass plays — it ties the melodic and harmonic part of the music to the rhythmic part. I used to feel it was the bass that made people dance, so I kind of liked feeling I had something to do with that,” he says.
“Eventually, I ended up playing bass for Rockin’ Robert Earl, in his band with ‘Downtown’ Ernie Brown on harmonica. Those two guys essentially became my mentors of the Blues, God bless them both. Unsung heroes. Robert passed away quite some time ago, but we just lost Ernie Brown a couple weeks ago. They used to call him ‘Sugarlips’ because he played the harp so sweet. He was an amazing talent and an outrageous showman. But beyond that, he was one of the most polite, kindest human beings I have ever met! I´m gonna miss him.”
At 15, Sheft-Hãt wanted to join the school orchestra. But he needed an instrument to participate. Under a bed at Grandmother Davis´ home, he found an old violin that had belonged to his uncle, McKinley “Deacon” Davis, a basketball player who had no time to devote to music after he joined the Harlem Globetrotters. Sheft-Hãt studied violin through university. It gave him a formal training in musical theory that he used in jazz and blues improvisation.
As adults, the singing Cole children continued the family tradition of making music. Sheft-Hãt’s big sister Linda — “she’s still my mentor” — is a jazz singer in Orlando, Florida, where she’s called the First Lady of Song. Her son Anthony Cole, an internationally known drummer who has worked with Count Basie Band and saxophonist Sam Rivers, is currently on tour with J.J. Grey and MoFro. He credits “Uncle Ra” with giving him his first set of drums as a toddler. Sheft-Hãt’s youngest brother Carl is a Gospel singer and piano player, a minister of music in Chicago.
So it is no surprise that Sheft-Hãt chose music as a career. But in other ways, he broke new trail. While the rest of his siblings settled down in the U.S., Sheft-Hãt adopted a new country, and a new spiritual faith.
He was about 30 years old when he became a priest of Fahamme, Ethiopian Temples of Science and Culture, which he describes as the origin of modern belief systems such as Rastafarianism. “There’s a tolerance for other beliefs because we think that everything came from the same source. Everybody’s equal, everybody’s from God, regardless of race, colour, creed and nationality.”
With his new religion came a new name: Sheft-Hãt Khnemu Ra, Builder of the Creative Force. It’s not a name he chose, but one derived from a study of several factors related to his spiritual beliefs. He chuckles when I point out that it’s an appropriate name for a musician. “Each person comes into life with a reason,” he says. “It’s who I am and who I always have been.”
Sheft-Hãt was 44, working for festivals and bands around the U.S., when he was invited to play bass with Bobby Banana’s calypso group at a club in Mexico City. He jumped at the opportunity. For years, he had been fascinated by links between African cultures and the ancient Mayan and the Olmec cultures. “So when I had a chance to play music, it was like a dream come true for me to come to Mexico.”
The plan was to work for three months, then return to the United States. That was 17 years ago. Sheft-Hãt stayed because of the warm welcome Mexico gives its musicians. And because of a woman.
He was on stage when Charo — Rosario Luz de la Fuente — walked through the door to the club. “I couldn’t see anything but a light through that door — and her name is Charo Luz (luz means “light” in Spanish).” Charo, on the other hand, didn’t see Sheft-Hãt when she walked in and sat down with friends. “The stage was at my back, and when I turned around and faced the stage, I just saw blackness, because all the musicians were black.”
“I saw light, and she saw darkness,” Sheft-Hãt says. They laugh some more.
In fact, the two have much in common. Charo, born in Veracrúz and raised in Mexico City, is also one of seven children. Her father, an opera aficionado, had an abiding love of music and black culture, which she inherited. Both fathers worked in engineering and construction. And both died at about the same age.
Charo and Sheft-Hãt have been married 15 years. With her background in public relations, Charo became band manager. They moved from Mexico City to San José del Cabo, where for eight years they were part of the Sheft-Hãt brushed up against fame and fortune from time to time, but he chose to go his own way. “After Hendrix died, they were looking for the next black rock guys, and we got a pretty good offer at that point in time, but I blew it off.”
As a musician in Oakland, he was part of the band of Jerome Arnold, “a master and a great gentleman” who was bassist for Howlin’ Wolf and the original Butterfield Blues Band. “Jerome taught me a lot, especially about singing and playing blues bass.”
Sheft-Hat turned down a chance to travel to Paris with Jerome. He explains, “I’ve always been into the music. I have never really been into the business. I see a lot of people who have been damaged by the industry to the extent to where they lose their love for the music. That’s what I’ve always been afraid of. I’ve tried to keep my focus on the music and not so much on the business. That resulted in being flat broke all the time.” And then he chuckles again — for a good, long while.
Playing harmonica with Sheft-Hãt at Tailhunter’s (that’s me, Rozinlapaz)
For now, Sheft-Hãt is focusing less on regular gigs in restaurants and bars and more on other projects. His rejection of the music industry propels him toward one of his dreams for the future. He wants to establish a cultural centre in La Paz where he can teach young people to play musical instruments and to work together in groups — to give them the tools they need to become artists on a national and international level. His vision includes a recording studio where young musicians will record demos and produce their own original material — “so young people can come into the music world with a concept of independence, and avoid exploitation by the industry.”
As for how to make that happen — “I’m still working on that. We´re seeking sponsors and investors, as well as for my recording projects.” Meanwhile, he’s bringing more young musicians into his reggae and blues bands, helping them develop their potential on stage.
Among Sheft-Hãt’s resolutions for 2012 is a plan to get back into the recording studio to make CDs of his original blues and reggae tunes. There’s already a recording of one CD of original music with Riddim Forz entitled “Funky Reggae Rock.” He also wants to return to singing jazz, including songs that his big sister Linda taught him long ago. He wants to participate in national-level music festivals — bringing them to La Paz and taking his bands to festivals elsewhere.
Sheft-Hãt has two more projects close to his heart, both involving family.
One pet project has to do with a distant cousin with a well-known name — jazz pianist and singer Nat King Cole. Sheft-Hãt never met his father’s cousin, although Linda Cole has performed with Nat King Cole’s little brother, Freddy. But there is a Latin connection that Sheft-Hãt wants to develop.
He says Nat King Cole didn’t speak Spanish, but with phenomenal skill sang phonetically to record volumes of of Latino ballads. “Since I speak the language and love this music also, I want to record some of my favourite ballads in Spanish, in the tradition of Nat King Cole.”
The remaining item on Sheft-Hãt’s wish list brings him full circle: to reconnect with The Singing Cole Family. After all, there are new generations, including Sheft-Hãt’s three children and eight grandchildren. His son James is a rapper and a producer, and James’ latest CD includes singing by Sheft-Hãt’s two daughters, Aleisha and Jacinda.
“I feel blessed to have been born into a family of traditional musicians,” he says. “It’s been a long time since we’ve gotten together. Anytime we do see each other, we make a lot of noise. I would like Mexico to see some of my family do music with me here.”
(originally posted January 2012)