Saturday, September 26, 2015

Zimunya and Munhumumwe: a tale of two Zim poets

++ Recently (September 2015) Stanley Mushava did an interview with Zimbabwean poet Musaemura Zimunya, about both the kinship between Zimunya and the late Zimbabwean musician, Marshall Munhumumwe and their work as artists. I am convinced that this interview will be useful to all those who have an interest in Zimbabwean poetry and Zimbabwean music. I post it here, with the kind permission of both Stanley Mushava (SM) and Musaemura Zimunya (MZ).

      SM: How were you related to Marshall and how did your lives interact?

MZ: Sekuru Munhumumwe, Marshall’s father, was my mother’s eldest living brother by a different mother but born of the same father, VaKufera of Masvaure Village in Marange. 

  I did not know about the Munhumumwe branch of the Kufera family until I was well into my teens when Marshall’s brother, Peter Munhumumwe, turned up in Zimunya to visit my mother, his aunt.  We struck a good understanding and close friendship there and then and when he left, we would correspond through letters.  But I was not able to see Marshall until I was doing A-Levels at Goromonzi High when eventually I visited Sekuru Munhumumwe in Mahusekwa.  And because Marshall was a shy young man, though he was older than me, I was always closer to Sekuru Peter.  Then about 1975, when I was studying at the University of Rhodesia (Zimbabwe), we were to meet regularly at the Mapfumo house in Harare (National).  It must be remembered that Thomas Mapfumo’s mother was accepted as the eldest child in the Munhumumwe family, though she was already born when her mother got married to Sekuru Munhumumwe.  Thus, my mother was her Tete, according to Shona custom and she was my Mainini.  By then Marshall was already a drummer playing with The Tutenkamen Band at Mushandirapamwe and staying with the Mapfumo family.  Still, I found him difficult to hold conversations with because he was shy and withdrawn, to the point of being almost mysterious.

SM: What are some of your memorable encounters with him?

MZ: As already mentioned, I recall my first encounter with Marshall at the Mapfumo homestead.  It was a cold winter morning just before sunrise and so there was a fire outside for everyone to warm themselves.  I had not seen Marshall the night before because he was playing drums at Mushandirapamwe Hotel.  He was quiet, as though he was in his own world – a spiritual world.


Soon afterwards I left for my studies overseas.  And although I came back in 1980, I did not get to see Marshall because he was no longer staying at the Mapfumo homestead.  However, I followed him and The Four Brothers through their music on the radio and on television.  I was astounded to think he could sing because there had been no evidence of this in his earlier life as an artist.  I was also surprised that he could present a charming face in his videos, given his introverted character.


I got reunited with Marshall through Biggie Tembo, who had been following my literary reviews and occasional poetry readings on Television and I had already met at Saratoga, under very odd circumstances.  It was at Rufaro Stadium on a day Dynamos were playing Black Rhinos and I was somewhere in the middle of the Vietnam section of the eastern terraces.  Biggie is the one that spotted me and invited me to sit with him.  Then he introduced Marshall to me and then he said “Mukoma Marshall ava ndimukoma Musa Zimunya and Mukoma Musa ava ndiMukoma Marshall Munhumwe.” There and then Marshall and I, delighted and embarrassed to be introduced by a stranger, rose and hugged and shook the energies out of each other.  Biggie could not understand until we explained.  We shared memories and forgot about the football match and exchanged contact numbers and addresses and Marshall invited me to Machipisa Nightclub to listen to The Four Brothers Band for free any day I chose. 


Thereafter I was not only to enjoy free entrance to the Night Club but also keep regular company with Marshall. He would invite me to accompany him to collect his royalties at Gallo, after which I would accompany him to pay his bills, buy home gadgets and then we would go drinking at shebeens in Highfield.  By this time I could see he was slightly less reserved than I had known   him to be in previous times.  And, of course, he was very popular on the streets of Lusaka.


I have many fond memories of Marshall, but two moments stand out in our interaction.  One was when I invited him to go upon a trip to Mahusekwa during which I interviewed him for an article for Praise Zenenga’s Sunday Observer Magazine.  What was special about this trip is that I spent the whole day with him, interviewing and discussing his artistic journey and creative methods while playing his music.  To-date, I doubt if there was ever anyone who did as deep an interview with Marshall as I did then. The second occasion was in 1998 during a break from performing at Kambuzuma Garden Party when I followed him to his car when he confided in me while he was reclining in his car that he had lost his appetite for everything – life, beer, music women and food.  And here I have used simple words to avoid offending readers.  It was a singularly chilling message. A few months after this Thomas Mapfumo called me to tell that Marshall had been admitted at Parirenyatwa Hospital.  When I visited him I found him in the initial stages of a stroke.  He could still speak.  One member of his band was evening pushing for Marshall to ensure the doctors released him for the weekend’s show.  No one had known that Marshall would never be the same again.  After several days he was never to regain his speech faculty, let alone his melodious voice.  My last memory of him is at his house, his body down to his bones, disabled and clinging onto my hands with tears rolling down his cheeks as his only means of expression and only his son to attend to his needs.


SM:  Did you exchange notes as artists?

MZ: There were many times I felt obliged to compliment him on his compositions on account of the originality of his beat, lyrics and melodies.  Of course he was once embarrassed about ignorantly using some of Mordecai Hamutyinei’s lines on “Vimbai” without seeking permission, but after admitting to copyright violation and paying compensation to the poet, he was never to use anyone else’s poetry for his music. He became even more determined that he did not need to plunder anyone’s talents to climb to the top.  What I also learned from him was that a lot of his music was inspired by voices on the street, what people said casually but was yet loaded with poetic and philosophical meaning relevant to all human beings and to society.  So, poets do not have to invent everything.  And he was one hell of a poet.  He also showed me his song book, where his pen literally carved every line and every stanza of every song painstakingly with rigorous clarity “in the early hours of the morning” – in his own words.                                  

SM: What about the version that you wrote songs for Marshall?

MZ: No.  Let me state very clearly that my support for Marshall and The Four Brothers never went beyond attending their shows and encouraging every direction they took in their evolution since the mid-80’s. For which they fully appreciated.  I never ever composed a single song for Marshall.  The story is one of those flattering myths about oneself, but purely based on guesswork.  It probably also comes from the fact that someone whispered to someone that we were related.  Like I often hear some say Marshall Munhumumwe Muzukuru was Thomas Mapfumo, whereas the truth is that it is Marshall who is Thomas’ Sekuru because he is Thomas’ mother’s brother.

SM:  Tell us the story of that trip to Marshal's original home to write an article on him for The Herald.

MZ: As mentioned earlier, I had been asked by Praise Zenenga of The Sunday Observer to do an in-depth story on Marshall for his Magazine series on Zimbabwean musicians.  He knew I was close to Marshall and could get more about him and his family than most.  So, I thought the best idea is for me to sponsor a drive to Chionana near Mahusekwa in Chihota which would really be one long and undisrupted experience.  We had also purchased grocery supplies for the family who would also be part of the interview.  It was a truly unforgettable experience culminating in that big article headlined: “Is Marshall also a Poet?”

SM: What do both of you represent in the canon of Zimbabwean arts?

MZ: Well, there are people better placed to judge my poetry, prose and criticism than myself.  All I can say without any arrogance is that I am proud to have been privileged to be involved in what I would call “The Golden Generation” of Zimbabwean literature in English in the ‘70’s who put Zimbabwean writing on the African continent and the world map.  Thereafter, since the ‘80’s I have been in the limelight of the literary sector in various capacities as Secretary General of The Zimbabwe Writers Union and Chair of The Zimbabwe Writers Association of late.  Marshall Munhumumwe is already a legend in the music that straddles mbira/Shona traditional and Sungura whose legacy stands as a bright beacon in the history of popular music in Zimbabwe and the outlying region.  His lyrics are mature and poetically moving whether you listen to “Rudo Moto” or “Rwendo Rwekudenga” or “Ndipe Uta Hwangu” or “Mudiwa Wangu” while his voice has that unique brightness that carries beauty like a crystal wave.

SM:  How did you become a writer yourself?

MZ: This is a question that requires an interview by itself.  However, I can tell you that I was a singer in the Methodist Church choir and had already begun to lead quartets, trios and duos to entertain fellow pupils in primary school.  I also had some compositions of my own at the time.  That was my first experience as a composer.  When I was a student at Chikore Secondary School we had a demanding culture of reading poetry and prose in Shona and English.  The school also had a publication called “Young Voice” in which my first poem in English appeared when I was in Form Two.  Thereafter, the late Toby Moyana, our English and English Literature instructor took a keen interest in my work and loaded me with books of poetry and prose to read for my own development.  He was such a mentor that up to the time I was at university in England his voice would always caution, condemn, command, advise and reassure me in whatever I did - including my attitude to the world.

SM: We have seen your pictures with a guitar? Are you a singing writer? How does music intersect with literature?

MZ: My father was a great mbira player who was murdered just when I had made contact with Grammar for him to record his songs.  He used to put me on his lap and play the mbira in my ear.  The sounds of the mbira gave me a tremendous spiritual and imaginative vision of the forests, mountains and rivers that linger on in my head to-date.  The tragedy is that my mother would not entertain my daring to learn to play the mbira for fear I would become a “rombe”.  But in the comfort and isolation of my days at the mission school I learned to play the guitar.  I entertained fellow students from about Form Three all the way to the University of Rhodesia via Goromonzi.  My greatest success was playing at Kent at Canterbury University for fun – either solo or with Olly Maruma or white students who shared our idea of fun.  The pictures you refer to were taken then.  I have composed my own songs and deep in my heart I have an undying wish to record some of these and perhaps show the world how poetry and music – and I mean music, not hohoho - belong together.       

SM: What are the rocks doing in your poems? Are you a fan of sculpture? Does it have any influence on your work?

MZ: My fascination with rocks began in my childhood, just fascination with what they are, how they came to be and there powerful presence in the form of boulders atop mountains or hills. Some of them have animal shapes, others human or strange forms. Their inability to speak confounds – their silence. We climbed rocks when we were young with my brothers for the fun of it.  But Great Zimbabwe was to transform my perception of rocks into something mythical, mysterious as well as a tool with which our ancestors built an impregnable legacy – footprints to inspire all future generations to remember there once treaded on this earth great African leaders and architects and cultural visionaries.

SM: And Now the Poets Speak must have been a landmark feat. How did you coordinate the project?

MZ: This collection was the product of an evening I shared with Mudereri Kadhani in Kent in the United Kingdom when we were exiled students back in 1979.  We had both been jailed for taking part in the 1973 “Ports and Pants Demo” at the University of Rhodesia.  We were looking for a cultural role in the Revolution and were determined to fill a void in our literature, that of poetry focusing primarily on the war of liberation.  As it so happened, once back in the country in 1980, we were the first to do poetry readings on television in the newly independent Zimbabwe, but by then we had already sent out a call for submissions of poetry for the collection.  The response was so overwhelming in terms of numbers of manuscripts, but also in the quality of hitherto unknown poets such as Chenjerai Hove, Carlos Chombo and Killian Mwanaka, Hopewell Seyaseya, Solomon Mahaka, Pathisa Nyathi, Lazarus Dokora, Vitalis Nyawaranda and Emmanuel Ngara. It was an amazing experience just sifting through the submissions.  And if you take a close look at this list, you can only agree that ours was an inspired vision.


SM: What are the landmarks of your writing career?

MZ: Briefly the following is an outline of the major key moments in my creative writing career:

-          1970 Received the Special National Poetry Award for the best folio of five poems in a multiracial competition run by the Poetry Society of Rhodesia.

-          1970 had some of the poems published in Chirimo Poetry Magazine

-          1971 Some of the poems from that folio were published in New Coin Poetry Magazine (South Africa)

-          1971-81 – regular contributor to the Poetry Society magazines, Two Tone (Quarterly) and Rhodesian Poetry (Annual).

-          1979 – First poetry publication Zimbabwe Ruins.

-          1981 – published And now the Poets – Co-ed Mudereri Kadhani

-          1982 – published Thought Tracks

-          1983 – published Those Years of Drought and Hunger (Criticism)

-          1993 – published Nightshift (Short Stories)

-          1993 – Conducted poetry readings at ……..and University of Washington

-          1987 – Attended the Contemporary African Writers Conference in Rome

-          1989 – Appointed to Panel of Judges of African Poetry for the BBC collection, The Fate

             of Vultures published by Heinemann.

-          1996 – Awarded distinguished Poet of Smederevo – Yugoslavia

-          2000 – Invited to the Medellin Poets of the World Festival (Poetas del Mundo), Colombia

-          2003 – Invited to the Durban International Poetry Festival

SM: Tell us about the Scribe's Scroll and what "public" criticism means for the book sector?

     MZ:  I am not certain as to who was the brainchild behind the long running Monday Book

      Review column entitled “Scribes Scroll” whose first editor was Tonic Sakaike who invited 

  me to write the first article for it and I obliged published in two parts. I think it was entitled “The Birth of Zimbabwean Fiction” or something like that.  The column itself was subsequently to run for more than a decade under various editors among whom included Davison Maruziva and Stephen Mpofu.  Throughout the period it ran, it provided a forum for book reviews, literary news, articles and information on books and The Zimbabwe International Book Fair. 


As for criticism, there is  no doubt that from time to time writers and books deserve scrutiny from expert readers and scholars who, at their best, open the eyes of the public to the treasures hidden within the covers of books or expose literary pretenders or charlatans.  All writers, new and old, need to be reminded of the good service they provide to the public as well as the disservice -   in some respects.  Of course, some of the contemporary book reviewers have no clue what a book review is.  But, ultimately, there is no such thing as “bad publicity”, though not all writers agree with these views.                                           


SM: ZIBF. What were the highs and lows?

     MZ: During my first term as Chairperson of ZIBF, the organization experienced vibrant growth 

    culminating in the re-launching of The ZIBF Bulawayo Book Fair and The ZIBF Mutare Book

    Fair in 201, followed by the first launching of The ZIBF Masvingo Book Fair in 2013. All of

    these projects were aimed at spreading the benefit of the Book Fair and its related activities

   such as exhibitions, workshops (mini-indabas), Children’s Reading Tent and  Live Literature

   to far-flung cities across the land in order spread the access to books to members of the

   public across the land.  In due course, we created The Digital Zone, an IT booth for, as a

  permanent feature to provide a guided digital experience for young and mature visitors to

  all our exhibitions.  From 2013 onwards, we also ran an event called The Literary Evening at  

  all our book fairs in order to give a platform to writers to come together and read and

  discuss their works.  Even most positively, my two terms at the helm of ZIBF saw a gradual

  process of integrating the book through cajoling and an inclusive approach to all our

  activities so that no sub-sector was marginalized from our programmes.  One of our projects,

 The All Stakeholders Anti-Book Piracy Workshop (2013) was a product of this vision of

 integrating the book sector to recognize that we are stronger together than as separate sub-

 sectors vying in opposite directions.   Of course, there is little one could do should some sub-

 sectors choose to stay away as ours is a voluntary association of willing players. 


One could say the biggest challenge ZIBF experienced came in the form of the severe depression that has affected the book sector over the first two decades of the millennium.  Of course, it may be apparent to the public that for decades, our publishing sector has been the mainstay of ZIBF because when the going is good, it has greater financial wherewithal than all the other sectors.  When you see empty bookshelves at the Book Fair, you can trace that to the depression in the industry.  It should be restated that this depression is a consequence of many underlying challenges, not the least of which are, the national economic meltdown at the turn of the millennium, the death of the reading culture triggered by the low purchasing power of the of the public or the downsizing of priorities by the buying pubic together with the rampant and vicious book piracy which has created a ready alternative market for books. Critically, when the international monetary crisis forced our major cooperating partners to drastically reduce funding for our activities, it was perhaps the lowest point of my time at the helm of ZIBF.                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                          


SM: You grew up during turbulent times. What are some of your memorable encounters with the "system"?

MZ: In August 1973 we engaged in a big demonstration called “The Pots and Pants” Demo on the Campus of the University of Rhodesia in protest against sentiments that had been voiced by an RF backbencher called Simington (I think) who attacked black students at the university for being dirty, drunken and being a nuisance for the white students and challenging their legitimacy in the institution.  I remember the next day seeing a picture of myself on the  front page of “The Herald” epitomizing the headline “University Students Run Riot” or something to that effect.  About 157 of us were subsequently arrested and detained for 21 days while we attended trials culminating in various sentences ranging from 9 months mandatory prison with hard labour without the option of a fine.  Among that group were Witness Mangwende, Henry Dzinotyiwei, Andrew Wutawunashe, Dambudzo Marechera, Rino Zhuwarara, Cadmiel Wekwete, Stanley Kazhanje, Gwanzura, Misheck Nyamupingidza, Arthur Borerwe and many others.  Following release at the end of the prison terms, we were served with orders banning us from entering within a 10 kilometre radius of Salisbury (Harare) – which effectively meant we could not resume our studies.  That is how come we eventually ended up in universities across Africa and the United Kingdom.         


SM:  Why do Zimbabweans hang their pens early? You, for example. Elsewhere, artists write into their 80s/90s.

   MZ:  It is not true that I have stopped writing.  Those who spread the rumours that one is no

    longer writing do so for their own self-serving ends.  There are many times I have felt the   

    impulse to write about many ills affecting our society and found that voices of intolerance

    rendered in pathetic essays have choked the public space like the Chivero weeds. Any fisherman knows what I mean by this metaphor.  Further, for your information, I have   quantities of unpublished poems, short stories and even opinion pieces.  Sometimes when you have achieved a certain degree of accomplishment, you hesitate to publish things you are not completely satisfied with and you wait for precisely when you feel you have reworked everything to your satisfaction.  Sometimes when one is starting out, one is more preoccupied with one’s ego at the expense of perfection.  Sometimes it is also a matter of timing.  And temperament plays its part as well.  It is a complex thing.


SM: What do you have to say about the current literary scene?

   MZ: I am eternally amazed at the literary talents our small country is endowed with, talents that  are eternally blooming from every possible nook and cranny. The pity is that our book

  industry is down on its knees.  People do not read.  Books do not make sense if they do not

 find their way into the hands, minds and hearts of readers.  So, on the one hand, we have all this talent, at the same time, we have no readership to nourish it.  It is a situation which could easily lead back to the drought and hunger of earlier times – or a variation thereof.

 (The End)

Monday, August 24, 2015

Shimmer Chinodya's longest interview....

Today 'The Herald' of Zimbabwe has published what I think is Shimmer Chinodya's longest interview ever... maybe the longest interview that a writer has ever had with a local paper... and I enjoyed it. Impressive. Well done, Mr. Elliot Ziwira! So, here is the link to the interview:

Monday, August 17, 2015

Simon Chimbetu: ten years ago

+ + I wrote this article on Aug 16, 2005 at the request of editor Moses Magadza and it first appeared in the Southern Times on Sunday 21 August 2005.  Ten years later, on Sunday August 16, 2015 the Sunday Mail republished it to mark the tenth anniversary of Chimbetu’s death:


The death of Zimbabwean musician Simon Chimbetu last Sunday left his admirers and ideological friends shocked. Who knew that “the master of song” would go ‘asina kuwoneka’ (without saying goodbye) just like ‘Mama Elizabeth’ a character in one of his most touching songs?

However, we should not lose opportunity to dwell on what the man represented. His last album “Ten Million Pounds: Reward” reminds one of the singer’s unique music and his intricate circumstances as a musician and nationalist.

For the past four years, Chimbetu has been on spotlight. Sadly, his case has not received adequate analysis and understanding in Zimbabwe and abroad.  There have been open hate messages towards Chimbetu, show boycott and even open demonisation by some sections of the local media.  But the man soldiered on.  Recent observations show that his shows and sales were gradually picking up again.

In search of a quick story the ladies and gentlemen in the media can easily cobble up a few sentences about an artist. It must be understood that they do not have much time and space. There is tendency to write about how many people were at a musical show, which songs were sung (in what order) and waal.. there was a lot of cheering, which singer is misbehaving nowdays, and with who? One does not see some fundamental questions asked (and answered) every time the media reflect on music and ideology in Zimbabwe. Can any music (especially the lyrics) ever be neutral?  Is music (or any art form for that matter) be divorced from the major and minor struggles in any society?  Is the musician not entitled to a side, a view?  If he does, must it not come out in his music?  Whilst singing is business, how much of that singing should target money and money alone? 

Though resolute and focused, I think Simon Chimbetu himself was not a stone.  In his song Kikiriri (the tussle), on the latest album “Ten Million Pounds: Reward”, he reflects on how the odds are piling against the individual and how these malevolent forces attempt to bury him.  The lyrics remind one of Christ in the garden of Gethsemane when doom beckoned.  Part of the song goes:


                    “Jehovha wehondo, pindirai mufambe neni

                    Jehovha musandisiye, pindirai mufambe neni

                    Ndasanganiswa neasinganyare, kikiri-kikiri neni

                    Ndasanganiswa neasinganete, kikiri-kikiri neni

                    (My Lord  don’t forsake me my rivals

                    are vicious and they fight me relentlessly)”


In that song Simon Chimbetu’s tenor approaches the alto and the prayer rings very clearly.  The accompanying guitars are deep and you imagine a slow solemn dance on the dance-floor. Ndasanganiswa neasinganyare/ Ndasanganiswa neasinganete is about fighting a power morerelentless than the individual. More like fighting HIV/AIDS before the advent of antiretroviral drugs. This situation recalls Chimbetu’s 1989 song ‘Usandisiye’ (don’t leave me behind) in which the persona pleads with ‘mukoma Sam’ not to leave him behind because – danger larks everywhere and there is harm at the end of the bend in the road. The forest too, teems with man-eaters of all kinds.

But Kikiriri and Usandisiye can as well operate on a scale far beyond the individual.  There are subtle allusions in Kikiriri to the embattled circumstances of Zimbabwe for the past three years – when friends and some benefactors retreated as the “land issue” scaled heights and it needed extra strength for one to be able to say, “I come from Zimbabwe.”  It is said even some well known revolutionaries developed shivers and were ready to abandon ship.

There has always been a pan-African side to Simon Chimbetu.  He comes closest to the poet David Diop whose love for Africa was not necessarily idealist. Diop the great poet was informed by a desire to see black people using their common history of suffering as a vehicle to higher goals.  In a poem “Africa” Diop acknowledges the bloody road Africa has traveled but he has the wisdom to insist that such an experience must actually make Africa locate itself in higher material struggles. What is beauty if we are not free? What is beauty if we have no food, clothes and shelter? In Chimbetu as in Diop, suffering is not a career but a road to higher ideals. It is that careful militancy, that pragmatic radicalism that got me hooked onto Chimbetu in songs like Africa Inaliya, Lisaidiye, One Way, Henrichi and others.

 In the latest album there is a particularly soulful song called Maneno Yawongo (the lies that detractors tell), sung partly in Swahili and English. To me, it could easily pass as the best song on this album.  So many lies have been told about Africa and Africans by detractors but there is no reason for Africans to give up, Chimbetu sings. This song in the lingua-franca of Africa (Swahili) is bound to travel further than any other song on this album.  The Swahili part of Maneno Yawongo goes:

                    Wao wanasema maneno ya wongo

                    Sio wana zuri uri adui kwangu


                   Wao wanaandika maneno ya wongo

                    Sio wanazuri ini adui zaAfrica

                    (There are those who tell lies about Africa

                    and they are enemies of Africa)


The instrumental and vocal combinations in this song are steeped in Benga which is an early East African version of rhumba.  In Zimbabwe Benga has been popularized as Kanindo first by the guerillas of the 70’s war of independence who had had contacts with East Africa during military training.  In recent years it has been identified with Radio Zimbabwe’s Simon “Pashoma” Ncube.  Some of the Benga hits that are popular in Zimbabwe are Kiseru by Orchestra D.O.7 Shiratti Jazz Band and Rusalina Soda by Mori River Jazz Band.

 There is in Chimbetu’s latest album (and in many of his older albums) a sense of the classic and a deliberate attempt (by Chimbetu) to remain in contact with the original and enduring traditions of rhumba music.  So far most of the Zimbabwean musical works tend to be largely inward looking in terms of lyrics and instrumentation, to a point of negating that Zimbabwe music should be part of the larger African traditions.  Besides singing in Swahili and Shona, Chimbetu also sang in English, Ndebele and Chewa and not many Zimbabwean musicians go that far.


If Maneno Yawongo is serious then the other song called Karhumba is an open celebration of the joys of rhumba music and its association with rhythmic dance:



                    Karhumba ndisiye-

                    Ndisiye nditambe karhumba

                    Karhumba kandiomesera,

                   Ndisiye nditambe karhumba

                    Karumba kemutsigo,

                    Ndisiye nditambire karhumba

                    (Let me dance to rhumba.  The rhythms of rhumba

                    provoke me and I can’t hold on)


According to the Negritude movement, the essence of blackness is the relationship between rhythm and the body.  In Africa marriage is dance, joy is dance, death is dance, love is dance…  Every station of life is an occasion for dance. Karhumba seems to dwell on that philosophy and operates with short sharp chants and cascading instrumentation.  Dance becomes a dramatization of victories and defeats a body can endure.  As Senghor put it years back, “We are not only intellect and reasons.”

Chimbetu had a certain decisiveness and combativeness which he tossed and roled in idiom and metaphor.  This is so well done in the song Muridzo.  In this song the leader of the revolution is being addressed using the language popular with African traditional doctors – kana wabva pano usacheuke dakara wasvika kumba.  (From this place, go straight on and don’t turn your head until you get home.)  Those familiar with this language of the Shona n’anga will marvel at the following:


                    Mwana wekubereka, usacheuke muridzo

                    Ndapota usacheuke muridzo, usacheuke muridzo

                    Nyanwe mutete, usacheuke chete

                    Nyangwe akabata mari, usacheuke muridzo

                    Ndapota usacheucheucheu, usacheuka chete

                    Ramba wakananga mberi, usacheuke muridzo

                    Pauri panoshura, usacheuke muridzo

                    Nzvimbo yauri inoyeura, usacheuke muridzo

          (Don’t look behind regardless of distractions, look ahead and be resolute)

The idea of looking back and losing one’s principles is a motif in Simon Chimbetu’s music.  It appears in an earlier song called ‘Simba nederere’(surving only on okra) from the chart-busting album Survival:

                    Inga wakataura wani

                    Kuti mugwara tiri tose

                    Saka wapanduka sei?

                    Wanditiza sei?

                    Wandiramba sei?

                    Wapanduka sei?(You made many promises, now why do you renege on them?)


There was here a musician blessed with a certain fear of betrayers. From Cape to Cairo, Africa has been betrayed by its own. The issue is no longer about people but individual gain. Chimbetu bemoans the selfishness and wanton greed that some African leaders espouse today.  This is more painful if seen in the context of the previous excitement with shared ideals and journeys made together for the benefit of the collective. 

I imagine Chimbetu the composer as a man who imagined that all meaningful endeavours must thrive towards a centre, a rallying point.  This formulated part of Chimbetu’s nationalist Pan Africanist vision.  The same view is buttressed by the song on the latest album called Kumba “home.” You quickly realize the somewhat Garveyite vision of Africa in Chimbetu in that song. ‘Kumba’ is no song to play when you are far away from and things are not working out fine. The persona asks with the humble tone of a home-sick slave – “Ndinokumbira kuenda kwedu kuAfrica!” (I beg to go back home to Africa) Of course I sometimes think that this is a song in which the artist predicted his own death! In that song there was that longing to return to a source beyond home.

Simon Chimbetu’s vision has been trashed and even misunderstood in some cynical circles.  It has been seen as blind praise of party and country. But it is natural for cynics to be parochial, forgetful and vicious.  In fact Chimbetu, like Oliver Mtukudzi, makes very subtle and intelligent criticism of the establishment in many of his songs.  In an older song called ‘Vana vaye’ (from the Survival album) the singer pleads with the leader not to forget Chingwa (bread) and Upfu mealie-meal ‘zvevana vangu.’ (my children)

 Criticism of the establishment in Zimbabwe by Simon Chimbetu is even more acute in ‘Ndaremerwa’ (I can’t bear it any more) from the album called African Panorama Chapter I.  In that song the leader (babamukuru) is told in no uncertain terms about the rising travel costs for people who commute to and fro work from Monday to Friday.  Many people try to commute for the whole week, but by Saturday, they are broke and the going is unbearable:

                    Babamukuru honai’ka

                    -Sunday, Monday, Tuesday

                    Wednesday, Thursday, Friday

                    -Mugovera, ndaremerwa

                     Kwandinoshanda kure nekwandinovata


In that song, Chimbetu refers to the leader as “babamukuru’ (old-father/uncle). This is in keeping with the mode of cultural Shona criticism. This is in sharp contrast with some artists who have fast forgotten the strength of sign, symbol and metaphor whether you are lambasting or even praising. So much vitriol in some other people’s lyrics shoots through the roof and hits below the belt.

‘Kure kachana’ (It is far) is one of the Chimbetu’s most intelligent songs to date and his ideological rivals know it.  The message in that song is unequivocal:  the journey to state house is not and was not as easy as a walk in the park. You need a very clear agenda. You need a clear vision. You get to State-house through processes that involve the people and there are motions and rituals to go through.  Near as it might seem physically, “kuState house kure. This does not mean the artist is saying: don’t try to go to state house! The song speaks equally clear to those inside and outside state house! It is not an easy song. It is not anyone’s song.

There are some who would choose to miss the meaning of that song and would rather loathe or harm the musician himself.  Kure kachana is from Chimbetu’s 2002 album called Hoko. Though half of that album carries remixes of yester-years, the title track itself – Hoko has arguably the best instrumentation and lyrics ever done by Chimbetu.  Maybe the song Hoko could only compete against Varoyi, another brilliant track on the same album.  With the album Hoko, Chimbetu reaches the ultimate.  Understandably, his rivals mobilized against this album because of its ideological alliances with the land reform of which many now (across the political divide) are beneficiaries. I think the musician was aware that the issue of land cannot and should not be partisan because after our many weird and petty skirmishes, we have to go back to the land. That is why our ancestors said: kana uchitamba usakanganwe kutsika pasi.

And then his song Henrichi even predicted the fast track land reform decades before it came! In that song a settler famer blames his grandparents for not warning him that all these acres called farm are black soil and the owners might want to reclaim them back at some point:

                                  Henrichi mwana wemurungu

                                   Henrichi wakakanye basa

                                   Pakuzofa usina kureva chokwadi

                                   Kuti: nyika ino inyika yevatema

                                   kana voida, vadzorerei nyika…

However, away from his lyrics, albums and ideology, Simon Chimbetu had his organizational lapses which needed keen attention.  To start with, he did not taken advantage of his Swahili and Chewa lyrics and the Benga sounds of his music to make inroads in Central Africa.  Whether it was his own or his recording company’s clumsiness, Chimbetu’s music needed to be promoted in the populous Swahili territory which spreads from Zanzibar to Kinshasa.  Follow up shows and partnerships with musicians of the region might have helped.  One has in mind the manner in which Oliver Mtukudzi slowly but seriously penetrated the South African musical space by partnering (on stage and corecording) with Steeve Dyer, Ringo and others.

There was a short period when one thought Chimbetu was almost in partnering Kanda Bongo. It was not to be.  What we saw of Chimbetu’s outreach were the periodic trips to England and England alone.  The craze has caught up, sadly, with Alick Macheso.  There was need to imagine recording and touring in South-Africa, giving his music opportunity to travel further afield in the region. Chimbetu could also have taken advantage of his Chewa/Nyanja songs as a to ‘invade’ Zambia, Malawi and Mozambique.


Of course one could point at the untimely death of lead-guitarist Never Moyo and the move to greener pastures of several other guitarists, but it was not encouraging to note that since African Panorama Chapter 2 (2001) Chimbetu had taken three years to launch a fully fledged new album.  Some people have claimed that the “man had gone farming” and yet those who have followed  him over the years know that there was a time Chimbetu  could  compose, record and hold shows even when he was employed on an eight-hour-a-day job with a tobacco establishment. The managerial side of Chimbetu needed a serious revamp. There were signs that his band depended solely on brotherhood and trust. Whilst that is not a crime, it is not adequate if one intends to build an institution.  Chimbetu needed to learn from Mtukudzi, especially about the idea of shedding off some responsibilities and concentrate on composing and reflecting.

The seriousness and maturity of the latest album could have been a starting point for the journey back to the higher shelf. Dendera music had become  soulful, meditative and mature and one hopes his highly talented blood brothers and the whole group must find reason to  play on.

 But we remain with fond memories. One of them: a warm evening, November 1991, University of Zimbabwe students carry Chimbetu in their arms from the entrance all the way to the stage of the university’s Great Hall. The smart guy with bashful eyes, a soulful voice, a boyish hair cut  and an unshakeable Pan-African vision will be sorely missed by the rest of us! The earth has taken back its gift.
+ the writer, Memory Chirere works and lives in Harare, Zimbabwe