+ + 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: http://www.sundaymail.co.zw/?p=43086
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:
Ndisiye nditambe karhumba
Ndisiye nditambe karhumba
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?
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:
-Sunday, Monday, Tuesday
Wednesday, Thursday, Friday
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