Chimbetu: Music to mourn Zimbabwe by

Sungura superstar Simon Chimbetu’s ‘Survival’ came out in 1997 when, to borrow and misuse the words of Yeats, “all changed, changed utterly, and a terrible ugliness was born”.

It’s not clear if Chimbetu’s decision to call his album Survival was a tribute to Bob Marley’s 1979 record, which features the song Zimbabwe and the line, “Soon we’ll find out who is the real revolutionary.” In the euphoria of independence, no one heeded these words.

Everyone – in Zimbabwe, Britain, the Americas and the rest of Africa – was under the spell of the slight, studious man in spectacles and the Mao suit. Everyone, that is, except the Ndebele, who were about to experience the wrath of the bespectacled tyrant. By the time the genocide was over in 1987, some 20 000 Ndebeles were dead.

Music as monument

Survival’s Vana vaye bemoans rising inflation and the erosion of living standards, but Pane Asipo points at the superstructure responsible for the declining quality of life for Zimbabweans. The song is a cenotaph for the guerilla who lies in an unmarked grave in Mozambique or in some cave on Mount Darwin, Chiweshe or Mhondoro.

“Gungano ramaita iri, pane vamwe vasipo
Mabiko ataita aya, pane vamwe vasipo
Kuguta kwataita uku, pane vamwe vasina.”

These celebratory parties that we do, Independence Day, Heroes Day, some of us are not there, some of us are missing. These tummies, about to burst with choice steaks, some are starving.

“Tatadza kukanganwa isu,
Kukanganwa takoniwa
Jojo akasara kusango
Molly akasara ikoko
Love akasara kuhondo
Jonah akasara ikoko.”

Thousands of young men and women who left for Tanzania, Mozambique and Zambia to join the struggle didn’t make it back.

I am reminded of a passage in war veteran and educator Fay Chung’s memoir, Re-Living The Second Chimurenga, in which she writes about Saul Sadza, one of the commanders. In one episode, Sadza, who was in charge of operations, had gone to fetch newly trained soldiers in trucks travelling from Iringa to Dar es Salaam. Instead of sitting in front of the truck with the driver, Sadza would sit with the young guerillas at the back in the open, as a gesture of solidarity with his charges.

Sadza told Chung, “More than half of them will die in this war. It was the least I could do.” Sadza himself didn’t make it out alive. A year after this conversation, he was killed by a bomb placed in a radio given to him by an enemy agent. It is these people Chimbetu is memorialising in his music.

The war dead

Beginning in 1980, excavators, bulldozers and other earth-moving equipment started ploughing into a mountain 10km south-west of Harare. Some say the mountain carved up used to be known as Chemapere, the hill of hyenas, which forms a loose range with other mountains in the area popularly known as Warren Hills. Other accounts suggest the mountain is an ancient iron mining settlement. This was to be site of a monument celebrating the war dead and the new nation’s heroes.

The shrine’s shape – it resembles an AK-47 – and the nationality of its architects and engineers – North Koreans designed and began building it in 1981 – were, perhaps, the first evidence in post-independence Zimbabwe of Mugabe’s authoritarian instincts. The National Heroes Acre’s most recognisable feature is its towering obelisk, a black granite phallus. Polygonal structures – including, of course, the graves – lend the place a brutal, authoritarian ambience. It is no surprise that when an internal threat to Mugabe’s rule emerged from PF Zapu-aligned militants, it was to the same North Koreans that Mugabe turned to train the 5th Brigade, his genocidal army unit.

The monument to the unnamed is located in the centre of the acre – three guerillas standing tall and towering. But, in fact, this is a lie. For while the cenotaph is at the shrine’s centre, in practice, the ordinary soldier – and the common man and woman – is everywhere decentred, occupying the outer peripheries of social, economic and culture life. The centre belonged only to the studious man in spectacles and his friends and family.

Veterans stake a claim

In 1997, war veterans began to stake a claim on a central role in the country’s political, social and economic life. It is the year tens of thousands of war veterans received a lump sum of Z$50 000 (then R55 000) and lifetime pensions of Z$2 000 (R2 370), for having participated in the 1970s war. They were angry that Mugabe’s friends – including Joice Mujuru, Augustine Chihuri, Grace Mugabe’s brother Reward Marufu and many others – had claimed millions from the War Victims Compensation Fund.

The fund, set up in 1994, was meant to benefit people who had suffered injuries in the war, but the elites were “examined” by dodgy doctors who exaggerated their injuries – or sometimes totally fabricated them – so they could inflate their claims. On receiving their payments, overnight the Zimbabwean dollar fell from trading at Z$12 to the US dollar to Z$37, in an episode known as Black Friday.

The war veterans occupy a double, paradoxical role in the nation’s fabric. They are the people who sacrificed everything to bring independence, and yet, they are also the people whose payments marked the beginning of the economic doldrums that, two decades later, remain unsolved and unsolvable, even though the bespectacled one was in November 2017 toppled by his erstwhile comrades and is now in his bedridden hermitage.

Chimbetu in myth and memory

The mythology of Chimbetu, who died in 2005, is rich and fascinating, partly because even the basic details of his life are not known. Zimbabwean writer Ranga Mberi notes the conflicting details in Chimbetu’s originary tales, how, in some accounts, he was press-ganged into joining the war but was sent back because he was too young. The musician was born in 1955 and in 1972, when the war began in earnest, he would have been 17. Guerillas were typically recruited around that age. Other stories suggest he left of his own volition to join the war while still others insist he never joined at all.

Whatever the story, when independence came, he and his brother Naison were singing in the townships of Harare when they were noticed by producer Chris Matema. The producer then paired the two brothers with the OK Success Band, led by a Congolese musician, and, later, the Sungura Boys. It’s not clear where the Chimbetus picked up the Sungura aesthetic – the brooding, bass-heavy beat of the rhumba combined with light-hearted, percussive phrasing. Perhaps it was their days as front men of OK Success Band or in the Tanzanian camps where they listened to Benga, a Kenyan traditional sound that was adapted for the acoustic guitar by people who had been listening to, and had been influenced by, rhumba.

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If he never left at all, it’s possible Chimbetu would have been listening to what was called Kanindo music on Rhodesian radio when Benga got on the bus and moved down south from east Africa. The man responsible for these musical migrations was Phares Oluoch Kanindo, a Kenyan music executive who, espying a hunger for that music abroad, exported it to west and southern Africa. In the 1970s, enterprising southern Rhodesians playing on the Salisbury (Harare) band circuit, started experimenting with the sound, resulting in Sungura music.

Together with Naison, Chimbetu formed a band called Marxist Brothers in which they played the role of the establishment critic. When the two parted ways, Chimbetu formed the Orchestra Dendera Kings, fitting into the Congolese tradition of using the word “orchestra” as part of the band’s name. Over two decades, he established himself as a politically conscious exponent of the genre, sometimes singing in Swahili and Chewa (I have heard some people say his father was from Tanzania, while others think he was Malawian), but mostly in Shona.

In 1997, Chimbetu gave us the gift of Survival, which, with hindsight, seems an apt, prophetic title for the multiple crises and turbulent times that became ingrained into the very identity of the Zimbabwean. But here we are, barely alive, we still managed to survive the studious, bespectacled one, and this year we will sing along to the words of the Prophet Chimbetu.

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