Musician releases ‘Chewa Hits’

Nicholas Zakaria is arguably the humblest and the quietest of them all. Always clad in modest attire, he talks less about others and his achievements. Six months ago, at Simon Chimbetu’s burial, in the absence of Thomas Mapfumo and Oliver Mtukudzi, he became the obvious spokesman for the Zimbabwean musicians present. A very tough looking introvert, Zakaria doesn’t begrudge his successful former students, the late System Tazvida and Alick Macheso. “Mbiri yavo imbiri yanguwo. I take pride in their fame,” he said in a recent interview. Even when Macheso complained about copycats Zakaria did not say: “But you copied me yourself.” He only said if people copy you it means you are good. That was quiet an ironic sting. If you listen carefully you will realise that although Zakaria plays the same style as Macheso, his music is decidedly calmer, mature and more meditative. While Macheso’s Sungura is more innovative and appeals more to the nerves, Zakaria’s is soulful and finds you only with the benefit of a series of replays. His more popular albums include Mabvi Nemagokora and Ndine Mubvunzo. On stage Zakaria’s dance is not a dance at all. These are ordinary up-and-down rhythms of one who knows the source and centre of sound. He plays his lead guitar as if he has never listened to it himself and would rather go away and dig in the garden instead. But beneath it all you see a very private pride and that mischievous Chewa man’s satisfaction that says I play not because I have no other things to do but because I like it. Born in Zimbabwe at Belgownie Estate in the Mazowe farming area, Nicholas Zakaria is a Chewa by descent, his family originating from Malawi. Although Chewa people have roots in Malawi, Zambia, Mozambique and Tanzania, they are now virtually in all Southern African countries. Outside their countries of origin, most of them are in Zimbabwe and South Africa where their parents or grandparents migrated as migrant labourers. Because their general impoverished condition stems from the days of colonial conquest, the Chewa people have participated in many liberation movements in the region. Their names were found within the ranks of Frelimo, Zanla, Zipra, ANC and other such organisations. Their role in the politics, sports and arts of the region is very difficult to ignore. However, it is sad that their official population figures have not been properly established in a region where migrant labour was and is still a huge economic reality. Considered peripheral, they are generally a peaceful lot who have, however, kept in touch with their traditions through constant journeys back home or through song and dance. A true Chewa man is simple, generous, joyous, daring and resilient. Researches reveal that Chewa is interchangeable with Nyanja. Some documents reveal that “Chewa people speak a language called Chinyanja”. Their ultimate origins are the Luba-Lunda kingdoms in the Congo from where they wandered southwards. Sometimes languages like Ngoni, Nsenga, Nyasa, Peta, Maravi and Chikunda are considered to be Chewa/Nyanja dialects. But the Chewas have intermarried everywhere they have gone showing that Africa is their home. It is in that light that Zakaria’s new album called “Chewa Hits” is very important. This is a compilation of 12 Chewa songs from Zakaria’s major albums of his music career. On most of his albums, he had always included several songs in Chewa. This has continued since his founding of the Khiama Boys around 1984. Macheso’s backing voice and bass guitar are very evident on this album since these songs were done while he was still at Khiama Boys. “Chewa Hits” is very historic in that it is one of the very few all-Chewa-song albums in Zimbabwean history. This despite the fact that most Sungura gurus like the Chimbetu brothers, Somanje brothers, John Chibadura, Amon Mvula, Ephraim Joe and others could sing fluently in Chewa even if some of them might not have been strictly Chewas. Most of these musicians, like Zakaria, grew up on Zimbabwean mines and farms where their parents were ordinary labourers. Influenced by the Rhumba rhythms from their countries, played by their parents, they evolved a kind of Zimbabwean sub-Rhumba now known as Sungura. In Zimbabwe these young banjo-playing musicians migrated to Harare (then Salisbury) from the farms and perfected their guitar-playing whilst working as the so-called garden boys. Wonder Guchu of Zimbabwe’s widest circulating daily newspaper The Herald has done an interesting research in which he discovered that these young musicians, including Zakaria, almost always congregated in the African township then called Gillingham. Gillingham (now Dzivaresekwa) could have been convenient because of its proximity to the then Salisbury’s leafy suburbs where these lads found employment easily. The name Gillingham is central in the development of Sungura and one day a more wide-ranging research might be necessary.

March 2006
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