Wailing band blazes on
The matter lies in the significance of this album to Zimbabwean music when seen in the context of a number of circumstances. Being the band’s very first album without the leadership of the late Simon Chimbetu, Sonny is clearly a very purposeful album. The overwhelming requests for the title track on Zimbabwe’s radio stations the morning after its release is a sign that the followers of Dendera music were breathing a frightened sigh. Coming in about eight months after the death of Simon, Sonny is partly a demonstration of a sound succession plan. Sonny is a shining example to other senior Zimbabwean musicians. They do not seem to be clear as to what has to happen if the maker calls them ‘untimely’. Good succession policy in any sphere of life ensures that the old traditions continue well after the founding fathers. In Zimbabwean music you cannot ascertain the exact heirs, for example, to John Chibadura, Leonard Dembo or System Tazvida. Generally it is the copycats who, ironically, have to lift the flag and come up with their own versions of the founding masters. These masters tend to go down without deliberately finding successors. As a result their rich traditions just die out. Sonny is therefore Simon’s achievement much as it is Allan’s. Those who followed Simon Chimbetu’s live shows must have seen that for about the last five years of his life, he allowed his young brothers, Braim and Allan to have the first third of nearly each of all his shows. Whether playing at Sports Diner, Bindura, Chiredzi or Karoi, the ‘master of song’ tended to pitch up seemingly late, smiling characteristically and joining his sweating siblings on stage. It was clearly deliberate. Usually he hung around in the eaves, chatting with the fans and checking on how ‘the boys’ were faring without him on stage. Maybe Simon’s short incarceration helped matters too. The band realised the need to prepare for eventualities. When Simon went to prison, Braim was forced to take over in a huff. It was tough going for him for quite a stretch and the crowds stayed away. Braim even came up with a song that went: Tingaimbe sei iwe usipo? (How do we sing on without you (Simon?) Some cynics are on record as having told Braim that: muchatoimbira machair. (With Simon gone like this, you will sing to an empty auditorium.) But once beaten twice shy. The ‘master of song’ and the band had received a painful but useful lesson. They began to prepare and preparation became the norm. For the last couple of years, Simon began to slow down visibly. It could have been due to the ugly political polarization obtaining in the country but you also noticed that he was no longer the same vivacious man physically. Although the voice was still there, he began to dance less and less and sweat and tire easily. With the aid of hindsight, one realises that Simon’s last album, Reward; Ten Million Pounds, has some songs with suggestions of a man embattled by natural forces and ailment. Kikiri-Kikiri could be about Zimbabwean politics but it could also be about surviving and struggling in the clutches of relentless forces that carry one forcibly to the periphery. Kumba is sadder, referring to the concept of ‘going home and greet them all on arrival.’ Govenor Cornwell is even more revealing. Sung in Chewa, it talks about: njala imeneyi yalova munyumba manga, achibale. Siyamusimbu wanga. Idzaniononga imeneyi njala. (This hunger that has struck me, comrades, is not commensurate with my small build and this time it will take me.) In the same song he also talks about fasting, and endless desperation, among other sad things. Before long, he was to pass on within a fortnight of his own father’s death! As if that is not enough his other singing sibling, Naison died some weeks ago, putting immense pressure on band and family. But when you leave behind a youthful band, a heavily talented young brother like Allan and a son like Suluman, who is already into music in his own right, you are not the type that dies musically. Moffat, the long time Dendera Kings bassist is clearly a very mature musician. His presence gives the younger musicians in the group some kind of assurance. He must have learnt a lot about the Chimbetus and the content and form of Dendera music to hang around this long. His poise betrays a certain kind of candidness not common in most artistes. But then there is the inimitable rhythm guitarist, Vivian. His strength is his flexibility and a very clear and deep love for a good song. He is a born actor-cum musician. Years ago, Shepherd Mande did not appear a natural replacement for the late Never Moyo, but his lead guitar now rings with the confidence of a senior guitarist. Indeed the new album Sonny, by Simon’s survivors is thankfully vigorous and exhilarating. The title track is the most magical. Sonny, a daughter is to be given away in marriage to a long-standing family friend and expectations are very high. Dori is a girl whose deeds and physical beauty is a source of joy and pride for her suitor the persona. When she walks, Dori’s ‘step’ is actually an inimitable canter. Listening to this album you cannot help sensing that Allan and company are under immense pressure to succeed. It is as if they are being pursued by a man-eater. The only sad part is that in the ensuing tension, they tend to swallow some of the lyrics and that almost spoils the song called Samutoko. Samutoko is about learning to appreciate the achievements of other people’s children when they do well. Yowe-Yowe mourns the passing on of Simon. Steeped in the original Benga rhythm, this is the most soulful and traditional rhumba song. Very evident too is the deliberate effort to increase the pace and tempo of Dendera music in most of these songs. Although Simon’s music had matured, the youngsters must have long realised that it was falling on pace. With younger rival Sungura musicians like Macheso and Tongai Moyo emerging with heightened instrumentals it was prudent to add ‘speed’ to Dendera music. The other positive development with Sonny is the rise of the baas guitar ‘from behind,’ becoming more experimental, in line with the so-called bass guitar revolution in Zimbabwe associated with Alick Macheso. Over the years the bass line in Sungura has fast become prominent. Tongayi Moyo and Somandla Ndebele have taken to it viciously that you cannot delineate their work from Macheso’s. Although Orchestra Dendera Kings have a veteran bass guitarist in Moffat Nyamupandu, they had remained conservative, content with the rather distant deep bass line akin to the veldt morning bird called dendera. The lyrics here generally maintain the repetitive and satiric tendencies of Simon except for the song Mufirm that does not deserve to be on this watershed album. Mufirm is just a gap filler song, repeating, rather embarrassingly, the sounds and motions of Dori on side One. There is sadly no song in Chewa or Swahili or English, a practice that had become a tradition with Simon. In an interview with a local daily Allan Chimbetu revealed that the whole band was aware of the great expectations and anxieties associated with the first album without Simon. In the eight months that included mourning Simon, they worked on a six-track album and released it, risking infighting or even a split. For a bereaved band, that is clearly record breaking. With this album they have taken off the pressure from their shoulders. They can take a break, assured that they can stand up again, if they so wish. They have done much better than anticipated. Their task is to maintain their standards and to guard against splits that are usually caused by greed, dishonesty and power-hunger.