Cde Chinx and the rhythms of unity

By Ranga Mberi

It was 1980. The war was over, freedom was in the air.

Within days, a new country, Zimbabwe, would be born. There had been songs to win the war. But now, new songs were needed. Songs of celebration, to capture the mood.

Cde Chinx had just returned from the Dzapasi/Foxtrot Assembly point in Buhera. They asked him to write a song to be performed by a choir at Rufaro Stadium, where the Union Jack was to be lowered, replaced by the new Zimbabwean flag.

Prince Charles was in town, to take back the Union Jack to Britain.

So, as Prince Charles sat in his chair that night at Rufaro Stadium, the song “Mukoma Charleh” was heard. One part mockery of Britain, another part celebration.

“…Mukoma Charleh, takura shoko unopa Mambokadzi … You better carry our message to your Honourable Mother, Her Majesty, the Queen, tell her Zimbabwean people were the happiest on that day, 18 April, 1980, when Zimbabwe became real independent country. Saying real. It’s real. Very, very real. You better carry our message to the Queen..”

Charleh got his flag and left.

Chinx had staked his claim as one of the many voices that came to mark the tough transition from war. It’s a role he was to play even more in the early Independence years.

After Independence, war vets were given jobs in government institutions to help them settle. Chinx found himself at ZBC. But the job of transmission controller never caged his passion.

His old choir mates were still around, and Chinx tried to get them to record. But the big, white-owned record companies then, such as Gallo, were so over the war choir stuff. Choral groups such as Zanla Choir and the LMG Choir, led by the legendary Gift Nare, had provided the soundtrack to the struggle. But record companies now wanted new, urban sounds to reflect the vibe of the time.

Chinx spoke to a friend, Maria Gazis. Did she know anyone in the music business, he asked? He was in luck. Gazis knew two, Jane Bartlett and Benny Miller.

Miller had been part of the Otis Waygood Blues Band, a punk rock outfit that had rocked Rhodesia since the 60s. He’d also been front man for a hard rock band called Klunk.

Soon, Chinx was spending nights at the Millers’, making music well into the night so he could still make it back to work at ZBC in the morning.

So, here you had it. On one side is a war vet, fresh out of the bush where he had been leading choir songs mocking white people, a man whose grandfather Chingaira, after whom he was named, was beheaded by white settlers, with his severed head shipped off to Britain as some macabre trophy. On the other is Miller, guitarist for an all-white punk rock band. Different backgrounds, making great music together.

This, right here, was the spirit of the new Zimbabwe at the time.

Chinx played no instruments, so he would verbalise the instrumentation he wanted. “Play it like this… bham bham bham bhaaam bhaaam”.

Then another thing happened to add to this story of the transition. There was a genius white kid, a keyboardist, that Miller knew. Keith Farquharson was his name. He could play anything on his synthesizer. He soon joined up.

That was how the first new independent music label in Zim was born. They called it One World Records, fittingly. Their first recording, “Marching Together”, was a reflection of themselves, and their time. A black war vet fresh from the war front, a white punk rock artiste, and a teenage keyboard wiz recording together in a country still struggling to reconcile after 90 years of racial bitterness and war.

“I dearly want to believe, that the people ought to unite… Marching together, it binds us together,” Chinx sings, to the accompaniment of Keith’s screeching synth.

It was under this One World label that two other new talents came to the fore; Don Gumbo and Andy Brown. Chinx and Keith were recording as the Barrel of Peace at the time. Ilanga, with Don Gumbo and others, was just taking shape. Their arrival meant Keith didn’t have to play everything on his synthesizer any more. There was now a proper bassist, Don, and a guitarist, Andy.

This is how they ended up recording and performing together.

But it appears their relationship with Chinx was never that warm early on. Chinx never felt the Ilanga boys supported him enough. When he needed to record “Ngorimba”, they didn’t show up.

To put down a first cut of the song, he had to scramble together a few old comrades, a mbira crew called the Revolutionary Recreation Group. He still needed vocals. Doreen and Busi Ncube, two talented sisters, came to his aid. The other vocals were provided by a certain guy, Oliver Mtukudzi. Yes. That guy.

In the end, “Ngorimba” was recorded, and became one of Chinx’s biggest hits.

The song, again, was about the unity he lived; the mix of diverse traditional and modern instruments creates good melodies, he sings. Why can’t we learn from musical instruments, he asks? Our diversity can be for the good.

The Barrel of Peace days gave us songs such as “Zvikomborero”, a massive hit recently sampled by Alexio Kawara, one of the leading lights of a new generation of contemporary Zimbabwean sounds.

Then there was “Nerudo”. From the first strain of Keith’s bassline, I could hear Chinx instructing him, by mouth, how it should sound: “bham bham bham bhaaam bhaaam”

Somewhere, midway through the track, the two have a convo;

“Nhai Keith!” Chinx shouts.

“Chinx,” Keith replies.

“Hanzi nababa, rudo rwusingachepi chete ngerwani? Ngerweruzhinji”

He never stopped singing about unity, through the Mazana Movement days. Who can forget “Roger Confirm”, arguably his biggest hit?

Somewhere in those ungovernably indecipherable lyrics is the same call to unity that he loved.

“The promising truth of our living, that of becoming one world, hwani people, one neeehshen, to the same destiny to the right….to the good of all…”

And, he went on.

“…The winning buzzword we love is that of reconciliation, to be one, enemies to become friends…”

Half the time, we did not have the foggiest idea what he was on about in that song. But we understood. Somehow, we understood. We felt the song. We felt him.

And who can forget watching Chinx, in that video, dancing on the Africa map, singing “Vanhu vose vemuno muAfrica”?

As Alec Pongweni puts it in his book “Songs that Won the Liberation War”, this song was a “vivid description of the indomitability of the human spirit”, and a call for cadres to be “united in purpose”. Over a decade after it was composed in the camps by Zanla, Chinx brought it to life in the 1990s, and did it so well that some wanted it to be the national anthem.

Like many war vets, his relationship with his own government was never easy. An enduring image of Operation Murambatsvina in 2005 was that of a defeated Cde Chinx sitting on the roof of what was left of his destroyed home near Kambuzuma.

This was despite Chinx’s role in the Hondo Yeminda series, songs in praise of land reform foisted upon radio and TV audiences through the early 2000s. His critics want this part of his career to define him, but there really must be no shock about a fiercely Zanu-PF man, one who went to war to fight for land, singing songs in praise of a Zanu-PF government’s programmes.

Reconciliation, to Chinx and many war veterans, did not mean that they stopped fighting for land, the major issue that had driven them to war in the first place.

He never changed. Even when he sang songs critical of his party, it was never from outside of it. “Gedye Yaramba”, is a cry against the effects of the liberal economic policies of the 1990s. He even sang “Musadzingane Mumusangano”, a song against upheavals and dismissals from the party that he loved.

In life and in music, he was all about unity. In his death, with tributes from all corners, he defies division still.

It is heartening to see that many have refused to allow debate about Chinx and his contribution to Zimbabwe to be bogged down in petty party politics, or to even debate whether it matters what the Politburo has decided on Chinx’s hero’s status.

Many politicians today stand square against the values of hard work, honesty and unity that Chinx sang of and lived.

What will determine Chinx’s place in the history of Zimbabwe, and his place in our hearts, is not where he is buried, but the body of work that he left and what it meant to us all. It means far more than whatever speeches were.

Alexander Kanengoni, the late war veteran, writes in his novel Echoing Silences: “What I fear most is that we will not leave anything to our children except lies and silence”.

Thankfully, Cde Chinx left us his music to tell us his truth, and that of many other comrades like him.

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