Wednesday, 14 September 2011

Alan Chimbetu could have killed dendera

When Simon Chimbetu passed away in 2006, his young brother Alan became the automatic successor to a musical empire that spanned decades.
It was a colourful empire that had seen the name of an ordinary farm labourer’s family known not only in Zimbabwe but across the borders.
          That Alan had to take over and carry on the work his brothers – Simon and Naison – had started made many people – including me doubtful.
Of course, he had taken over the centre stage in the last days of Simon’s life. This was despite the fact that all along, Alan had covered Simon as a backing vocalist and had never had an opportunity like his other late brother Briam did when Simon was jailed. Briam (now deceased) was not feeling well when Simon died although he was the official manager of the band.
Alan started off as a bouncer for Simon in 2000 after completing school at St Peter’s High School in Highfield Harare.  He was born in Chegutu in 1972, attended Mahwanda Primary school in Msengezi and then came to Harare.

Below is my first interview with Alan in March 2006 after Simon’s death:

So Simon Chimbetu is alive after all?
This time it has nothing to do with the music he started or the family he left behind.
But he is the man behind his younger brother Alan’s success so far.
‘I am obeying orders from Mukoma Simon. It is like he is still here physically. It is like he is pushing me into doing what I have done so far. I derive my courage from the feeling that he is with me and approves of everything I have done,” Alan says.
There is indeed no doubt that if Simon was alive as Alan feels and he got to listen to the album Sonny that is being dedicated to him, he would nod his head and yell: ‘Eeaaaasssey Alan eaaassey!
And maybe, he would regret not giving Alan a chance to compose and demonstrate his prowess because he has added a distinct bass line to complete the dendera beat.
But then in reality, Simon is dead and Alan says; ‘I wrote all the songs a month after Mukoma Simon’s death. Of course, it was not easy for me to balance everything. Mukoma Simon’s family, Briam’s and mine.
‘It was a very stressing experience to take over leadership of a group without any preparations. But I managed because of my courage and the belief that Mukoma Simon approves of it all.
‘In fact, Suluman is a very suitable replacement. In fact, in 1995 he formed his own group which he called Young Dendera but Mukoma Simon advised him to disband since he felt it would have caused confusion. But he was a member of the Air Force band and music is not something new to him.’
The album Sonny that hit the streets on Monday this week has been tipped to even beat Simon and Naison’s albums because of the inclusion of the thumping bass line.
‘The bassline came as a result of the members’ enthusiasm. I know it was not pronounced on Marxist albums but the group felt it was necessary to include it in order to complete the circle,’ explains Alan.
The dendera beat was derived from the dendera bird that is known for singing early in the morning. Usually, two birds – a male and a female – take turns to sing in exactly the same way Simon and Naison used to in two-vocal lines.
‘We spent part of our childhood in Shurugwi where our maternal grandparents live. So every morning matendera would wake us up. It was from this experience we all became inspired with the sounds the birds made,’ Alan says.
The whole album is dedicated to Simon but other people too have been honoured through a number of songs.
‘Sonny is for all the people who stood by us during our time of sorrow and mourning. In the song we are saying that their assistance can only be acknowledged by giving our daughter Sonny to the family as a daughter-in-law.
‘Then Yowe Yowe is a dedication to the hospital staff and church people to whom we sought solace during rufu rwatainge tisinganzwisise. Dori is for lovers.’
But the name Dori was used by Simon in the song Samatenga, why use the same name now?
‘Dori is just a name we all love to sing about. It has no special meaning,’ Alan explains.
Although Alan was never given any chance to compose by Simon because he feared the same problem that hit the Marxist Brothers would befall the Orchestra Dendera Kings, his first effort is mature.
It can, therefore, be safely said that Alan has managed to cross two bridges so far – leading and keeping the group together as well as releasing an album barely a year after Simon’s death.
‘I don’t see any problem now. We are still providing for amaiguru every week although it is no longer the same but it is the best we can under the circumstances.
‘Briam is still the manager and I am the band leader. And Suluman is the right combination for me. He can compose his songs but for now we have to wait until he matures.’

Anything else but not amaiguru

It later emerged that Alan’s talk about looking after amaiguru was just talk.
          Indeed, it did not take long before Alan’s incapability as an artist and manager started showing.
First, there were rumours which later were proven to be true that the band members were not being paid; that his girlfriend had taken over the running of the band especially finances; that there was bad blood between him and his nephew, Simon’s son Suluman who had also been roped in his father’s last days; and that Alan was not looking after Simon’s family; that he was selling off vehicles and neglecting musical equipment.
Then Alan left for Tanzania where his family’s origins are leaving orders that the band should not perform. Some band members who came to see me said Alan locked up the instruments. That trip to Tanzania was going to be Alan’s undoing because in his absence, Suluman led the group and put up shows which set him on to be one of Zimbabwe’s most bankable musician today.
In subsequent interviews I did with Alan, Simon’s wife – Angie - and a family friend, it emerged that Alan had stopped doing a lot of things his brother Simon used to do not only for his family but the entire Chimbetus. For example, Simon looked after Naison and Briam. All their sisters got help from Simon.
It appeared that when Alan took over, some of the sisters had too much power over him and Simon’s family was forgotten. So although shows were held every week and money came in, nothing except what was paid to Suluman went to Simon’s family.
Simon left a big family. His wife had to start selling Chinese stuff to sustain the family yet her husband was the biggest shareholder in the family business.
This did not please Suluman who had resigned his job with the Air Force of Zimbabwe to take up music full time. In addition, the members who came to see me said Alan was not keen to allow Suluman to take front stage.
So when Alan left for Tanzania, Suluman took the instruments and with the support of his father’s friends staged some shows. The money they earned was shared among the members and some was given to Simon’s wife.
When Alan returned, he paid me a visit. He was visibly shaken. This was the second time he had come to see me. The first time after Simon’s death for an interview during which he told me he would not forsake Simon’s family and that the band would go on.
I had heard about the coup early in the morning before Alan came in the afternoon. I did not wait for him to start telling me the story because I knew what it was about.
He admitted that Suluman had staged a coup. ‘Handizive kuti mwana uyu afungei (I don’t know what the child has decided),’ he said.   
In the interview, Alan said he was taking care of Simon’s family and that he was trying to groom Suluman but then, the ‘boy’ was being greedy. He also said there were people giving Suluman wrong advice.
I also spoke to Briam who was ill at the time but was still the band manager. He bemoaned the fact that Suluman had decided to break away from the family tradition by fighting his uncles. Briam also said that Suluman would come to his senses and retract his footsteps.
Briam admitted, however, that Suluman can go it alone. He cited one example long ago in Chegutu when he formed a band with friends but was stopped by his father.
When the story ran, I received a call from a man who identified himself as Fungulani and Simon’s best friend. He said Simon’s wife and Suluman wanted to talk to me urgently.
Fungulani was a caretaker at a college along Livingstone Avenue in the Avenues. When I got there in the afternoon, Angie was there and according to Fungulani, Minister Webster Shamu had asked him to help heal the family. Suluman was also supposed to attend but his phone was unreachable. After trying it several times, Fungulani decided that the interview should go on without him.
It was my first time to meet Angie. I had read about her in the papers. And the closest I got was at Simon’s funeral in their Mabelreign home.
She is a homely woman who speaks softly after calculating her words. She was hurt with the article, she told me. The family did not need such fighting. Simon would not have wanted things to go the way they were going.
To make sure that she was not fighting, Angie said she would not want her name to be mentioned in the story and was giving me her side so that people would know what was happening.
So she told me about how Alan had forgotten the family; how vehicles and other music equipment were being abused; about not paying Suluman enough to feed the family and that when Suluman held shows without Alan, he brought money home.
I heard for the first time that there were problems with Simon’s estate mainly because Alan was not depositing his deceased brother’s share into the account.
In another story I did, Alan said the issue about Simon being the shareholder had no basis because they had worked together.
Although she did not point fingers directly at any one member of the family, Angie said Alan was being misled.
There were other stories written about the Chimbetu saga which showed how Alan had forsaken Simon’s family and how he was being reckless with properties. In all the stories, Suluman never came forward for interviews or condemn his uncle.
Suluman then got a lift from Simon’s friends who provided him with instruments and start-up capital. His rise was phenomenal at a time when Alan’s fall was rapid.
There are two things that made Suluman’s rise meteoric. One, he had help and he seemed to listen to advice. Two, he has talent such that he fitted into his father’s footsteps and three; he left with the original Dendera crew leaving Alan to make do with new players.
Alan also seemed to have been cursed because everything he tried to do did not go the way he wanted. One such incident was a breakdown of the lorry the group used for ferrying musical equipment on its way from Victoria Falls.
One by one all the vehicles left by Simon broke down and at one time, Alan had to use his girlfriend’s car. His second album, Professor did not perform well either. Then came stories of band members walking out every other week because they claimed they were not being paid.
Had it not been for Suluman, Alan would have destroyed dendera music singlehandedly.

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