In 1990, I sneaked out of Gweru Teachers’ College where I was doing my third year training as a secondary school teacher to attend a budding writers’ workshop in Harare.
The workshop had been organised by the publishers of Tsotso Magazine where two of my poems had been published. The venue was Ranche House College along Rotten Row.
It was there I met Albert Nyathi for the first time. He was still a student at the University of Zimbabwe then.
When the one-week workshop ended, the Budding Writers’ Association of Zimbabwe was formed and Albert Nyathi was elected the organisation’s first president.
For years until Albert Nyathi started working at the National Arts Council of Zimbabwe, I knew him as a poet and not a musician. Somehow, and seemingly for us who did not know about his other love, Albert Nyathi surprised when he released his first song, Senzeni Na? which raised his musical profile?
In fact, Albert Nyathi wears several hats. He started performing at primary school doing traditional praise poetry inspired by Zimbabwe’s struggle for freedom. When he started secondary school, Albert Nyathi wrote plays and poems. This continued at the University of Zimbabwe and he was invited to perform before gatherings.
The milestones in his career are: Playing the leading role as Nelson Mandela in the play The Spirit of No Surrender co-produced by the community theatre company Zambuko/Izibuko and the ANC in 1989; recorded Senzeni Na? in 1994; won the Zimbabwe National Poetry Award in 1995; performed his poetry pieces while leading the late Vice President Joshua Nkomo’s funeral procession in October 1999; and led the Zimbabwe delegation to the United Nations Youth Congress in Hawaii.
Albert Nyathi, backed by his group Imbongi played at WOMAD 2000 before making another appearance the Africa Centre in London in 2001.
The truth about Albert Nyathi - New Zimbabwe.com 15 July 2009
You have had an interesting career in entertainment. Where did it all start for you?
I don’t think there is a particular moment I can pick as the beginning, but I started praise poetry when I was quite young. I would sing while herding cattle, and do praise poetry when my dog hunted down and caught a hare or when my dog won a dog-fight against other boys’ dogs in the village. When you had the most feared dog in those days, you would do praise poetry for it – all of which I have sadly forgotten.
My interest in poetry deepened at Msitheli [Secondary School] and Matopo [High School]. At the University of Zimbabwe, the student leaders at the time like Tendai Biti [now Finance Minister] and Arthur Mutambara [now Deputy Prime Minister] used to work with me, or shall I say used me! (Chuckles). There was no student function worth its salt that would happen without me on stage.
I remember once when Morgan Tsvangirai [now Prime Minister] was invited by Mutambara while he was still ZCTU secretary general. I got on stage that day and my poetry was as raw and rough as it remains today. I have never been afraid to say things when I am not happy with something.
But it was not until 1994 that I recorded my first album, Senzeni Na? [What Have We Done]
Senzeni Na? was an emotionally charged song. What made you do it?
I wrote that song the day Chris Hani [former leader of the South African Communist Party and Chief of Staff of the ANC’s military wing Umkhonto Wesizwe] died. ZAPU worked with Hani in the early 1960s, and I met him in Zambia at the ZIPRA camps.
When he died, I was deeply moved. He had spent over 30 years in exile, and in a matter of months after coming home, he was dead. So Senzeni Na? was for Chris Hani in particular, and all those who fought for their freedom in general – from Nikita Mangena, Martin Luther King, and Malcolm X through to Joshua Nkomo.
Many will remember the video for that song through the young girl with tears streaking down her cheeks.
Whatever happened to her?
That was Naomi Makwenda, who now lives in Coventry. She was in Grade 6 at the time and was just acting because it was Prudence Katomeni who sang the part. Prudence was doing Form 4 when we recorded the song. She is now married to Comfort Mbofana [former Radio DJ and Producer].
You recite poems as well as you can sing. Which comes first, poetry or music?
Poetry comes first. Today I am in London, invited by a school which has been using one of my poems. I am told five pupils came across my poem called My Daughter and decided to do an art project based on it.
I must say though that music also has an equal effect. I am not necessarily a singer myself, but I work with very talented musicians. They bring a different dimension to my stage act.
You had an interesting upbringing, shall we say, your father was a polygamist. Did that feel any strange in any way?
It’s not strange because my uncle is also a polygamist. Don’t ask me if I want to be one! (laughs). It used to be okay during my father’s day, but now I think it’s frowned upon. You now have to consider socio-economic and health issues as well. If you are a polygamist, you must have a pretty good plan how you are going to feed your large family.
You ran away from school at a young age and became a herd boy in Botswana. What’s going on in your mind at this time?
I hated school, because I did not understand why I had to go there. I had no role models … someone who had gone to school and had success. I thought it was pointless.
You would go to school and the teachers did not come from our area, from our district. So you had a situation where no-one had ever gone to school and come back to show that there was value in doing so.
In the district, they employed people who don’t come from that area – so that brought nothing by way of role models to that community.
I had more admiration for my brother who went to South Africa, came back and bought goats, cows and donkeys for ploughing. For me, that was more practical.
After Botswana, you went to Zambia to volunteer as a liberation fighter. You must have met role models there?
Joshua Nkomo was marvelous. I am forever indebted to him. He inculcated in us an understanding of life that I had previously not been exposed to. He told us we had to go back to school after the war.
So you can imagine I and many others went back to start our Form One and so on aged 20 after independence. People were laughing at us, sasingamaguqa!
You now live in Harare of course. I think you have been for close to two decades. What influenced your move?
There was only one university in Zimbabwe. From Matopo, I went there. After university, I got a job at the National Arts Council as a publications officer. I quit in 1997. You realise of course that in the capital city, there are plenty opportunities but my home is Bulawayo, and my birthplace is Gwanda.
Why is piracy bad?
It’s bad because it creates hunger in our families. When you create something, it’s supposed to be your intellectual property and somebody decides to infringe on that … it’s bad. Music creates so much employment, you may not immediately see it but if you look closely you will see that the artist employs a band; the record company employs so many people from production to marketing. If people engage in piracy, then they are contributing to poverty because income dries up for those who created that work of art.
What’s your biggest regret?
I have many. I however find it difficult to be personal on this question. If you look at my work, I provide a lot of commentary on things happening around me. I certainly wish things were different in Zimbabwe. You currently have people surviving by clinging onto something called hope.
Who do you admire most in the music industry?
It’s definitely Michael Jackson, not because he is dead, or because of the hype. In history, I don’t know anyone who has provided entertainment of that quality, and on that global scale. For me, that man was an entertainer who could bring tears and joy at the same time.
In my career, I must say I was influenced by Mbongeni Ngema, Lovemore Majaivana and Ladysmith Black Mambazo. I remember during the war we changed some of their songs (Black Mambazo’s) and made them relevant to our situation.