At the beginning, all the attention was very tempting. We were like children with new toys. But with Aids, we realised we had to take care of ourselves, that the music industry was the same as any other job and that we had responsibility.’ - Rise Kagona, Bhundu Boys
Zimbabwe has seen tragedies in music but the story of the Bhundu Boys is a painful tragedy which still haunts both the nation, the band’s fans and the surviving members.
This is what happened to the group: Rise Kagona is in Scotland; Washington Kavhai is serving a sentence in Preston jail; Kenny Chitsvatsva is said to be a cab driver in London; Kuda Matimba is living in London; David Mankaba died of an Aids-related disease; Shakespeare Kangwena died of an Aids-related disease so did Shepherd Munyama while Biggie Tembo committed suicide in a psychiatric hospital
Formed at Independence in 1980, the Bhundu Boys became part of the new Zimbabwe and indeed the group was part of the celebrations that characterised the early years of the euphoria besieging the new nation.
Their early hits Zvamauya Tongai Zimbabwe, Pamusoroi Komuredhi, and Makorokoto were received very well and shared air play with liberation war songs.
Although it was widely believed that the late Biggie Tembo (real name Rodwell Marasha) was the founder and leader of the Bhundu Boys, the truth is that Rise Kagona who is now in Scotland founded the group which was, at one time, called the King Crops Hippies before changing the name to the Wild Dragons.
Tembo who grew up in Chinhoyi together with Cephas Mashakada whom he first played with only became a member when he could not fit into the World Tomorrow Band that was led by the late Zebron Magura, Paul Mpofu and Jacob Teguru.
In an interview with BBC, Tembo said he was just passing by a bar in Machipisa; Highfield Township where Rise and his band were playing on the day their drummer had not turned up for rehearsals.
Rise knew Biggie and he asked him to join them for the day. Gifted with great vocal skills and guitar playing prowess, it did not take Biggie time to take centre stage in the band.
The group then comprised Tembo (vocals, rhythm guitar), Kagona (lead guitar, vocals), David Mankaba (bass, vocals), Shakespeare Kangwena (keyboard, vocals) and Kenny Chitsvatsva (drums, vocals).
When Mankaba succumbed to HIV, Shepherd Munyama took his place. Munyama was also later replaced by Washington Kavhai. Today, Chitsvatsva and Kagona are the only surviving original Bhundu Boys.
Using the just ended war as their rallying cry, the Bhundu Boys hit it off both at home and abroad with a moving distinct sound never heard before. Biggie claimed to have been a runner during the war of liberation and the group discarded the name Wild Dragons for a more apt name – the Bhundu Boys - that fitted into the politics of the day.
With a brand new name and an energetic frontman, the group rode high with songs such as Babamunini Francis, Hatisi Tose, and Wenhamo Haaneti among many others in just four years – 1980 to 1984. They became so popular that their music was heard and played on radio in the United Kingdom especially their debut album Shabini.
These earlier hits were recorded by former property developer, Steve Roskilly at Shed Studios in Harare before Owen Elias and Doug Veitch who owned the Discafrique label flew all the way from London to Harare to check out the group.
Roskilly played a vital role in the deal between the Bhundu Boys and Veitch and Elias’ label to reissue the group’s early hits for release in the UK. It was also planned that the group would tour the UK but this did not work out when Veitch and Elias failed to raise enough money.
The two then brought in the Scottish Gordon Muir who became the group’s UK manager. For Muir, with BBC Radio One DJs John Peel and Andy Kershaw’s love of Bhundu Boys’ music, his work was easy.
Two albums – Shabini and Tsvimbodzemoto - that had been reissued on a Discafrique label enjoyed favourable airplay and in 1987 Muir signed the group with WEA thereby making Bhundu Boys Zimbabwe’s most marketable band ever.
When the group finally flew to the UK (see Kagona’s story below) they opened for Madonna at Wembley Stadium playing before a strong 240 000 crowd. They also received glowing praises from Eric Clapton and Elvis Costello.
In 1988, the Bhundu Boys released their debut album True Jit under the WEA label. Critics say the group deviated from their original beat which had won them a huge following worldwide. True Jit carries songs such as Jit Jive, My Foolish Heart, Chemedzavana, Rugare, Vana (The Children), Wonderful World, Ndoita Sei, Susan, African Woman, Happy Birthday and Jekesa.
Their second offering, Pamberi (1989) had tracks such as Chitaunhike, Bye Bye Stembi, Kutambura, Chitima Kwe, Chimbira, Viva Chinhoyi, Tendai Mwari, Ndipeiwo Zano, Hupenyu, Magumede, Nyarara and Hondo Haiperi.
While today some of the songs on these albums are popular on the club circuit, the group lost its European fan base. This was the first of the group’s European misfortunes. In a way, the change of their fortunes also peeled off the shine on the group’s lifestyle. Chinks in the group’s members’ relationship started to show.
In 1990, Tembo was dumped. The group left him in Harare and when he realised it, Tembo followed them but was told in no uncertain terms that he was not welcome.
A shocked Tembo called saxophonist Phillip Svosve to prepare a band for him back home in Zimbabwe. Svosve was playing with the Ocean City Band then after the death of James Chimombe.
Tembo returned to Harare and recorded a debut solo album, Out of Africa that failed to live up to the standard of the Bhundu Boys.
He went back to the UK where he worked with the Startled Insects from Bristol and tried his luck in television comedy. When this did not work, Tembo who grew up under the care of a clergyman converted to Zaoga.
This was when Aids claimed Mankaba in 1991 and Tembo appeared on television claiming that one of his greatest ever songs Simbimbino was a demonic song. He also said he would from then on sing for the church.
In 1992, Aids claimed a second band member; Munyama and Kangwena also succumbed to the disease the following year. There was talk at the time that Tembo also had the virus. Between 1994 and 1995, Tembo was admitted at Harare Central Hospital psychiatric unit. He was found hanging on July 1995.
Decimated, the group struggled with newly recruited members but slowly succumbed to time. Kagona went to Scotland while Chitsvatsva is in London.
My first story on the Bhundu Boys
Rise Kagona, the founder and one of the only three surviving members of the Bhundu boys is a true bundu boy whose survival instincts in the world of glinz and glamour locally and internationally have saved him from the fate that befell his fellow band members.
Now based in the UK where they made a great name for themselves in the 80s and where most probably they picked the seeds of their death, Rise is still out there hunting for something different.
‘We are looking for something different, something that catches up with what the people want. Sometimes people come along with something new and it quickly catches up with everyone. Within two or three days you read that they are millionaires,’ Rise said.
Now playing with new faces – Washington Kavhai, Kuda Matimba and Gordon Chamboko Mapika – Rise has seen the band he put together falling and sinking.
In less than five years, he lost three members – David Mankaba, Shepherd Munyama, and Shakespear Kangwena while Biggie Tembo committed suicide at Harare Hospital.
The Bhundu Boys, an offshoot of the Wild Dragons and Black Superstars, exploded onto the music scene from Highfiled suburb in early 80s. The band was fronted by Biggie Tembo who was born Mhosva Marara in Chinhoyi but Rise was the leader.
With their catchy electric jit rhythm, the band quickly established itself such that by 1984, they had had four number one hits and could stand their own ground against the likes of veterans oliver Mtukudzi and Thomas Mapfumo.
They became the missing link in Zimbabwe’s music.
Their earliest hits Kuroja Chete, Faka Puresha, Hatisi Tose, Simbimbino and Jit Jive made the Boys the hottest band to ever happen to the country.
The music appealed to British DJs prompting two Scottish friends Gordon Muir and Douglas Veitch to seek a grant under the Enterprise Allowance Scheme to release some of the Boys’ records in the UK.
Later, the two arranged for the band to tour Scotland and England.
It was a breakthrough that would eventually break them. Rise said of their move to England: ‘We thought everyone in Britain had money and we saw this tour as a means of buying the best instruments available.
‘When we got off the plane, and saw them we couldn’t believe it. The heel of Doug’s shoe was worn out. To us they looked like beggars. At first we thought they were henchmen sent to collect us. All day we were waiting for the big record producer. Finally we realised we had already met him. We felt as though we had been had.’
Muir who later became the band’s manager and Veich too remembered that first meeting. ‘They stepped off the plane and there was this bizarre ceremony where they handed over plastic shields and Zimbabwean flags.
‘Then we aksed them if they wanted to collect their instruments from the carousel. To our horror, they told us they didn’t own any instruments, they just rented them. The band’s first ever gig was just eight hours away.’
They had to borrow instruments from friends to make the show happen.
During those days, Muir stayed in Hawich village where the people there had only seen blacks on TV. The Boys, being the first blacks in the village were referred to as Muir’s darkies.
‘It was weird at first,’ Rise said, ‘but we did settle into the community. We had friends come to play football and joined in the Hawich Common Riding.’
Their breakthrough was not an overnight affair. The only venue the group played at during those early days was kelso Race Course where very few people would brave the chilly weather to see them play.
Two DJs, John Peel and Andy Kershaw who had fallen in love with the band’s music took every opportunity to promote them and things started happening.
They started playing to full houses and were invited to student balls where they made a great name for themselves.
They were welcomed into a top record company and supported Eric Clapton on their American tour as well as with Don Williams. There also were tours in Japan and Australia.
‘There were so many good times,’ Rise said, 'every student ball we played at was exicitng. But the best day of our lives was when we opened for Madonna at Wembley looking at all those people.’
Such fame and excitement came at a price though for some of the Boys would soon seek treatment for sexually transmitted diseases and rumours of sharing one woman were rife.
Muir said of his encounter with the doctor, ‘I was taken aside by a doctor and asked to try to keep their behaviour in control.’
Rise admitted, ‘At the beginning, all the attention was very tempting. We were like children with new toys. But with Aids, we realised we had to take care of ourselves, that the music industry was the same as any other job and that we had responsibility.’
Fame also brought out hidden dissatisfaction amount the members at a time when their fan base was shrinking. They had abandoned their original jit beat for the western style beat. Their 1988 album Jit and Pamberi 1989 signaled the group’s demise.
Differences also emerged between Biggie and the rest of the group. Those who knew Biggie talk about a larger than life character with an oversized temper and inflatable ego.
Biggie later left the group. Their recond company Warner Brothers dropped them and they moved onto to Island Records. It was Island Records that asked Biggie to stay and collaborate with a British group, the Startled Insects and recorded an album called Skin.
When the album failed, Biggie tried comedy and also launched a musical show which also failed.
His 1992 album Out of Africa received lukewarm responses. At the time Biggie spoke about establishing his own record label. But he converted to Christianity instead.
In 1995, he was admitted to Harare hospital where he committed suicide the same year.
It was not his first time to be admitted into a psychiatric home though. One fan said of Biggie, ‘No one could belt out rhythms like him for four hours a night, seven days a week on a six month tour without an outside agency’s support whether medicinal, alcoholic or drawing out too much mental input. Much as I loved the music I could not imagine how a character like that could survive for too long.’
Even the remaining boys did not do well. All their four albums released after the split never matched the standards they had set.
But Rise is still optimistic, ‘We have been through a lot. And it’s frustrating that I can’t always get as much as I want. But I think if I keep on pushing up, I will get somewhere. If it weren’t for my pushing so far, I wouldn’t be what I am today. So I still need to push up and maybe the best results are still to come.'
While there are many versions of what happened to the Bhundu Boys, only those who were within the group can give a true version of the group’s fate.
Kagona tells the story of how they arrived in the UK, their stay and the reasons for the split. He also discusses the rumours surrounding the death of his fellow members.
Of course one would wonder why it has taken so many years to reveal my story. But what I can say is that every dog has its day. I am Rise Kagona, the founder and leader of The Bhundu Boys from Zimbabwe, and I believe that there is no one other than myself who knows the full history of the Bhundu Boys from the start to where it is now, because I was there at the start, and I am still here now.
The Bhundu Boys were known as ambassadors of African Music and we were one of the first African groups to tour all over the world. It seems unfair to us that for all our effort we are now remembered only for dying of Aids. We felt it was wrong that anyone other than David's close family should talk of how he died, especially to the media. But nevertheless, Gordon Muir, our manager, began publicising this. This led to misleading articles being printed; as a result, all of us were painted by the same brush.
A lot of these stories were fabricated by people who were never with us at home or on tour. These people are parasites who feed on dead bodies. They wrote fake stories about the Bhundu Boys when they hardly knew us. Some only saw us on stage but never spoke a word; but today you can still read their misleading articles on the Internet, or in newspapers. The only good thing they applauded us for is how we supported Madonna's concert at Wembley.
I find it appalling that these people took advantage of my dead colleagues and make a living out of lies. They were not there for us in good and bad times, as DJs John Peel, Andy Kershaw and Charlie Gillet were. They have caused confusion about what really happened to the Bhundu Boys.
So this is my story - the true story of what happened to the Bhundu Boys.
It was Owen Ellias and Duncan Veitch who first brought us to the UK. Owen and Duncan had a record label called Disc'Afric, and was selling music recorded in Africa. Owen had been in Zimbabwe twice before, and he asked our producer, Steve Roskilly of Shed Studios, to look for a band that would tour the UK. At that time, The Bhundu Boys were top of the local charts, and we were also one of Roskilly's favourite bands. So we got the contract.
Steve brought the news from the UK to us. He produced the contract and described Owen Ellias as a professor. We did our last Bhundu Boys tour of Zimbabwe, to raise airfares and money to secure our families. Half of the airfares were paid for by Disc'Afric. In the summer of 1986, we left for the airport. This was our first time to fly. Friends and relatives came to see us off, and we were the talk of the town - the first ever Zimbabwean group to tour overseas since independence. Even the birds sang, and God smiled at us.
On arrival at London Gatwick Airport, we were met by Professor Owen, and his co-partner Duncan, also known as "Doug". Neither of them looked like a professor. They didn't even own a car. Owen had an old, small, brown, leather suitcase, which had vinyl albums in it ready to go on sale. Doug was looking quite scruffy with one of his shoes about to lose its heel. We just thought these were the henchmen of the real professor, who must be sitting in his luxurious mansion somewhere.
Both of them were surprised to see us coming out of the arrivals holding only a small satchel each, and no guitars in our hands. Probably they thought guitars were coming through the conveyor belt.
We were all astonished after hearing each other's surprises.
Our first show was in Scotland. Since we had no guitars, Owen and Duncan decided that one should take a plane to Scotland to arrange for instruments, and the rest of us had to board a train. Everything went fine - the gig was a success.
We came back to London, where we had to live in a bed and breakfast. There were a few gigs around England to be done, and it was around then that we first met Gordon Muir. He was just hanging around as a friend of Doug's - that is how we were introduced to him. We didn't speak to him much, because our English was not that good, and his heavy Scottish accent was hard to understand. We could understand Owen better, because he spoke softly with an English accent. He was a quiet, decent man - no wonder they called him "professor".
Doug and Owen treated us with much respect, and were trying hard to honour their contract - but the going was getting tough. We could see that they were struggling, but we were not part of the blame. We were playing music the best we could. In each show, we could leave the audience screaming for more. We were a strong band hungry to show off to our previous colonial masters. We were prepared to play even three shows a day, because in our country we normally played for nine hours or more with just least three breaks of thirty minutes. Here, playing for one and a half hours was like a joke. We couldn't feel as if we had done anything.
During this period, this man Gordon Muir was still hanging around; probably he was with Doug and Owen when they shared secrets and future plans about the band. It came to a point when Owen and Doug decided to terminate the tour, and rearrange it in a better way, now that they had learnt the hard way. But before they broke the news to the band, Gordon came and told us that Doug and Owen were planning to dump us, because they couldn't afford to pay the rest of the agreed money, and there wasn't much time left to find it.
According to our work permits, which were valid for three months, the shows were few and not much money was coming in. At this point we became vulnerable. We could see our dreams being shattered; the instruments we hoped to buy as a band and all the material things which we wished we could see them drifting away. The worst was that we could see these things all around us in London town. Most of them were at an affordable price. To us, it was like being thirsty whilst your legs are in the water. Surely any predator could find us as a sitting target at that point.
Doug and Owen seemed to be hiding something from us, which made predator Gordon Muir strike on us behind their backs. According to Gordon, Doug and Owen owed him a lot of money. This was the main reason he was hanging around them, but it was proving that they were unable to pay him back. So all along he was calculating how he could make an attack on us
In late 1986, we lived in Hawick for a few months. We suffered racism there - not only in town, where Gordon described us to his friends as Muir's darkies - but also in his own home.
Gordon Muir, a graphic designer by profession, had just dissolved his small company which he was operating from his flat. He decided to invest his last pennies in booking shows for us by telephone. At that time, things were tough for us, as gigs were hardly coming by, perhaps because of his lack of experience in booking shows. So he asked us if we could live with them in Hawick.
The flat had three bedrooms, a kitchen and living room. There was a small basement room with a small window and a toilet - I suppose it was meant to be a store room or something. Gordon and his girlfriend at that time lived in this flat. They had no children.
There we were in his flat - five of us squashed in his small basement room. He had to borrow a 10 inch black and white television for us to watch, even though in the living room there was a 32 inch colour television. We were not allowed to sit and watch that TV, especially when his girlfriend was at home, not that she would be watching it.
We also noticed something unusual about Gordon's behaviour every time his girlfriend was about to come home from work. He would start cleaning the house, mainly picking up our hair from the carpet, and in the bathroom, even though we cleaned up after bathing.
We could see how uncomfortable she was with us being in their flat. We had a word with Gordon about this, because there was an awkward atmosphere. There was no freedom whenever she was present, and this reminded us of the ways of apartheid in the southern parts of Africa where we came from. But he asked us if we could bear it for a while, because his girlfriend Anne discriminated against blacks, and there was nothing he could do about it because he gave all loyalty to her.
Their behaviour contradicted with the way we live in Africa. A girlfriend doesn't set rules in the boyfriend's house, and vice versa, unless they are married or have bought the house together. We couldn't understand why we were living cramped in a small room when the house had much free space. It seemed that the girlfriend was the boss, and the boyfriend a yes man.
After experiencing life in Hawick, we decided to move back to London, where we were lucky to be booked into a bed and breakfast owned by Patronella Jose, a Ugandan woman married to British man.
Arriving at Patronella's B&B, the welcome was great, as if we had met before. She had prepared a delicious African dish with the girls who worked for her. At this point, we knew we were back in civilisation. We felt at home, and we were now living like a family once again. Most of the time, when coming from a tour, Patronella would arrange a welcoming party.
We say in Zimbabwe that where they get punched in the stomach is where they run to. It is stupid how David, Shakey and Biggie could not heed warnings written all over Gordon. Even people in the music industry could sniff him out. Biggie was a hypocrite: he would agree to this today, but tomorrow he would oppose it; he was unpredictable. This attracted predators who only wanted to use us. Gordon Muir and the likes found their way in and targeted Biggie, Shakey and David, because of their weaknesses. Gordon himself became insecure: he didn't like to see us making friends with people he didn't know.
Our agreement with Gordon Muir was that he would take 20% for his job and we would take 80% as a band. It was entirely up to us to decide what to do with our 80%. But to our surprise, when we broke a recording deal with Warner Brothers, he changed his colours.
He wanted to buy himself a house in London, but his 20% was not enough. So he hatched a plan that would result in him taking most of our money. He suggested that we - as a band - buy a house. I refused to go along with this. I felt that we needed to buy our own houses back home in Zimbabwe, because most of us were still living with our parents.
Knowing how strong my views were, he took David and Shakey aside, and stuffed them with his ideas for why we should buy the house. This resulted in a split decision amongst us as a band. David and Shakey wanted to buy the house but Kenny, Biggie and I didn't. A vote was cast, with Gordon joining as the sixth member, and the vote went to a tie.
I argued that the money should be split and whoever wanted to join the house scheme with Gordon could do so with his own share. Gordon was disappointed, and so he took Biggie for a drink. The next day, Biggie sold us out, and joined those in favour of the house. Kenny and I still wanted our share, but we were denied.
The house was bought, costing around £95,000. Half of that was paid for using some of our earnings from the record deal, and the rest was paid for by taking out a mortgage. We hardly lived there at all because most of the time we would be on tour. Gordon decided that his brother-in-law should look after the house while we were away.
A year and a half later, when returning from a tour one day, we were told that the house has been liquidated by the mortgage company. We found ourselves outside the house which we were meant to believe was ours. All our belongings had been sold and each of us was given £5. We received no warning, by letter or from Gordon, that the house would be liquidated. Yet, at those times, we were working hard as a band, often playing to sell-out gigs. I was very angry and frustrated at Gordon, whom I had always suspected of buying the house for himself. And I was angry also at the other three, who at last realised that what I had said all along was true. But we could do nothing.
From this point on, the band became divided. I, as a band leader, found my decisions were being ignored. Biggie started pulling everything to himself, and there was no more sharing of ideas as a band. I began to realise that Gordon and Biggie were sharing a secret. David and Shaky were to find out that they had been led astray.
Actually the house wasn't liquidated. In fact, it was rented out to a new tenant. He only used our money and made the boys believe that The Bhundu Boys plc had bought a house. Yet he knew all along what he was playing at. I and Kenny suspected this from the start.
He also told us that we were owners and employees of a company, yet none of us received letters from the Inland Revenue, even though we all had National Identity cards. We were introduced to company auditors whom we only met the day the house was bought. It is believed that the auditors were never paid, and so they never bothered to do the books for our company.
We opened the Bhundu Boys band account after striking the deal with Warner Brothers. Gordon and I, Rise Kagona, were the main signatories. However, after we lost the house, the cheque book also stopped coming my way for me to sign, even though cheques from our gigs were still deposited in our bank. I don't know how he convinced the bank to draw money without my signature. I still don't understand how we could have owned the house, without any title deeds in our name. The more I asked these questions, the more the tension and the mistrust grew amongst us.
I later found out that Gordon Muir sold the house, seven years after we were booted out. Meaning that it never got liquidated in the first place, and what I warned my boy was true. Today, whenever he is asked about the house he stammers and says it is his word against mine, because most of my boys are no more. He is avoiding answering the truth about how he swindled the Bhundu Boys, just like any other thief who is caught red-handed.
When Gordon sold 72 Mortimer Road, Kensal Rise, London, NW10 5SN in 1996, whether he made profit or loss, it really doesn't matter to me. I understand he bought a house in Scotland from the profit he made, but he didn't want us to know. He never paid back our monies that he had been cheating on us. Not even a single penny was paid to the bereaved family members of Shakey, David and Biggie. I and Kenny, who are alive today, also received nothing.
When interviewed by journalists about this, he lies about the band owing him money. Yet none of us borrowed money from him. Whoever did ask for money would get at least £5 maximum. That is how stingy he was.
Most people would wonder why and how we were managed by a Scotsman who is well known for being tight with money. I recall that he would appear at most of our gigs only if there was big cash or cheque payout. We used to do most of the tour without him. He would be at home with his family receiving all the fat cheques. The band would be sweating it out on stage, travelling day and night on dangerous roads and bad weather. Whenever we met up to get paid, he would show us his dodgy sums on a small piece of paper which he called envelopes.
Up to this day, he has failed to produce his managerial financial accounts, which were demanded by law. I have good reason to believe he is scared - the truth may come out and he could be nicked for tax dodging, and other atrocities.
We moved on from True Jit and received money to record our second album for Warner Brothers, called Absolutely Jit. Our idea this time was to cut the costs of the recording by buying our own PA system and recording studio, and record the album in Zimbabwe.
Well the monies came in, and we bought the PA system to ship to Zimbabwe. Once we had the PA, Gordon decided that his friend Chris Bolton whom he said was a sound engineer and also knows how to repair musical equipment should accompany us. Chris came along with some of his bits and pieces of equipment to join us going to Zimbabwe. But what we didn't know about Chris was that he was on the run - from the law or from his family. We were made to believe that he wanted to work with us, and so we took him to Zimbabwe and he became our business partner.
Once we were in Zimbabwe, we formed a company called Frontline Sound, which consisted of the PA and a recording studio. A third partner was involved, mainly to help us deal with the paperwork and import duties in Zimbabwe.
Things seemed to be moving OK in the first place. I was worried about storage of the PA equipment whenever we were going abroad, and I suggested that we lock all the equipment at my father's house, and some at Kenny's parent's house. But this idea was denied.
Every time we came to UK, we would buy spare parts for the same PA, and send these to Chris Bolton, to repair the equipment. As they were using this equipment for concerts, we expected to get this money back. However, whenever we returned, we were told the books were in the red.
We started to suspect the money earned by the PA was being misused. We discovered that Chris Bolton was paying himself $2000 Zim dollars a week. This was the late 1980's, when the minimum wage was around $80 a month. Even a professional doctor was not getting that kind of pay a week. Yet his workforce was not paid enough, which resulted in them stealing bits and pieces of the equipment.
This angered us, yet Gordon, our manager, could not give us straight answers to how his friend lent himself that kind of money, when the books were always in red. An argument broke out between the three directors, and the company collapsed.
The studio was sold, after Gordon struck a deal with Grammar Recording Company, which was part of the LONRO group of companies in those days. The deal was that we get some money and some hours of recording time. One day I went to the studio to try to use some of my time, but I was denied. So in a sense, we lost money through that part of the deal. As for the PA system, Chris took whatever was left when our company collapsed, and hired it to The Blacks Unlimited band, of which he became their manager. But we, The Bhundu Boys, got nothing from this.
Despite the Bhundu Boys’ success, their story today is not so much about their music but how they fell and lost everything.
Robert Chalmers in his article that was run by the UK Independent called the Bhundu Boys the lost boys after his extensive investigation on what exactly happened to the group’s money and property. He interviewed Tembo’s wife who was cleaning toilets at Mbare Musika in Harare then.
‘I have to wait 10 minutes before my interviewee appears: not an uncommon experience when you're dealing with people connected to show business, though in this case it's because my subject has to finish cleaning the ladies' toilets.
Ratidzai Tembo finally joins me at a table in the Octopus, the dim, cavernous beer-hall where she works near Mbare, one of the more intimidating townships close to Harare. I'd first driven to her home, a broken-down shack she shares with two of her children, and her mother. The poverty in Mbare is shocking even by the standards of Zimbabwe, the country that recently finished bottom of the Economist magazine's world index for quality of life.
Ratidzai and her family live in two cramped rooms without electricity, in a property that even the most creative estate agent could not avoid describing as a hovel. Her family explained that she was already at work, and gave me directions to the Octopus, which is what Zimbabweans euphemistically call a "nightclub". Her boss, understandably alarmed by the arrival of a British journalist, given the climate of paranoia and menace generated by Robert Mugabe's Zanu PF government, finally agrees to let us speak alone.
‘Were you at those Wembley Stadium shows? Did you meet Madonna?’ I ask Ratidzai.
She shakes her head.
‘No. I went to many shows in England, but not those.’
‘When you mention Madonna... all that seems like another life. There have been times since then when I have had to sell my clothes so that the children could have food.
Ratidzai is the widow of Biggie Tembo, singer and guitarist with the Bhundu Boys, the band John Peel (former BBC Radio DJ) famously described as producing the most naturally flowing music he'd ever heard in his life. Andy Kershaw was best man at her marriage. Tembo won a Sony Award for a superb Radio 1 documentary that he co-presented with Kershaw, hosted a special for Channel 4, and appeared on Blue Peter. The Bhundu Boys were lauded by Eric Clapton and Mark Knopfler as well as Madonna, who personally requested that the band support her for the three nights she played, to a total of 240,000 people, at Wembley in 1987. Elvis Costello, another admirer, briefly acted as their producer. At the height of his success in the late 1980s, Biggie Tembo, one of the most convivial and engaging men I have ever met, lived with Ratidzai in a bungalow with a swimming pool, in an affluent suburb of Harare.
Almost 10 years ago, Biggie, distraught at having left the Bhundu Boys in acrimonious circumstances, was found hanged in Harare's psychiatric hospital. He was 37.
‘He died on July 29, 1995,’ Ratidzai tells me. ‘You can see the hospital from here.’ She points to a forbidding concrete building across the yard of the beer hall, where a few clients are passing around a blue plastic bucket filled with Chibuku - a challenging but affordable beverage whose unforgettable bouquet is produced by ingredients including yeast, gruel and, in some cases, battery acid.
I tell her how I had lunch with Tembo, Kershaw and John Peel in London, nine months before the Zimbabwean died. Biggie's once irrepressible manner had become subdued. There was a disconcerting intensity about him. He talked about giving up music and becoming a comedian or a preacher.
"All of that started after he was separated from the group," Ratidzai says. "He suffered terrible stress. He began to drink whisky - lots of it, straight from the bottle. He said it would help him sleep, but it didn't. He couldn't sleep. He was up for days. He started to behave strangely. One day we were watching TV - this was towards the end, when we still had a place in England, a flat in Bristol. He kept saying he could smell burning; that something was on fire in the house. He was pacing around, looking for smoke, even though nothing was alight."
They returned to Zimbabwe permanently at the end of 1994. Barclays Bank repossessed the bungalow. ‘Then he was kept in the mental hospital here for several months.’
‘How did he kill himself?’
‘They told me that he broke free from his straitjacket and hanged himself in his room.’
For the past year, Ratidzai has worked here at the Octopus, as a waitress and cleaner. She earns $50,000 Zimbabwean dollars - around £4.60 - a week.
A handsomely packaged special edition of the Bhundu Boys' first two albums was released in July 2001, under the title The Shed Sessions, to considerable acclaim. The website run by Stern's, the London-based World Music specialists, shows that the double CD, priced at £12.95, remained in its Top 25 for 13 months, and at one stage reached Number Two. The Shed Sessions is available from Amazon's sites in the UK, the US and Japan. Tembo's widow says she has received none of the royalties due to her husband.
‘Do you ever hear the Bhundu Boys on the radio?’ I ask.
‘Sometimes. That is painful. I turn it off. It upsets me. Where I am living now, the only heating is firewood or paraffin, and we cannot always afford them. My life,’ she adds, ‘has become a nightmare.’
At the height of their fame in the mid-1980s, the group was signed to Warners (WEA). They toured North America, Australia and Hong Kong, chauffeured to venues from luxury hotels. They owned a large house in London. Their manager says the advances the five band members received - not including fees from their heavy tour schedule - totalled around £120,000.
To call the Bhundu Boys one of the greatest African bands of all time is to demean their achievement; their unique talent never required a geographical prefix.
‘I first heard them when they put out an EP in the autumn of 1985,’ Andy Kershaw recalls. ‘Peel and I were in the office at Radio 1. We sat staring at each other, thinking this recording was absolutely wonderful. It was the dazzling quality of the music, the harmonies, and the sparkling guitar playing. The Bhundu Boys were simply one of the greatest pop groups I have ever heard.’
The following spring, Kershaw adds, he and Peel went to see the group in Chelsea.
‘I realised after a few minutes that I had this enormous grin on my face. I was surrounded by kids of college age. They were all grinning too. I turned to look at John, and - Peel being Peel - he was weeping. The tears were just running down his face. It really was a revelatory moment. We introduced ourselves to the band. I immediately hit it off with Biggie, who was an ideal frontman; a superb communicator with a wonderful sense of humour and full of enthusiasm for everything. The band played like they were having the time of their lives. They played like that because they were.’
No single story is so chillingly symbolic of Zimbabwe's decline as the tragic history of the Bhundu Boys. Their formation, in April 1980, coincided with the country's declaration of independence. ‘Bhundu Boys’ were anti-colonialist bush commandos, and the band embodied the exuberant optimism engendered by liberation from British rule.
The group were fêted by Robert Mugabe in the days when he was acclaimed by many - including senior British politicians - as a positive influence. But the band angered Zanu PF when they played benefits to raise awareness of Aids, a disease which, until recently, Mugabe refused to acknowledge as a problem in Zimbabwe, where an estimated 40 per cent of the population (and up to 80 per cent of the military) are HIV positive.
Former Bhundu Boys Shakie Kangwena, David Mankaba and Sheperd Munyama are "late", as Zimbabweans put it, all from Aids. Another, Washington Kavhai, is in jail in the UK, in Preston, serving seven years for violent assault. Kenny Chitsvatsva, the drummer, was last heard of driving a minicab in London.
As I leave the beer hall in Mbare, Ratidzai Tembo's last words to me are: "Please help me."
Biggie Tembo was born Rodwell Marasha in Chinhoyi, 70 miles northwest of Harare. The town is famous for having seen the first skirmish between the Zimbabwean Liberation Army and Ian Smith's Rhodesian Security Forces - a clash which launched the conflict that eventually led to independence. As a boy, Tembo was involved in the armed struggle as a messenger and lookout, and he liked to address friends, Peel and Kershaw included, as ‘Comrade’.
He came to Harare in the late 1970s and was recruited to the Bhundu Boys by their founder, the inspirational guitarist Rise Kagona. The group was playing in township beer-halls when they were spotted by Steve Roskilly, a former Mayfair property developer, who began recording them at his studio in the capital. With Roskilly, they had four Number One singles in three years in Zimbabwe.
The odd circumstances which brought the band international fame began in the mid-1980s at a squat in a disused hospital at Earl's Court, London, where Owen Elias, a student at Chelsea College of Art, met Doug Veitch, a maverick Scottish guitarist whose supplementary sources of income included driving tube trains and cleaning windows. Using the £2,000 then gifted to new businesses under the Enterprise Allowance Scheme, they formed a label, Discafrique, and left for Harare to look for artists. There, Roskilly played them the songs they issued on the EP that would captivate Peel and Kershaw.
It was when Elias and Veitch decided to bring the band to the UK in 1986 that things became increasingly surreal. Unable to fund a tour, they turned to Gordon Muir, a designer of knitwear brochures who grew up with Veitch in the border town of Hawick. Muir provided the cash and was soon sole manager of the band. (Elias now makes wine in Kent; Veitch is in Lanarkshire, completing a PhD in woodland management.)
Muir got the band bookings on the lucrative student circuit, from which base, with the support of DJs such as Peel, Kershaw and Charlie Gillett, they built a national following.
When I return to London from Zimbabwe, I find a number for Muir, who now lives in Kirkliston, a village outside Edinburgh.
Could I talk to him?
‘I'll have to think about that,’ he replies.
‘What happened to Rise Kagona,’ I ask. ‘Is he alive?’
‘Rise lives here,’ he says, ‘in Kirkliston.’
A couple of days later, on the train to Scotland, I find myself pondering a number of questions. How can a guitarist of Kagona's ability be living in such obscure circumstances? What made Tembo kill himself? Why is his widow receiving no royalties?
I sit down with Kagona and Muir in the living room of the Scot's isolated cottage. The guitarist lodges with a philanthropic neighbour on an adjoining farm. To keep himself occupied, Kagona - this is a musician who, apart from Clapton et al, was revered by the late Joe Strummer - does ironing at the local charity shop. His clothes and his manner attest to this proud but gentle man's minimal sources of income. Whenever possible, he travels into Edinburgh to play with local bands.
‘But the last bus for our township - I mean village - leaves Edinburgh about 11pm, so if I miss it, I have to sit in the railway station to keep warm," Kagona explains. "The first bus is at 7am. But I am a musician. I have to play.’
A few years ago, he invested his savings into a farm outside Harare.
‘When I arrived there with some relatives, a gang of youths - those who call themselves 'comrades' - were waiting. They said: 'Show us your Zanu PF Cards.' We didn't have any. We showed them the deeds. They said: 'Show us Zanu PF cards or you have five minutes to get out before we kill you.' I decided land was not worth dying for.’
Kagona has been working on a new album with Muir, which the Scotsman hopes to finish by May and issue under the name of the Bhundu Boys. The tracks they have recorded are, in Muir's words, ‘basically grooves’. Sung in English, not Shona, they are some way removed from the sound that established the band's reputation.
Muir, a slim, intensely-focused, grey-haired man of 44, recalls how he and Doug Veitch took a battered van to meet the band when they landed in London in May 1986.
‘Doug had no soles on his shoes,’ says Kagona. ‘We thought they must be henchmen for the people with money.’ He was mistaken.
The group arrived with no instruments.
‘They were determined to acquire their own gear,’ Muir says. ‘With the monies per gig, this was not realisable. I got into a hire purchase agreement.’
For a year, the Bhundu Boys lived with the Scotsman and his partner Anne in Hawick. After overseeing the band's success with Shabini and Tsvimbodzemoto, their first two albums on Discafrique, Muir brokered the deal with WEA.
‘That is one thing I will blow my own trumpet on,’ he says. ‘The deals we got have been unsurpassed by any world music act. WEA must deeply regret that they ever came into contact with us.’
‘How much did you get?’
‘From Blue Mountain [the publishing company] about £50,000 to £60,000 in advances. From Warners, about the same.’
Income, Muir says, was split equally between himself and each of the band members. ‘There were a lot of expenses,’ he says. ‘We sank large amounts into purchasing a PA and studio equipment. We were all taking a reasonable salary; about £300 a week.’
As is often the case in the music business, it was when the major label became involved that things went badly wrong. Muir's boldness and initiative as a manager have never been in question. At the time of Nelson Mandela's 70th birthday concert at Wembley in 1988 - a bill with a disappointing ratio of black artists - the Bhundu Boys organised a rival event in Brixton, where Mark Knopfler sportingly appeared as ‘The Token Honky’.
But once at WEA - instead of Roskilly, who had captured their elegant simplicity on their early records - the band hired Robin Millar, the producer of singer Sade. True Jit, the first of two albums for WEA, introduced an anodyne, westernised sound that horrified some of their core admirers.
‘We came from a poor background,’ says Kagona. ‘We toured the US. We met Ray Charles. We played Central Park with Eddie Murphy. Limousines took us everywhere. We rode along with our heads sticking out of the roof. One time in New York the limousine arrived and Biggie wouldn't join us.’
‘He felt such behaviour was not correct. I told him that the record company had arranged the car, and if we went by bus we wouldn't get the money back. Biggie used to say that we were enjoying too rich a life, while our brothers and sisters were suffering back home in Zimbabwe. I understand what he meant. But I told him look, enjoy it while you can. Because these things go away, and once they have gone you will never get them back again.’
Kagona's instinct was prophetic.
Together, the band, which was registered as a limited company, bought a large house in Kensal Green, north-west London, where they lived for 18 months or so.
As the Bhundu Boys' reputation grew, Tembo's behaviour, according to Muir, became unpredictable. He says Tembo got to thinking he was bigger than the band. He gives me details of the singers' affairs with a number of women. He says that when Biggie left the band, in 1989, his last words were: ‘I quit. Fuck the lot of you.’ Kagona agrees that Tembo walked out. Not long afterwards, Muir adds, Biggie attacked him.
‘He beat the shit out of me. I have pictures.’
Tembo, for his part, told Kershaw and others the group had become envious of his individual popularity, and sacked him. Nobody disputes that Tembo could be extremely difficult, or that, subsequent to his departure, he pleaded to rejoin the Bhundu Boys, but was rejected.
‘Now I don't know who my enemies are,’ Tembo had sung, in an improvised lyric on the second WEA album, Pamberi. ‘It was better when I knew.’
‘Tembo was fired from the Bhundu Boys and he found that rejection very difficult to deal with,’ one friend told me. "At almost the same time, he discovered that the man, who brought him up as his son, in Chinhoyi, was not his natural father. The two things knocked him sideways. I went to see him in the mental hospital in Chinhoyi. He said: 'I cannot deal with this. These things have been such a shock.' In career terms, he had been promised the earth. To have begun to achieve, then to have everything snatched away from him, was just too much.’
With Tembo out of the band, the Bhundu Boys' fortunes waned rapidly. The group's prize asset had always been a more complex man than his ever-smiling stage persona suggested and his departure exacerbated a pattern of aberrant behaviour. Kershaw says that Tembo would come round to his house and begin weeping for no apparent reason, then start talking about how much he missed the band, and about his confusion over the identity of his father.
‘It was very important for him to know where his father's ancestors were,’ says Kagona. ‘In Africa, your father is the central figure in your life. Biggie became obsessed with contacting his ancestors. He would lock himself in his room and make these strange noises.’ Kagona demonstrates the sound, a sustained rattle similar to a Spanish "r".
‘He would do these rituals, praying to spirits, taking snuff, and making that rrrrrr noise. He believed he had drawn evil spirits to him. He had no idea where his real father was. Those rituals took him somewhere else. They took him to a bad place. He ended up mad.’
Tembo divided his time between the UK and Zimbabwe, where he joined a fundamentalist church generally regarded as a cult, and took to preaching and speaking in tongues on public transport. Once, he went on Zimbabwean television and confessed that demons possessed him.
In Britain, he embarked on a series of unsuccessful solo ventures, collaborating with a Bristol band called the Startled Insects, occasionally performing stand-up to a bewildered public.
‘The audience was polite,’ says Kershaw, who saw one 1993 comedy show at Ronnie Scott's, "but frankly it was painful to watch.’
‘What happened to the money from the London house?’ I ask Muir.
‘We bought that as a company. The house was mortgaged.’
‘So the profits were divided among the band, once it was sold?’
‘What happened was,’ Muir says, ‘I bought the house off the band four or five years after we first purchased it. I was owed money I hadn't taken out of the company.’ He sold the property ‘a couple of years later,’ he explains, ‘for virtually the same price. We paid £93,000 in 1987 and sold it in 1993 for £98,000’.
I'd anticipated being able to verify these and other figures relating to the band's assets, but records at Companies' House show that Bhundu Boys Ltd, first registered under that name in May 1987, never submitted any annual accounts. An order for the company's compulsory liquidation was made in 1990 and it was then officially dissolved in 1995. (When asked why the figures aren't at Companies' House, Muir says he "hasn't a clue".)
The recent reissue, The Shed Sessions, was put out on Sadza, Muir's label. Is Ratidzai Tembo receiving royalties?
‘Through the producer Steve Roskilly, yeah,’ says Muir. ‘This is something you seem keen to talk about.’
‘That's because Ratidzai is not getting anything.’
‘I account directly to Roskilly.’
One of the most bizarre aspects of Kagona's current situation is that he is currently recording not only with Muir, but with Doug Veitch. Veitch, now 45, is a gifted songwriter who enjoyed a brief but inspired solo career in the 1980s as Champion Doug Veitch, the world's greatest exponent of Caledonian-Cajun-Dub crossover, before vigorous socialising brought him to the point of physical collapse.
In the course of writing this article, I get a message from Veitch asking me to return to Edinburgh, where I find him with Kagona in a recording studio. Veitch plays me the demos that he has made with Kagona. They are inventive and unfussy, sung in Shona, and echo the vibrant, melodic spirit of the original Bhundu Boys recordings.
Muir had told me that, though he's had differences with Doug Veitch, the forestry expert is ‘basically still my best friend’. Veitch, who could not be accused of being reticent on any subject, describes Muir in terms which are unrepeatable in a family newspaper.
At this, our second meeting, Kagona, a naturally introverted man, is in reflective mood. The deaths of so many colleagues, he tells me, combined with the implosion of his career, have been almost impossible to bear.
‘I find myself asking, why me?’ Kagona says. ‘Why am I still alive? I feel as if I have never existed,’ he adds. ‘I feel as though my life never happened.’
When so many contemporaries began to be diagnosed with Aids, he explains, ‘It got so that, as a musician from Zimbabwe, if you even had a headache, you didn't tell anybody.’
Kagona was born in Malawi but has a former wife and three children in Zimbabwe. When I was in Harare, I tell him, I had a meeting with Mugabe's Minister of Information, Nathan Shamuyarira, who told me he did not regard the Bhundu Boys as a political issue. (Shamuyarira, one of the closest confidants of the President, is preparing a biography of Robert Mugabe, which is not expected to be over-critical in tone.) But the musician remains uneasy about returning to Harare, especially if - or rather when - Mugabe wins re-election on the 31st of this month.
When I ask him if he has any regrets, Kagona mentions the purchase of the London house, a transaction that has left him dissatisfied and confused.
‘I never wanted a house in England,’ he explains. ‘None of us had a house back home. I would have preferred to buy somewhere in Zimbabwe. When we signed to WEA, Gordon got this idea about buying a house." Kagona acknowledges that he eventually bowed to a democratic vote in the band.
‘What I got from that house, when it was sold, was for the sale of my bed and my linen. They were sold separately, to a second-hand shop. I got £5 for them. I am not lying.’
The band's debts to him, Muir adds,’were worked out to the last £10.’
Where business dealings are concerned, Kagona says, ‘all these years I have stood in darkness. It has been like a fog. Deals were signed in offices but we have been left with nothing.’
As regards Tembo's incrementally expanding ego, Kagona says, ‘Gordon encouraged Biggie in that belief. He built expectations in his brain.’
Muir denies any suggestion of impropriety where the distribution of income is concerned. ‘Were we naïve? Yes. But I don't want to stray into territory that suggests we are exploiting Biggie's widow. All the money was distributed among the band or sunk into equipment. The monies that would be going to Biggie's widow would be generated by sales of The Shed Sessions. I pay the money directly to Steve Roskilly, who passes that on to her, as far as I am aware.’
While I was in Harare, I'd driven out to Roskilly's house in Borrowdale, a rich suburb where the residual white population exist on estates protected by dogs and razor wire. A caretaker appeared at Roskilly's electric gate and gave me a number for him. ‘He is in Cheltenham,’ he said, ‘and he's not coming back.’
A journey that had began in Mbare ends at Cheltenham Racecourse. Roskilly, who now runs a stage-equipment company, meets me at the venue's conference arena, where he is supervising a lighting rig. On stage, Olympic Bronze Medallist horsewoman Pippa Funnell is rehearsing a speech she will make that evening.
Roskilly, 57, has brought a file of balance sheets relating to the Bhundu Boys. He comes across as a well-meaning man doing his best to peer into what Kagona perceives as the fog surrounding the band's affairs. He says he recalls a conversation with Muir in which it was agreed that the Scot, not Roskilly, should pass on the money to Ratidzai. After looking through his papers, though, he concedes that the responsibility appears to be his, and that the money has not been paid to Tembo's widow, though he is not yet clear as to whether he has received all of what is due to her from Muir. We're not talking about huge sums, Roskilly points out - a few hundred pounds, at most.
‘That's a lot of money in Mbare.’
‘I am taken aback by this,’ he says, looking sincerely mortified. ‘I need to call Muir and sort this out.’
The story of Tembo, Roskilly says, ‘was a disaster from start to finish. He didn't resign. He was fired. And he couldn't take that. Tembo was the one who came up with the special songs. Tembo had the personality. The others couldn't deal with the attention he was getting. It's true that he was a volatile man. But the band made a terrible mistake when they fired him. Neither Tembo, or they, ever recovered.’
The sad thing, Kagona, had told me, ‘is that, for all the cities we visited, and all the friends, and all the music that we made, the Bhundu Boys are mostly remembered for dying of Aids.’
In May this year, Kagona embarked on a six-date tour of the UK with Doug Veitch, and the Bhundu Boys guitarist is getting back in contact with people in the mainstream of the broadcasting world, including Radio 3's Andy Kershaw.
‘Observing the music business,’ Kershaw tells me, "there are certain things that you learn - if not to accept - then at least to understand. But there are two things I will never understand. One is how Rise Kagona can be working in a charity shop on the outskirts of Edinburgh. The other is how the widow of my best friend has ended up cleaning toilets at a beer hall in Harare.’
Below is a BBC report on the Bhundu Boys’ arrival in the UK
The British invasion
In May 1986, five young men arrived at London's Gatwick Airport from Zimbabwe. Within a year, they had conquered British music - but within a decade, three of the five would be dead, along with one of their replacements.
In the 1980s the Bhundu Boys - whose name literally meant Boys From The Bush, the name given to the African guerrilla fighters who eventually toppled the white regime of Ian Smith - brought rousing African music to a British audience.
Their story begins under Smith's regime, when, owing to a ban on African music, they began playing covers of Western songs around the country's capital, Harare.
‘When we started out, our local bands were playing covers of British and American stuff, because that's what was there,’ recalls founder member and lead guitarist Rise Kagona.
‘For you to make a record, you had to play it in English. The Smith regime didn't want us to make music in our language, in case they didn't know what we were singing about.’
Outselling Michael Jackson
After independence in 1980 everything changed, and Rise began playing around the Harare townships, where he met local guitarist Biggie Tembo - who would become the lead singer of the Bhundu Boys.
Soon afterwards he met drummer Kenny Chitsvatsva - the only other surviving member of the group.
Although now allowed to sing in their native tongue, the group decided to line up like a Western rock group, with electric guitars and piano. They called their style of music ‘jit’.
They began to record songs with Steve Roskilly, a producer originally from Manchester in the UK. The first single was released in early 1983.
They soon notched up a string of number one hits at home, even outselling Michael Jackson with the song Hatisi tose, which stayed at the top for 12 weeks.
Meanwhile in London, musical maverick Doug Veitch had set up Discafrique, a record label specialising in African music and financed by the Thatcher government's allowance scheme. Together with concert promoter Gordon Muir, who would become the group's manager, Veitch signed the Bhundu Boys and an EP was released.
It did not take long before the EP attracted the attention of BBC radio DJs John Peel and Andy Kershaw, and soon afterwards it was decided the Bhundus would come to Britain for a tour.
‘They came over and they played non-stop everywhere," recalls Robert Abbanas, who runs Stern's African Record Shop in London.
‘They did the trajectory which an English pop or rock group would do - playing in every backroom of every pub, playing until you break through.’
After releasing two albums for Discafrique, they signed to Warners. The new album was produced by Robin Miller, who had previously worked with Sade and The Style Council.
Soon, they were playing increasingly larger venues. They supported Madonna at Wembley Stadium only a year after landing in the country.
‘We did not treat that crowd as Madonna's,’ recalls Kagona.
‘We treated it as ours as well. Because we are there - we are musicians. As good as Madonna is, she is a musician, and so are we.’
But instead of being a step to build on, the Wembley shows marked the high point. Soon after, splits began to appear as the Boys argued over money and whether they should buy a house in London for their base.
‘Some of us, our brains don't function properly when we have a lot of money,’ says Kagona.
‘But that was the time when we needed each other more than ever.’
British fans were not impressed by the commercial, Westernised sound of the band now they were signed to a major label, and sales were disappointing.
But far worse was to come.
Biggie left the group and began working on a solo career back in Zimbabwe. Other members of the band spent their time travelling between Britain and Zimbabwe, where 20% of the population was already HIV positive.
Between 1991 and 1993 three Bhundu Boys - including two of the original members, Shakespeare Kangwena and David Mankaba - would die of Aids.
Then, in 1995, Biggie Tembo committed suicide in a mental hospital in Zimbabwe.
'Tawdry and unpleasant'
The band now had only two of the original members, and was no longer signed to Warners. But they staggered into the 21st Century.
‘It felt like I had killed a friend - but death is natural, and I had to move on,’ said Rise Kagona.
‘If we had shut the doors and gone back, there would have been no more Bhundu Boys and the name would have got killed.’
Rise remains close to Doug Veitch, the man who met him at Gatwick Airport in 1986, and they still play together in Glasgow. Meanwhile, drummer Kenny Chitsvatsva now lives in London.
But former manager Gordon Muir is now estranged from the band. Since the Bhundu Boys' demise, he has received some criticism suggesting he exploited the group for his own gain.
But he says he is hurt by this attack, and it something he denies.
‘There is a huge sense that that whole period of my life has been misrepresented and maligned, and something that I was very proud of is now something that is a bit tawdry and unpleasant,’ he says.
‘I made a bit of money from the Bhundu Boys, but no more than anybody else did. It's not fair to say that I exploited them.’
Biggie Tembo obituary
Saturday, 12 August 1995
Rodwell Marasha (Biggie Tembo), musician: born Chinhoyi, Mashonaland, Zimbabwe 30 September 1958; married (two sons); died Harare, Zimbabwe 30 July 1995.
The death by that most shockingly un-African of causes, suicide, of the singer and composer Biggie Tembo represents yet another tragic chapter in the arduous career of the Zimbabwean pop group the Bhundu Boys.
Even though Tembo left the band five years ago, his name and bouncy straw- boater-topped image will be most closely associated with the band he helped make one of Africa's most internationally famous during the mid-Eighties boom in interest in African music. The Bhundus are currently back slogging around Britain on another of their long hard tours. The shock caused by the news of their old colleague's death was apparently mitigated by a certain grim familiarity: no less than three members of the band have died of presumed Aids-related diseases in the last four years.
Biggie Tembo joined the Bhundu Boys in 1980, shortly after the group changed its name from the Wild Dragons and its repertoire from rock covers to the new traditionally based jit music. Bhundu means "bush" in the Shona language and the name's association is with the liberation fighters who helped transform the renegade white-ruled Rhodesia into Zimbabwe in the same year the new group was born.
The Bhundu Boys' music was not directly political, except in the sense that it took as its main ingredient the traditional melodies of the Shona mbira (thumb piano), transposed for joyfully ringing guitars. Its purpose, like the equally irresistible guitar-based pop of the nearby Congo basin, was to make punters dance and buy more beer in the open-air dance-halls and gardens like the Bonanza Bar in Harare, where the Bhundus served their apprenticeship playing 12-hour sets six nights a week.
By the time the Bhundus got to Britain, Biggie Tembo had already become the most prominent member, with his energy, charm and catchy song-writing: he was the author of tracks like "Hatisi tose", which topped the Zimbabwean charts for three months and rapidly became a favourite with their new European audiences.
The Bhundus arrived at Heathrow Airport in 1986 at the behest of Gordon Muir, a young Edinburgh graphic designer turned ad hoc concert promoter. The classic account has it they were disappointed at the humble van their new showbiz patron turned up in lieu of a Rolls; while Muir was taken aback to find they hadn't brought any instruments. Nevertheless, Tembo's rallying cry of "Burruru! Burruru! Burruru!", the cantering snare drums and the delirious guitar lines were soon getting audiences on their feet, jit-jiving and grinning from ear to ear in, at first, pub backrooms, and gradually larger dance-halls around Britain.
The Bhundus' timing was impeccable; British interest in what shortly afterwards acquired the unfortunate name "World Music" was booming but the British public had not yet been seated by the subsequent influx of artists from around the world. The Radio 1 disc jockeys John Peel and Andy Kershaw became enthusiastic converts to the Bhundus' cause, and within two years the band had signed to a multinational record label, WEA, and played as supporting act to Madonna in front of a 70,000-strong audience at Wembley.
Then things began to go downhill. The WEA album, released in 1987, with its English lyrics flopped, judged anaemic and internationalised by critics and public. Biggie Tembo, whose erratic moods and increasingly extreme opinion of his own importance in the group had been creating tension for some time, decided to leave the Bhundus, a decision he was to try to revoke repeatedly thereafter, only to find the Bhundus didn't want him back. The World Music boom levelled off.
The Bhundu Boys soldiered on, reduced in star status but hard-working as ever, while Tembo oscillated between London and Harare trying to revive his career, now releasing an unsuccessful solo album in Britain, now playing with another veteran Harare group, the Ocean City Band, and seeing his mercurial temperament slip into bouts of depression and intermittent psychiatric hospital treatment.
A projected tour of Britain last year was abandoned in chaos and Tembo turned up at Heathrow alone, without a work permit and desperate to find a way back up. He turned increasingly to Christianity but re-admitted himself to hospital in Harare shortly before hanging himself.
As much for bringing Zimbabwean pop to the outside world as for his work at home, Tembo was still famous in Harare - a local paper recently ran a lengthy campaign to encourage him and the Bhundus to team up again. His best songs are lodged deep in the public consciousness. Gordon Muir recalls going into a bank in Harare with Tembo once and all the staff bursting into a mass rendition of "Hatisi tose".
If Biggie Tembo's dark side triumphed at the end, his shining talent to entertain will continue to illuminate record collections around the world. - Philip Sweeney, the Independent