Tuesday 20 September 2011

Embarassing Mbira Dzenharira

When I interviewed Tendai Samaita Gahamadze, who lead the mbira group Mbira DzeNharira in 2005 at the Book Cafe in Harare, he vowed that the group would never split because their destinies were bound by their ancestors. He said they had to ask their respective ancestors for guidance when they formed the group. But a few years down the line, they did not just split but fought over matehwe. - Wonder Guchu

I met Tenda Samaita Gahamadze, the leader and founder of Mbira DzeNharira, for the first time one Friday night just before their performance at the Book Café in Fife Avenue in early 2005.
Samaita who carries himself like a spirit medium speaks slowly as if he is counting and weighing every word he says. At the time, the group had already established itself as the epitome of what Zimbabwean contemporary mbira should be.
Based in Norton about 40 km outside Harare, Mbira DzeNharira was not just an mbira group but a family where the members were bound by the spirits of their ancestors. The members led a simple life centred on either the manufacturing of the mbira instrument or imparting mbira playing skills to those who were willing.
In Norton, they had a place where men sat discussing and where male visitors were entertained. It was there where Samaita, Mhike Micah Munemo, Tanganeropa Crispen Mujongondi, Fukanhembe Precious Mupangavanhu and Tonderai Phiri mapped the way forward for the mbira phenomenon they had created.
Steeped into the traditional way of calling each other using totems, the group also donned skins when it performances. However, in contrast, the mbiras and the drums used are electrified.
Samaita told me how they came together and how the mbira as an instrument and music shaped their destinies.
What he did not say was how, a few years down the line, he would be blamed for causing the group to split by financial mismanagement and involving Freedom Nyamubaya as a manager.
The splinter group, Mawungira ENharira, was led by Maafrika and funded by a Harare businesswoman, Barbara Nyika. As if the first split was not enough, Mawungira ENharira too split when some members led by Micah Munemo formed Mbira Nhare DzeChirorodziva. And again Mbira Nhare DzeChirorodziva further split when once again Micah led another faction to found the group called Mbira Dzemuninga.

But first, the interview I did with Samaita:

A story is told about how Germans, thinking that a Zimbabwean mbira diva on tour of their country for the first time was a real medium spirit, flocked to see her and spent half the night ogling at the tall, gaunt woman who was wrapped in black and white cloths prancing across the stage.
I wonder what they will say and how many will run to see Mbira Dzenharira, a Zimbabwean mbira group that gives pure mbira magic doses. The group, with its lifestyle - on and off the stage - steeped in African tradition and beliefs, is not an act but the real thing.
On stage they come clad in leopard, zebra and buckskins as well as cowhides. All of the members are dreadlocked, play and dance barefoot and take snuff mostly a preserve of almost every Zimbabwean spirit medium. Even their deportment is almost trance-like resembling that of spirit mediums.
They play mbira and drums only unlike some Zimbabwean musicians who use guitars to produce mbira rhythms.
When you introduce yourself, they will ask for your totem typical of most spirit mediums since a person’s totem is his link with his departed ancestors. And when you talk to them afterwards, they will call you by your totem, something that humbles and makes one remember that one belongs to a wider and broader family.
Somehow it feels out of place for them to use a person’s totem in a crowded up market urban nightclub or bar but then it’s not the only out of place trait they have.
They are hosted by Zimbabwe’s top-notch hotels, nightclubs, bars and have been to almost every gala that has been held in the country playing alongside some of Zimbabwe’s greatest musicians such as Alick Macheso and the urban groove artists.
And it was at one such place - the Book Cafe, an up market multiracial venue situated in Harare’s affluent Avenues area that has become their favourite haunt - where I met them.
Since I had spoken to Samaita that morning, I was taken to him. But after talking for less than ten minutes, it was time for sound check and Samaita humbly excused himself effectively ending the interview.
If at all I had been disappointed, the non-stop four-hour journey in song licked that feeling dry.
The group took us from the days when Africa in general and the land between the Limpopo and the Zambezi Rivers in particular was a virgin and its inhabitants lived on hunting; through the times when that virginity was robbed and its inhabitants brutalised into subjugation; through the confusion that followed when the inhabitants lost their identity; through the turbulent colonial days and the advent of the war of liberation; and to the present where the same brutalised people are now being ravaged by HIV/ Aids and poverty.
After that journey one will feel good that one has seen an unpretentious group playing but there is this disquieting feeling afterwards about Mbira Dzenharira and when I spoke to Samaita (real name Tendai Gahadzikwa) a down to earth, shy and soft spoken man who does not want to talk much about his life, I found out why.
Mbira Dzenharira is not just an Mbira group. The members are not just people drawn from any of Zimbabwe’s dusty rural areas where they spend time hopping from one beer ceremony to the next. They are people who attended some of the country’s best colleges and universities. Some of them hold prestigious degrees and diplomas but they left it all to play Mbira.
“I believe it was a calling,” Samaita said, fidgeting. “In my case, I felt that I could not handle an 8 to 5 job. I hate the system.”
And that too was the case with the other seven members who make up Mbira Dzenharira. They left behind jobs in the same way Jesus’ disciples left their jobs when they were called to be fishers of men.
While Jesus’ disciples were bound by faith, Mbira Dzenharira members communicated their wishes to their ancestors before embarking on this journey.
“In 1994, we went into a forest in Norton and each one of us carried some snuff. We chose a muhacha tree under which we knelt and communicated our wishes to our separate ancestors.
“That is why we are able to play in up market joints like the Book Cafe,” revealed Samaita.
The other six are Wilfred Mafrika, Tanganeropa Munjongondi, Mika Munemo, Tonderai Phiri, Precious Mupangavanhu, Tendai Gahamadze and Jacob Mafreni. They all stay in Norton, a small farming town thirty kilometres from Harare.
And that is where it all started in 1987 after Samaita’s return from Germany where he had gone to undertake a four year study in metallurgy at Kreefeld Faschhochschule Institute.
The meeting was insignificant. People would pass by and others come to sit and while away time in small talk.
“I had a sitting place outside my home where others would come to spend time,” he told The Southern Times. “Later, Mugwibe Mlambo who was doing his Ordinary Levels approached Samaita for help with his revision.
Mugwibe’s mother was a spirit medium and he would play the mbira when the spirit is present.
Together with David Mutizwa, another regular at the sitting place, Samaita helped Mugwibe tackle his studies.
Although Mugwibe was young than he two, some kind of a friendship developed – the older men became keen on learning more about he mbira.
Sometime during 1987, Samaita visited Mhondoro, a rural area close to Harare. A ritual ceremony (bira) was in progress.
“At the ceremony, I was told by a spirit that one day I would play the mbira,” said Samaita adding that before this another spirit had told his relatives that ‘the one who plays the guitar will one day play the mbira’.
Samaita started playing the guitar when he was in North Wales between 1979 and 1980.
“I had bought some instruments and I had great interest in playing the rhythm guitar. But after some time, I felt that the guitar was not quenching my thirst for real music,” he explained.
On their return from Mhondoro, he and Mutizwa went to Mbare Musika, Harare’s oldest market place where they bought one set of mbira. Later, they made two others.
“Once we had the Mbira, we studied the setup of the keys. We noticed that there were some Mbira that had low keys and others had high keys.
“Somehow we were convinced that we could have many people playing the different mbiras at the same time.”
In 1991 Wilfred Mafrika came to join the group.
“He knew how to play mbira but we taught him how to make the mbira. A little later, the late Edward Mutede also came,” said Samaita.
With an almost complete group, practice started in earnest.
“We used to practice from 8 in the morning to twelve midnight breaking only for meals,” Samaita remembered. “It was as if we were being pushed into playing.”
For them to be able to improve their mbira playing skills, they visited traditional ceremonies in rural areas close to Norton.
“One day we visited one such traditional ceremony and buried our mbira in a nearby bushy area. We then sat among the people.
“Later in the night, one of the spirits picked us out and asked us to bring in our mbira and play for them.
“We played the remainder of the night and new spirits came. We however refused to be paid,” Samaita said.
A sixth member, the late Charles Musonza who was Mugwibe’s uncle joined the group then. The seventh member, Precious ‘Fukanhembe’ Mupangavanhu, a technician, also came.
Fukanhembe is the one-handed hosho (rattle) player whose antics on stage are second to none.
“When he came,” remembered Samaita, “he could not play the hosho. But because he was very keen, he learnt to play. Surprisingly, his play fitted in well with our style of play.”
Now that they could play competently, their next stage was experimenting with sound.
“We started by using watch alarms and guitar pick-ups to enhance our mbira sound. Later we settled on guitar pick-ups for they gave us fine sound.”
By that time, they had attracted some popularity in Norton such that a local hotelier who was running Sagonda Hotel in the town invited them to play at his hotel. He had acquired some amplifiers and speakers.
It was during their short-lived stay at the hotel that the owner asked them to find a name since they could not just play without a name.
“We looked around for a name. After consultations with others, we settled on Nharire yeNharira (sentinel of Nharira) but the hotelier rejected the name because of it was long.
“We changed the name to Mbira DzeNharira.”
Nharira is the name given to a range of scared hills close to Norton.
In 1997, a spirit medium of Chematehwe, Sekuru Mushore who is said to be the guardian of the hills, moved into the hills and sparked a land row between the farm owner in which the hills are situated.
At one time, the police were also involved in the bid to drive Sekuru Mushore out of the hills. But they failed and today Sekuru Mushore stays in the hills where ritual ceremonies are held from time to time.
“We chose that name because we felt that Sekuru Mushore was doing the right thing.”
Even so, they had to seek permission to use Nharira as part of their name.
“We were advised to buy some snuff which we took to Sekuru Mushore’s shrine in the hills. A bira was held and we played for the people all night long. In the morning, we were told that we had permission to use the name,” said Samaita who said that some of his ancestors were averse to mbira playing.
“We played eight shows at the hotel,” remembered Samaita. “We left because of a misunderstanding between us and the hotelier.”
Since they had enough songs for an album, they had set their eyes on recording. Their first recording was done at the then Zimbabwe Broadcasting Corporation Radio 2 (now Radio Zimbabwe) by Sylvester Tapfumaneyi.
“Recording companies were not keen to record an mbira group but we went on and record anyway.”
That first album was called Rine Manyanga Hariputirwe and it was released in 1998 and distributed by the Zimbabwe Music Corporation.
Within a few days of release, one of the group’s best song ever, Ndoenda kwaAmbuya stormed Radio 2 Top Twenty best songs.
In 2000, they released Gomo Remandiriri with Shed Studios in Harare. ZMC marketed the album. From the album, the song Nharira was the people’s favourite.
Tozvireva Tingaputike Neshungu came in 2001. Matendera proved to be the best song on that album.
In the same year, an American who was recording Zimbabwean groups’ songs for release in the United States of America approached them. The album they recorded with Joel Laviolettie was called Kudya Kwenzeve.
“We do not know what happened to that album. We were told that it would be released in the USA but until now we have no clear idea as to what happened.
“Whenever we correspond through email with Joel, he tells us different conflicting stories,” Samaita said.
But their locally released albums yielded awards for them. First to come their way was the TSAMA Award for Mbira group in 2001. Then 2001 brought them the NAMA Best Music Video for Kumatendera taken off the album Tozvireva Tingaputike Neshungu. The same album was adjudged the Best Selling album and Best Mbira album for the same year.
They have toured Venda, South Africa so far.
The mbira is indeed a sacred instrument.
Ose machena.

The group became so successful and made it every Friday to Book Café. In December 2005, the group split over money. But apart from money, those who formed Mawungira ENharira also accused ex-combatant, teacher, poet Freedom Nyamubaya for the discord that tore them apart.
Freedom came in as a manager when Loebbe was still officially the group’s manager.

I did another story:

Mbira DzeNharira ensemble splitsThe award-winning Mbira DzeNharira ensemble has split.
The 18-year old group that revolutionized both the mbira as an instrument and music had from September been doddering on the verge of collapse until last Friday when the centre could not hold any longer.
Confirming the split yesterday, founder member Tendayi Samaita Gahamadze, who is still with Mbira DzeNharira and Wilfred Nyamasvisva Maafrika who now leads the splinter group Mawungira ENharira, said life goes on.
‘Mbira players are like guitar players – they split. It is good they left. I don’t feel any regrets at all. In fact, there are a number of youngsters who had not had any opportunities of playing full time and have taken over. There are enough people to fill the gap,’ declared Tendayi.
Mafrika said, ‘Masango kana aramba aramba. Kana baba vasingade kunzwa zvichemo zvevana kureva kuti magariro acho ava kutonetsa.’
He added that he did not see them playing together again as the original Mbira DzeNharira.
Tendayi was left with Fukanhembe Precious Mupangavanhu and has already co-opted a number of youths with whom he has toured Malawi on two occasions while Maafrika has taken Mhike Micah Munemo, Tanganeropa Crispen Mujongondi, Tonderai Phiri and the manager Loebbe Gahamadze, Tendayi’s cousin.
Early this week, Mawungira ENharira was in the studio recording an album.
But why, why?
Tendayi blamed Loebbe and Maafrika for causing the split while the two are blaming him for being ‘big-headed’ and becoming a runaway leader.
‘All this was a result of Loebbe’s weakness as a manager,’ alleged Tendayi. ‘He almost had our Malawi trip cancelled and I had to suspend him.’
Tendayi also said other members such as Tonderai had lost interest in working, ‘He faked illness just to avoid the Malawi trip. As such, keeping him would have been like keeping a worm. I suspended him too. When people dodge rehearsals, what can a leader do?’
He also alleged that Maafrika took some mbira instruments some time back from the Book Café shortly before they went on stage.
‘I have every reason to believe that it was Maafrika whom took the mbira. Ndiye Nyamasvisva akatora mbira dzaasina kugadzira,’ Tendayi alleged.
It is understood that former freedom fighter, Freedom Nyamubaya has taken over from Loebbe as Tendayi’s manager.
‘We started working with Freedom in June. She is very capable and has so far taken the group to Malawi and South Africa. Next year, we are touring Europe. She has done what Loebbe failed to do for more than 10 years,’ he said.
But both Maafrika and Loebbe have blamed Tendayi and Freedom for the split saying the Malawi trip was actually the spark that triggered the bomb. The fire, they said, had already been simmering since September.
Loebbe said the suspension of Tonderai triggered it all and the three of them – Maafrika, Tonderai and himself – decided not to take part in Mbira DzeNharira issues.
‘In fact, it was Nyamubaya who started accusing me but I told her that I worked according to my job description. Then came the second Malawi trip and I submitted my passport but it was returned with no visa. The others, Tonderai and Maafrika did not submit their passports.
‘When I asked why I had not been included on the Malawi trip, I was then blamed by Tendayi and Freedom for incapability,’ explained Loebbe.
He further alleged that Tendayi said everything was his because he started the group, ‘I realised then that murume atorasika uyu. We were no longer working as we used to before. Culturally, when hunters go to hunt, they share their catch according to contribution. If one hunter had 10 dogs and others one dog each, the one with 10 dogs had no right to claim everything,’ Loebbe said.
It is, however, understood that the group had been tottering on the verge of a split for a long time now since some of the members were rehearsing secretly as they waited and prepared for the eventuality.

Although both Maafrika and Tendayi made it appear as if the split was an amicable one, the situation a few weeks later proved otherwise when the members fought over the leather outfits which were designed by Loebbe.
The fistfight occurred when those who had formed Mawungira ENharira went to claim some of the outfits from Tendayi.
I also covered the embarrassing incident in Norton.

Mbira DzeNharira in fistfight
In a very sad and unfortunate development, former members of Mbira DzeNharira last week fought each other in Norton following a disagreement over money, instruments and their trademark stage wear – the popular skins.
The fight occurred in Ngoni Township at the Corner shop where they used to rehearse and manufacture mbira instruments.
Property that includes some windowpanes and a door was destroyed in the melee that ensued.
Mbira DzeNharira officially split two weeks ago with the other members, except the founder member Tendayi Samaita Gahamadze and Fukanhembe Precious Mupangavanhu forming a new group, Mawungira ENharira.
Both factions confirmed the incident that has ld Freedom Nyamubaya, Samaita’s manager to seek a peace order against Mawungira ENharira members who are claiming their share of her artiste.
It is understood that on Thursday last week Wilfred Nyamasvisva Maafrika, Micah Mhike Mukanya Munemo, Crispen Tanganeropa Sinyoro Mujongondi, and Loebbe Gahamadze accosted Samaita to discuss property sharing but failed to reach an amicable solution.
‘Personally, I wanted matehwe angu. I managed to take all the other sets and left one for Samaita,’ Loebbe, who now manages Mawungira ENharira, said.
He also said Nyamasvisva and others wanted Samaita to explain how the funds they raised as a group were used.
‘We had one account with Samaita as the sole signatory. I was in charge of paying out members and then hand over the remainder to Samaita. But whenever we asked for money, he would say there was no money,’ said Loebbe.
He added that since they could not agree on the way forward, Sinyoro, Nyamasvisva and Mukanya grabbed amplifiers, mixers and monitors resulting in the violent clashes.
‘The situation calmed down after the police were called in,’ Loebbe explained. ‘The officers encouraged us to iron out our differences amicably.
‘We were surprised when later some police officers arrested Nyamasvisva and Sinyoro for violent behaviour. They even took back the equipment the two had taken. But we intervened on time to have them released. Once again, the police asked us to settle the dispute amicably. Just when we were making plans to negotiate with Samaita, Freedom brought a peace order.’
Freedom who was not keen to discuss the issue initially later said the fight was because there was no money, ‘Mbiri yeMbira DzeNharira imbiri isina mari. In any case, what does it matter for you to write about the issue when you should be attending their shows in order to report on the progress. We had a very good show in Marondera at the weekend and you were not there to see.’
Drawn to discuss the split, she said it was all right for Mbira DzeNharira to split as long as they did so peacefully.
‘Kana vanhu vasepareta vasepareta. Mvura yadeuka yadeuka. Vanhu vanoenderera mberi nebasa. As a teacher and a journalist, I am for progress. Only barbarians snatch away things and destroy them. If the equipment was theirs, why would they destroy it? Do you break your property? In that case, wouldn’t you get a peace order?
‘Gahamadze was behind the formation of Mbira DzeNharira. He did everything including innovations. Bob Marley and Peter Tosh did the same thing with reggae music,’ she expounded.

Who is Nyamasvisva?
He was born in Zvimba at Gomwe village and started playing the mbira at 7. At 15, Nyamasvisva started composing his own songs helped by his grandmother. With time, Nyamasvisva became an integral part of the annual mukweverera ceremony that was held in the village. It was at this stage when other mbira players confided in him that he had a unique way of thumping the mbira.

Although Samaita’s group experienced changes in its line-up, it remained intact because of stable leadership while Mawungira ENharira went through upheavals which saw some of its cream players breaking away again in 2007.
With the same accusations of financial mismanagement and poor leadership which Maafrika leveled against Samaita, those who broke away from him also made the same remarks.
Ironically, Barbara who had helped them land smoothly after their split from Samaita was also involved with the formation of Mbira Nhare DzeChirorodziva.

1 comment:

The Chofamba Post said...

Sad to see the way this group fell apart. My colleagues at the Mirror and I, including the late Ruzvidzo Mupfudza, would always make our Friday pilgrimage to the Book Cafe for Mbira DzeNharira's shows. When I came to England I made sure to pack two of their CDs with me and often revelled in walking around the streets of Leicester those early days with Gahamadze's caution to his sojourning nephew on 'Zvowoenda Harare' in my ears whilst outside all around me was a new, alien, white world so unlike home! I was to use Mbira DzeNharira therapeutically in those early days whenever the pangs of homesickness struck:-)