I have heard a lot about a Pied Pipers' comeback. Everytime I read or hear about it, I chuckle to myself. There will never be another Pied Piper again. It died with Gideon Neganje, it went with Chowas Mdoka. The boys from Barbara Tredgold in Mbare are gone. Noone will and can ever imitate their golden voices. All what we have are memories - sad memories.
I was very lucky to catch Mdoka a few months before his death. He was frail but we spoke about the group that changed the Zimbabwean pop music and was the first to break through onto the international markets.
I also hunted down Gideon's brother Fungayi who left the group in protest when the money raised during Gideon Neganje charity concert were mis-used. Gideon was paralysed in an accident while returning from a gig in Kwekwe. He is now late.
I was also lucky to have befriended Jonah Mtumwa when the group played at the now defunct Tabs Restaurant along Harare Street. And even when he formed his group, Sisonke that had a contract to play at Channel O night club at Budiriro 1 Shopping Centre, I would sit and chat with him. He was not a happy man either.
The other day, I ran into Brian Rusike, who composed Ruva Rangu, in Harare. He too is not a happy man after he had had a scuffle with Gramma officials when he wanted rights to his songs. - Wonder Guchu
The Pied Pipers story was told by the late Chowas Mdoka and Fungayi Neganje, the late Gideon’s brother who was one of the founder members of the group.
At the time of the interviews, Fungayi was staying in Lusaka, Highfield. A humble and an unassuming man, Fungayi was still devastated by what had happened to his brother, Gideon. Although he was still active on the club circuit music scene, Fungayi had retired from the mainstream gigs.
I met Chowas at his home in Barbara Tredgold in Mbare where the Pied Pipers was formed. At the time, Chowas was frail but could still hold together the remnants of the group most of whose members were new. Although he coughed throughout the interview, Chowas gave his side of the story.
Below is Fungayi and Chowas’ story of the Pied Pipers:
Five youths staying in the same neighbourhood in 1969 – some stayed along Muchirahondo Crescent while others stayed in Barbra Tred Gold Circle in Mbare – used to burn old motor car tyres and then sit around the fire almost every evening in Barbra Tred Gold Circle.
Initially, they spent time cracking jokes and catching up on the latest ghetto gossip until one of them brought his elder brother’s box guitar, which later became a part of the gathering as each of them learnt how to play it.
With time, the five: Fungai Neganje (the late Gideon’s elder brother), Chowasi Mdoka, Elisha Hwata, Tendai Masango and Evans Chatewu (now late) got more serious and calling themselves Rhythm and Blues Band went out to test the musical waters by playing copyright stuff originally done by the likes of Ottis Redding, Wilson Picket, Percy Sledge, Credence Clear Water Revival, Elvis Presley, the Beatles among others.
The late Jack Sadza assisted the youths with bits and pieces of instruments during the early stages when they would play in halls such as Stodart, Mufakose, Mabvuku, Tafara and during festivals which were mostly held in Gwanzura Stadium.
Later, Sam Dhauwa who stayed in the same suburb and is said to be the founder of Dynamos Football Club introduced the youths to one of the Zimbabwe Furniture’s directors Van Rensburg who agreed to buy them a new kit. Dhauwa became their manager.
According to Fungayi and Chowasi, they were paid a flat fee every Monday regardless of whether they had played or not.
Towards the end of 1969, the director wanted the band to tour Malawi but the youths refused to go and a makeshift outfit had to be put together, given the name Rhythm and Blues and was sent to Malawi.
The original Rhythm and Blues was left stranded without instruments since the owner had taken them away.
Evans then left to join the Great Sounds that had just been formed and the late Gideon Neganje came in to replace him. The Rhythm and Blues morphed into the Pied Pipers in 1971.
‘We had to source for instruments,’ said Chowasi Mdoka who is still leading the fragile Pied Piers. ‘We had no money and for some time, things were a bit difficult.
‘Luckily, Kenneth Chogugudza aka James Bond who had business interests in Mbare came to our rescue by buying us some instruments.’
Since they had grown, the band looked for better venues.
‘A coloured guy approached us and helped to secure contracts which enabled us to play in hotels like Kudzanayi (now Hollies where the Pied Pipers still play every Sunday) and Queens,’ recalled Chowas who never held any other job except playing for the Pied Pipers.
‘Much later, another coloured, Kenny Wilson Max helped us to win a contract to play at the Mushandirapamwe Hotel, Highfield and Hotel Elizabeth in town in the mid 70s.’
At the time, they had already recorded a number of singles with Teal Records. Some of the singles were Country Boy, Fatherland, Jimmy Boy, Lighting, You Saved Me, Freedom Train, Reggae Sounds of Africa and (You Can’t Stop) The Revolution – all Gideon compositions.
The first lady to play with the band then was Susan Chenjerai’s daughter, Jane was a backing vocalist. She has also been born and bred in Mbare.
But the greatest thing that ever happened to the Pied Pipers was the coming of Gideon who in no time assumed the leadership of the band.
Although nothing much is being said about him today, Gideon is to Zimbabwe what Elvis Presley was to America. A great composer and one endowed with a great voice, his music was appreciated internationally. He is the only Zimbabwean who has songs copied by international artists without him having travelled to Europe.
Boney M, the Germany-based pop group is understood to have taken African Woman. Then two blind South African singers, Steve Kekana and Babys Mlangeni also used Gideon’s song, Reggae Sounds of Africa and African Woman respectively, without his knowledge. To this day, it’s not known how many songs were exported without Gideon’s knowledge.
While playing at Hotel Elizabeth, between 1978 and 1980, new faces crept onto the stage to be part of the might Pied Pipers. First to come was the late William Mhlanga (Louis’ brother) who later brought his friend, Brian Rusike. The late Derek Tizora and Alois Jentala came next. Most of these came in to replace members who had left.
Doreen Ncube also appeared for the band shortly before independence. Much later her young sister Busi came too. Busi later joined Ilanga before forming her own group, Band Rain.
Another female, Sandra Thompson who later married Derek, became party of the group. ‘I understand that she is now paralysed,’ said Chowasi who plays the bass guitar.
During the early days of independence, the group released Let’s Rebuild Zimbabwe and Reggae Sounds of Africa, singles that had a massive support as well sales. Reggae Sounds of Africa won a gold disc from South Africa in 1982.
When Brian came, he co-authored the single African Woman with Gideon. An album called People of the World Unite came soon afterwards.
But just when things were going on well, Gideon, the soul of the group was involved in a near fatal accident in 1981 when the group was on its way to a concert in the Midlands town, Kwekwe where they were billed to play at the Golden Mile Hotel. He was twenty-eight at the time.
‘Gideon was in the lead car when the accident happened,’ remembered Chowas who said that had it not been for that accident, they could have been the first Zimbabwean group to relocate to Europe where their type of music was popular.
But he left quite a number of unrecorded songs including Ruva Rangu, which was later sung by Brian who took over the leadership of the band. Brian though says he is the original composer of Ruva Rangu.
Although a number of people who were close to the band say that Brian did not compose many songs except Ruva Rangu, Fungayi said that Brian composed a number of songs which he sung after Gideon’s departure.
In 1982, Fungai who is still devastated by the accident left the group and retired from music.
‘I left after the band members were no longer interested in caring for Gideon. Our contract as a band stated that a member was to be paid even when he is ill. In case of Gideon, he had been injured while on duty and he was supposed to have been paid.
‘But this was not done and he lost his Southerton home when he failed to pay the mortgage,’ said Fungayi who played lead guitar.
When he left, the Gideon Neganje Benefit Shows were held in Sakubva Mutare and at the old Queens Hotel in Harare. The man at the helm of the shows was Hughes Mankola.
The bitter Fungayi alleged that the proceeds from these benefit shows never benefited Gideon.
‘Mankola embezzled the money raised. I understand that he was arrested over the issue but nothing came out of it.
‘The Sakubva Show involved a number of local bands except the Pied Pipers, who asked for payment in order for them to appear at the show,’ alleged Fungayi who claimed that he ha not been any royalty fee for all the songs he played with the Pied Pipers.
Reports at the time put the figure that was at the centre of the controversy at Z$4000.00, a heavy bundle at the time.
On Gideon’s songs which were copied by foreign artists, Fungayi said that the only reward Gideon got was a gold disc which was presented to him when he was at St Giles Rehabilitation Centre in Harare.
During Brian’s time with the band, the album Pied Pipers was released in the mid 80s. In 1985, the Pied Pipers had undisclosed problems with their recording company and they cut ties.
At the time, a local monthly magazine quoted Brian saying: ‘Everyone who tries to go independent gets problems, there are many obstacles. You are easily forgotten, there is no support, no encouragement’
Undaunted by their predicament, the Pied Pipers released that chart topping single, Ruva Rangu in 1986 with a small Baptists studio, Revelations Records. Ruva Rangu peaked at number 1 on the then Radio Three (now Power FM) hit charts for only three days before it disappeared as if it had never been on the airwaves.
Asked what had happened to that song whose catchy rhythm had won it pole position on the musical charts, Brian said then, ‘I do not know,’ adding that they were just trying to do their own thing but were finding a lot of hassles in distribution and promotion.
‘For a start, we did not have the man power to do the running around (radio stations, record bars, nightclubs, and other media), we didn’t have the transport and we were too tied up doing rehearsals and live shows,’ he told the now defunct magazine.
According to Chowas, Brian left to join the newly formed Talking Drum soon after.
However, Chowas could not say what really happened between them and Brian hinting only that he did not leave the group amicably.
‘We had problems when Brian left,’ said Chowasi. ‘Some members left too and instruments became a problem.’ Charles Areketa (the late Tobias’ young brother) came in for him then.
For about two months now, The Herald has unsuccessfully been trying to talk to Brian who initially agreed to grant an interview but later dithered.
The late Jonah Mtuma came in to replace Brian while Joe Masters also came in to assist with finance and management.
‘We assumed the name The Masters Pied Pipers when Masters took over the affairs of the band,’ Chowasi explained adding that their relationship with him was short-lived.
‘We had disagreements and he took all our instruments claiming that we owed him some money.’
After that incident, the band had to hire instruments from the late Ephat Mujuru and Ilanga for about two years until Peter Kambani the late Manu Kambani’s brother bought them instruments.
‘We had grown together and he did a great thing for us. He even donated the instruments after some time,’ said Chowasi adding that Peter still comes in to help when the need arises.
With Jonah Mtuma - formerly with Wells Fargo - the group focussed mainly on entertaining patrons in bars around the country. However, in 1996, they emerged from the woodworks when they recorded an album, which contained some of their old songs such as Ruva Rangu, and others composed by the poet Chirikure Chirikure.
After years with the boys, Jonah left to found his own band, Sisonke.
‘Jonah just decided to leave,’ said Chowasi. ‘His wife had bought him some instruments.’
With Jonah’s departure, the band went into semi-limbo until Lazarus Zungura, another Mbare born and bred businessman who is Chowasi’s friend came to the band’s rescue.
‘I no longer play,’ said Chowasi, ‘there are young people now doing the work.’
The current Pied Pipers line-up has James Steven Kanyemba who once played fr 2 Plus 2, Moses Mullah and James Manyunga who played with Oliver Mtukudzi, Dumi Dzapasi and Herbert Jibha.