I had heard about the late Mudhara Mataka. In fact, when we were growing up we used to hear about the sketches the Matakas did. There was Mataka Comes to Town and many sketches.
But I never thought I would one day write their story; shake their hands and see Laina Mataka shed tears while talking about their 14-year old son who passed away. This was in 2005 yet she wept uncontrollabley.
They had come to Harare to receive a National Arts Merit Award at the Harare International Conference Centre. When they walked up to the podium after their names were called out, most of the people in the crowd were confused.
They were right because they did not know that some of Zimbabwe’s great names in the arts industry today walked through the Matakas home in Mbare. They schooled Thomas Mapfumo and the late Safirio Mukadota Madzikatire, Susan Chenjerai (Amai Rwizi), jazz greats Simangaliso Tutani, Chris Chabuka and Louis Mhlanga.
I met them at their late daughter, Bertha Msora’s Marlborough home. Tete Joyce Jenje-Makwenda linked me up a day after the Nama occasion.
Kenneth was 90 years at the time but he looked young for that age. We sat outside as the pair took me back in time when they met and took it upon themselves to promote arts and culture.
Here is their story
They were complete strangers when they walked up to the podium to receive their Nama Service award last Saturday at the Sheraton Hotel and Towers during the Nama ceremony.
The youthful audience stared in disbelief as the elderly couple proudly took their stand to receive the prestigious trophy thereby crowning the glory of having been there when Zimbabwean arts took shape.
Precisely, the audience was right for Laina and Kenneth Mataka despite having been there for most artists who were just crawling into the arts industry and having helped mould the shape of Zimbabwean arts as it is known today, the two are complete strangers to this generation.
Yet this is the couple that nurtured the vast talents in the late Safirio Mukadota Madzikatire whom they literary adopted when he was still a primary school pupil at Chitsere Primary School in Mbare.
“Safirio came to us when he was a child in 1948,” said Kenneth. “He came when he could neither play a guitar nor sing. Together with Susan Chenjerai, we worked to groom them for four years,” put in Laina.
The two admitted that what Safirio later did was from his own resourcefulness.
“Safirio went a bit further that what we had taught him,” said Laina.
When Safirio finally lkeft to do his own thing, the couple supported him throughout. This was also the couple that took in Thomas Mapfumo after his false start as a musician in 1962.
“Thomas came to us for advice after failing to launch his musical career,” remembered Kenneth. “We listened to his problems and then gave him the choice to stay with us for only six months or come on a daily basis. But he chose to stay with us and we helped him find his feet. Thomas was a reserved guy. He seldom spoke. He was such a gentleman. I wonder whether he is still like that today,” said Laina.
Other notable names that are linked to the Matakas are the late Simangaliso Tutani, Chris Chabuka and Louis Mhlanga. Yet it was by sheer coincidence that the Malawian born Kenneth had to stay in the then Southern Rhodesia after finishing school at Domboshava Industrial School in 1933.
“My father fell ill when I was supposed to return to Malawi. As a result, I had to stay on in Zimbabwe. I then got employed as an office orderly at the then Rhodesian Herald,” narrated Kenneth who started singing Christmas carols as well as at weddings in the 1920s.
During weekends, he would visit friends in the police force – Earnest Pamisa, Eddy Kawadza, Solomon Rubatika and Solomon Dzviti – at the Magambuzi Police Station where they would sing for fun.
In fact, Kenneth had been a member of his college choir and before that a leader at Domboshava. But these too left sooner and then came in Moses Muphahlo, Samuel Gotora and Elisha Kasamu with whom Kenneth toured the country between 1939n and 1943 doing sketches and singing.
In 1943, Moses, Samuel and Elisha left to form the De Black Evening Follies resulting in Kenneth bringing in Charles Chijoka, Enock Mtambarika, Clifford Machingura and Sammy Sondo.
The tours resumed in earnest and it was during one of those when Kenneth met Laina in Bulawayo in 1944. Laina was an accomplished chorister and piano player. She had grown up singing at church. At the time of their meeting, she was a member of the Bantu Glee Singers – a group made up of the Stanley Hall staff. When she joined the Salisbury Bantu Actors, the group assumed the name Mataka Family and their act became a variety show where sketches, tap-dancing and singing without instrument were done.
Some of their popular sketches were Mataka’s Bicycle, Ziburi Sketches and Kurutsa Sketch among many others.
Most of these were educative while others were pure humour based.
Based in Mbare, the Mataka home became a haven for artists from all walks of life.
“Our doors were always open for anyone since we did not charge anything for our services. We taught them tap-dancing and stagecraft among many other things,” said Kenneth who left his job in 1939.
“Our aim was to promote local talent and I am glad we did just that as seen in Safirio and Thomas,” he said.
Mapfumo left in 1962 and when he left, he could manage the stage well, according to Laina.
Tragedy struck the family in 1964 when the Matakas 14-year old son who was a brilliant piano player passed away.
“We had put all our faith in the boy but God had other plans. His death left us weak and we had to stop performing,” explained Kenneth who had to snuff back tears.
They then delegated the management of their group to Naison Seke. The only thing Kenneth could do was perform as a magician, an art taught by a Zambian whom they had accommodated when he was touring Rhodesia.
Later, he joined Bata Shoe Company in Gweru as a product promoter but he left to pursue his magician career.
“I have been to every corner of the country performing,” he said with a smile.
In 1974 while they were touring Bulawayo, they came across people who were being allocated housing stands in Pumula.
“We joined and got a stand. We have been staying there since then,” said Kenneth.