My conversion was like a calling. I was in the company of my wife coming from a beer hall when we heard people singing about Mwari waEzekiel. Jokingly, I said to my wife ‘isu ndisu vana vaMwari waEzekiel vacho. Handei nepo tonotora vasikana vari kuimba tivafundise kutamba chipisi dzemunyika - Zexie Manatsa on the day he converted to Christianity
I lost my way twice while looking for Zexie Manatsa when he used to stay at UMFFC, a Zaoga centre on the outskirts of Harare. The place is just but one of many such in the area. But I found it and was shown where Zexie stayed then.
He was waiting for me although it was getting dark. He was alone in the house. It was my first time to meet him and he still had the humorous edge just as in his songs.
His place was not that big but it was tidy. Just when we had started the interview, his wife came.
Zexie’s story is long and it is the story of Zimbabwe’s music. I did not know that Zexie had played with the late Fanyana Dube as part of the earliest Jairos Jiri band – the Sunrise Kwela Kings.
Here is his story
Listening to Zexie Manatsa narrating the story of his life makes one think of a circle – it closes where it would have started.
Manatsa, one of the earliest Zimbabwean musicians to record and enjoy the fruits of their musical works, had a very deprived childhood and by the look of things in spite of all the success and fame he once enjoyed, his old age is not any better.
A born–again Christian who stays at the church property in Harare, Manatsa who had everything going on well for him in the 70s and early 80s believes that his misfortunes started when he built a general dealership and a bottle store in Guruve, his home area in 1987.
As per tradition, Manatsa said, ‘I had to brew beer for the grand opening ceremony. Indeed, my ancestral spirits came and they blessed the business venture. They even told me that I would prosper but a week after that ceremony, I had an accident.’
Manatsa then lost all his equipment and suffered memory loss. The accident occurred along the new Chitungwiza-Machipisa road just after Hunyani River Bridge in September 1987 when he was coming from a show in Chitungwiza around 2am.
Manatsa was travelling in a friend’s car and the mini bus that was carrying all the instruments and the other band members was behind them.
When the head-on occurred, the minibus rammed into the car in which Manatsa was destroying all the equipment.
‘The only thing I remember was crossing the bridge and everything else is blank,’ Manatsa who was in a comma for more than six weeks said.
And that accident was the harbinger to all Manatsa’s problems for he lost his Southerton home he had acquired under a rent-to-buy scheme in 1979 and properties he had given to his friends for safekeeping was never returned.
Talking about his house, Manatsa said, ‘I believe that there was a scam behind the whole deal. How could they say I had failed to pay rent when they knew I was in hospital at the time and that I could not sign cheques?’
Left with no roof over his head and no equipment, Manatsa became destitute. With noone willing to help him, he relocated to the late Ndabaningi Sithole’s Churu Farm on the outskirts of Glne View 4 for accommodation.
The farm was later designated by Government when it was found out that Sithole was illegally resettling people.
Down and out, Manatsa hit newspaper headlines for shoplifting and drinking heavily. Rumours of drugtaking were rife too. To make matters worse, his young brother Stanley with whom he had started his musical career died in 1990.
After the designation of Churu Farm, Manatsa moved to Nketa 7 in Bulawayo where he found salvation.
‘My conversion was like a calling,’ he said describing how he finally repented. ‘I was in the company of my wife coming from a beer hall when we heard people singing about Mwari waEzekiel. Jokingly, I said to my wife ‘isu ndisu vana vaMwari waEzekiel vacho. Handei nepo tonotora vasikana vari kuimba tivafundise kutamba chipisi dzemunyika’.
‘But when we got to the congregation, I was surprised to hear the pastor saying something about drowning and crying for help. And I remembered a day when I almost drowned while on holiday in Kariba.
‘The sermon touched me and when he asked whether there were people who were ready to follow Jesus, my wife and I stood up.’
In the morning, they told their children that they were going to church. In disbelief, the children had to follow them just to make sure that they were not going to a shebeen.
A few months later, Manatasa moved to Harare where he underwent a pastoral course.
Although he says he is content with his life, one can detect some bitterness. Here is a man who belives that his lot should have been better had he been treated fairly by fate.
Born on a farm in Mhangura in 1944, his polygamous father was a hunter. For a man who had two wives and several children, fending for them was not easy. The children had to work on the farm to raise fees and for their upkeep. At the age of 20, Manatsa left school while doing standard four. At the time he was already playing the banjo as well as various other instruments.
His first trip from the farm was a journey to Chinhoyi to acquire a chitikinyani (some kind of a juvenile ID) but when he found that the issuing officer had been relocated to Salisbury (now Harare), he travelled to the capital then. Once in Salisbury, Manatsa failed to find the offices where the certificates were being issued.
While walking about, he saw a Bulawayo-bound train at the railway station, ‘When I inquired and realised that it was cheaper to go to Bulawayo then return to Mhangura, I boarded the train.’
In Bulawayo, his brother’s wife asked him to accompany her to the shops where she bought him a pennywhistle, ‘I spent days practising how to play it.’ And when he returned to Mhangura, he put up a makeshift band that had his brother Stanley as a member and Jelousy Siyagwaja.
With three acoustic guitars, they played at tea parties in the surrounding farms for a fee. At the time Manatsa would alternate playing the pennywhistle and the guitar. They did cover songs done by South Africans musicians. And that’s how they started playing simanjemanje.
They were discovered by a Chinhoyi businessman who owned a hotel. He asked them if they were interested in playing at his hotel.
‘We agreed and went to Chinhoyi. However, the businessman did not honour his promise and could not pay them.
‘When we realised that he was not going to pay us, we borrowed money from friends, stole two electric guitars and fled to Bulawayo where we stayed in Nguboyenja just opposite the Jairos Jiri complex.’
He said they could hear guitar sounds from the complex.
‘One day, we walked into the complex and asked for permission to test their guitars. The late Jairosi Jiri then found out that we could play better than the inmates. He asked us to play for the organisation, helping raise funds.
‘Fanyana Dube, one of the inmates joined us and we formed the Sunrise Kwela Kings.’
After playing for some time, a businessman known as Homela asked them to play for his night club and Jairosi Jiri agreed to let them go on condition that they would continue helping the organisation. But Fanyana did not leave with them.
Given transport and a complete set of instrumenst, Zexie and Stanley recruited their young brother Keddies who is now late and Raphael Mboweni.
In 1969, Maxie Mabhena who was known as the dark man joined the group to mark the birth of the Green Arrows Band.
A group of female dancers, the Sakaza Sisters comprising of Attilia Dube, Joyce Banda and Philda Tazman was created.
During those days, the group played covers done by Mahotella Queens and Isitombi Sesimanjemanje. Maxie provided the male vocals.
‘We became so popular such that a number of business people approached us to play for them. When we were promised better working conditions, we moved on. Thus we left Homela for a businessman who took us on a tour of Mozambique in 1972 where we played in a packed stadium in Beira.’
On their return, they moved over to Happy Valley Hotel that as owned by a Mr Vera.
Although music was good business, Zexie had to join Lebena a Harare biscuit manufacturing company as a salesman-driver. He then left the whole group in Bulawayo and moved to Harare. The group followed him a few weeks later except for the Sakaza Sisters who were replaced by Luck Sisters.
Manatsa then secured a contract for the group with a Mr Makanda who owned a hotel at Bhora Business Centre. With time, Zexie left employment to once again take up full time music.
Bhora became popular because of the Green Arrows. Well to do people would drive from the city to enjoy at Bhora just outside Harare. One of such people was the then radio DJ Webster Shamu who loved the music such that he later recorded the group’s debut single called Shamwari Yangu Unonyeperei whose flip side was Hama in July 1974.
The SA legendary scout, West Nkosi heard about the group and visited them at Bhora. Pleased with what he heard, Nkosi signed the group under Gallo South Africa.
Chipo Chiroorwa that became a massive hit was recorded in October 1974. It marked the beginning of Zexie’s professional music career that saw him recording more than 40 singles and six LPs within the next 13 years.
Bored by staying at one place, the group accepted another Bhora businessman’s offer to tour the country. With Makanda’s blessings, they toured and later secured a contract with a Mr Wilson who owned Jamaica Inn. The group, however, did not stay long at Jamaica Inn. They returned to Bhora just when the war of liberation was catching on in 1979.
Scared, they left for Harare where they played at Bonanza Night Club that used to be at corner Kaguvi and Robert Mugabe opposite Queens Hotel where Caltex stands today. This move opened a floodgate for fortunes. Zexie was able to acquire a house, buy a complete set of new equipment and a minibus.
He also held a lavish wedding where his band played in Rufaro Stadium and raised more than $19,000. All was well until the day the accident happened.
‘I learnt a lot after the accident. No one came to my help. Not even my recoding company. Not even my closest friends. I was alone,’ he said.
Today Manatsa has a new gospel group called the Gospel Arrows Band.