I have met James Chimombe’s son Freddie three times. The first time he came to give me a story about how the Zimbabwe Music Rights Association (Zimura) had ripped him off.
The other two times was when I did a story about him the first time he went to stay in the squatter camp at Hopley. By then he had just started feeling unwell.
I first passed by his mother’s house in Jerusalem section of Highfield where I met his sisters. It was also during the time when Diana Samkange had goosened up James Chimombe’s song.
The family was very bitter about it. I felt bad too that I had given Diana Freddie’s contact details when she was working on the song.
Freddie’s mother, who had separated from James when he died, said she gets frustrated whenever she watches TV or listen to the radio and hear the songs her ex-husband did.
‘I remember he wrote some of the songs in this house,’ she told me. ‘Now I hear and see people I do not know messing the songs up.’
But I put together James Chimombe’s story from a number of people among them his long time band mate who also blew the legendary sax on all the songs, Daram Karanga.
James started his career as a vocalist with the Mutare-based Pop Settlers before moving to the Harare Mambos. His next stop was a brief stay at Thomas Mapfumo's Acid Band in the early 70s as a lead guitarist then he hopped to the OK Success in the mid-70s alongside Susan Mapfumo and Simon Shumba. It was long before the time when the Chimbetus- Naison and Simon – had the backing of the group at Mushandirapamwe Hotel at Machipisa in Highfield.
At the time, the OK Success that was led by Andrew Ngoyi who had chosen to settle in the country from the Congos embarked on singing songs in Shona. Some of the songs were the OK Success released singles such as Baba VaBhoyi, Sekuru, Amai, Lupwai Abwela, Gore Rakapera and Mudiwa Mary.
It’s not also clear whether James was in the band at the same time with Lovemore Majaivana, Fanyana Dube and Virginia Sillah 9who later joined Harare Mambos).
Daram met James in Chitungwiza when the dormitory town had just been established. At the time, Daram had left Mhangura Mine where together with Thomas Mapfumo they had formed the Hallelujah Chicken Runn Band. When the band disbanded, the guys moved to Chitungwiza where council management contracted them to perform at Chikomo Bar. They were also given houses among other perks.
But when there was a change of management, the band lost the contract and disbanded. James was working for the council at the time.
In 1983, he befriended Daram and would visit him at his house, “One day, James spoke about forming a band and I agreed to the idea,’ Daram said. ‘Since I knew Paul Mkondo who owned Hideout 99, I approached him with the idea and he too agreed to assist. At the time Safirio had had problems with his band, the Ocean City he had formed after leaving the Great Sounds. The remaining members – Phillip Svosve, Nicholas Himwala and Elias Bokosha - were looking for members. They absorbed us and James became the lead vocalist and main composer. But in 1988 Svosve and others demanded that they should also be allowed to compose and sing their songs,’ recalled Daram.
James, Daram added, refused to let them compose and sing their songs and they left.
“We them formed the Huchi Band since James had acquired his own instruments,’ said Daram who had the opportunity of composing Jikinya and Botswana as well as some chart topping songs which made James very popular.
James who died aged 39 in 1990 was one of the earliest musicians to succumb to Aids. One of his songs, Jemedza, is believed to have been a farewell song.
Most of his songs were about love gone wrong. His beat leaned towards light rumba fused with jiti. He was among some of Zimbabwe’s musicians whose music can safely be coined pop because its popularity.
Apart from Jemedza, James song Kudakwashe which he composed for his son who was born deformed is still a great number.
While he left a rich musical legacy, James did not do so for his family. His son Freddie who took over the band after his father’s death ran it into the ground.
Freddie opened a grocery shop in Goromonzi which did not last. Then he would collect his father’s royalties which he blew.
Daram who had a fight with Freddie over royalties said the young man would buy beer for the fans every time he had a show. Freddie’s career did not last though not because of his illness but mismanagement. He sold some of the equipment and when I interviewed him, Freddie said the late J Masters had some his father’s stuff.