Monday 29 October 2012

A week with Oscar Award-winning Liyana in Maputo

I spent a week with the Oscar Award winning Bulawayo school band Liyana or King George VI & Centre for Children with Disabilities (KG6) in 2006 when I covered the Southern Africa Music Crossroads in Maputo, Mozambique. They taught me what loving oneself means without hating the other person. They taught the meaning of life, and the importance of time

Liyana means ‘it's raining'. And Africa is a dry place—so whenever it rains, we feel blessed. So we feel that whenever we're singing onstage, we bless our audience - Prudence Mabhena.

Liyana is the group that spawned Prudence Mabhena whose story of perseverance in the face of adversity as a disabled girl won an Oscar award. Her story was captured in the short film titled Music by Prudence.

Born with a condition known as arthrogryphosis, a rare congenital disorder that severely affects the joints of the body, Prudence was deserted by her parents. 

The father, Mkhokheli Herbert Mabhena, travelled all the way from Jambezi area, Matabeleland North while her mother came from SA to welcome her at the Mqabuko Joshua Nkomo Airport.

The father wept while on his knees and begged for “forgiveness” from his daughter.

We travelled by road on a mini-bus from Harare to Maputo. On our way to Maputo, the mini-bus had three punctures during the night. I had to help drive since there was only one driver. We hit Maputo on the evening of the second day.

When I first saw the group, I had this feeling depression that comes from pitying them but when the journey warmed up, they made me realise that it’s the soul that matters and not how we look – able-bodied or not.

Those guys are full of joy and jokes. The long and trouble-some trip was reduced into one long joyous journey. 

Of course, they went on to steal the show in Maputo against groups from Tanzania, Zambia, Malawi, and Mozambique.

Prudence was the soul of the group.

Although they came out second, they won a prize to tour Sweden and in September and October 2006 the band spent three weeks in Sweden and then extended their tour to the Netherlands and Belgium.
During the tour they had people up and dancing at the 30 or more shows.  Each member brings something unique to the band but the whole performance is perfected by the lead singer, Prudence, whose voice never ceases to amaze.  

She writes her own songs, specialising in the use of the Ndebele clicks, however she can now sing in seven other languages!  

Prudence the lead singer spent 3 months in Switzerland singing with the Hora Theatre in Zurich.  Her voice has an incredible range and has been likened to the famous South African singer, Miriam Makeba.  

It is not often that one sees or hears about a band of physically disabled musicians.  Despite their various physical disabilities, they are a professional group of musicians who are able to keep an audience enthralled and usually up on their feet dancing.  

Their stage performance is energetic, dynamic, professional and fun.  Their own enjoyment and enthusiasm is immediately transferred to any audience. As soon as the first notes are played the audience breathes a sigh of amazement and begins to join in the fun – foot tapping, clapping, whistling and even standing up and dancing. 

The music is irresistible.

 Bulawayo group wins Oscar nomination

A NINE-PIECE music group from Bulawayo is proving that disability is not inability after landing an Oscar nomination for Short Documentary.

Music by Prudence is a short film produced by Prudence Mabhena, the lead singer of Liyana.
Liyana’s music was described by one American magazine as “a fresh, bright sound led by a singer with the voice of an angel.”

The 35-minute documentary charts the band’s life story, with special focus on the 22-year-old Prudence who was born disabled and suffered rejection by her family at an early age.

The group, who got together at Bulawayo’s King George IV School for Children, was discovered by Zimbabwe-born Leslie Goldwasser. Now based in the United States, Goldwasser liked their music and Prudence’s life story while on a visit to Zimbabwe, leading to the group’s first tour of the United States where they performed at the Apollo Theatre in December last year.

While in the United States, they befriended rocker Sting and the widow of John Lennon -- Yoko Ono -- who recorded a song with them at the John Lennon Bus.

Speaking by telephone from Bulawayo, Prudence told of her pride this week, but revealed she would NOT be at the March 7 Academy Awards because her American visa expired.

She said: “I am very proud about the nomination, it’s the best thing ever to happen to me. The whole group is excited about this and we hope we will win.

“I wish I could be there for the awards, but my American visa expired and there is no time left.”
Each member of Liyana was born with or developed a serious physical disability since birth, and seven members of the group move around with the aid of a wheelchair, including Prudence.

Meet Prudence, the star of Oscar-winning short film Music by Prudence

When Music by Prudence outpaced its competition to win the 2010 Academy Award for Best Documentary Short, it marked the next phase of an epic journey for young African women with arthrogryphosis, a rare congenital disorder that severely affects the joints of the body.

Her journey began in Zimbabwe, where it is believed that disabilities are caused by witchcraft. In extreme cases, babies are even killed to eliminate the “curse” from the family. 

Though her case was extreme, and though her paternal grandmother had insisted her mother refrain from feeding her, a death sentence for the helpless child, her mother disobeyed and Prudence lived.

Prudence’s childhood was struggle for survival, striving to have her most basic needs met. She was neglected, isolated and ridiculed. 

In the face of such constant degradation and dehumanization, Prudence filled with despair and longed for an end to her suffering. She attempted suicide…twice.

In an area of the world where disdain prevails and minds are typically closed to the potential of people with disabilities, the King George VI School & Centre for Children with Disabilities (KG6) shines though like a ray of hope. Prudence was awarded a scholarship here at the age of 9 and her life was inexorably changed.

Not only did she find a loving environment where she could trust and thrive, not only did she find independence in a wheelchair, she found her voice. A beautiful, haunting voice that was leading the school choir within a week of trying out. 

A deep, soulful voice that ultimately led Liyana, the Afro-fusion band formed by Prudence and 7 fellow students and musicians, all with disabilities. 

“Liyana means ‘it's raining’,” said Prudence. “And Africa is a dry place—so whenever it rains, we feel blessed. So we feel that whenever we're singing onstage, we bless our audience.”

Roger Ross Williams, director and producer of Music by Prudence, weaves an inspiring tale of optimism and hope while bringing to light the challenges that people with disabilities face worldwide and the success they can achieve if given the opportunity. 

Not only did he take chances dramatically to bring this work to fruition, he and his crew took great personal risk in filming in a country where journalism is officially illegal. He is also the first African-American to win an Oscar for directing and producing a film.

Now 21, Prudence is teaching music and dance at KG6 and plans to use her catapult into the limelight to raise awareness for people with disabilities in the third world. 

During her trip to the United States, she will meet with a number of people and organization, including President Barack Obama, the United Nations and the attendees of Abilities Expo New York Metro. 

In addition to discussing the film and her future plans, she will also share with Expo visitors the music that has captured the world.

Tax deductible donations can be made to the Music by Prudence Project, an initiative to establish Prudence as an international advocate for people with disabilities, at

Prudence stars at Colorado festival
A PACKED house at the Telluride Mountainfilm Festival, an annual Memorial Day documentary film gathering in Colorado, was reduced to tears when Prudence Mabena came out on stage and belted out “Amazing Grace” after a film about her, “Music By Prudence” screened last year.

To hear her is to hear something so sweeping and profound that it is never forgotten.

Prudence was born with a crippling condition called arthrogryphosis, which left her with twisted and useless arms and legs that had to be amputated.
But she was given a voice — such a voice that it coerces ungoverned emotion from those around her.

When she first began performing, Mabhena could sing for one to two hours during a show without a break. But recently, sets her free was starting to leave her as she’s had to do shorter shows and take breaks in the middle and come back.

It became harder for her to breathe as a collapsing spine wore on her lungs.

“I was getting tired. After doing anything, I was so tired,” Mabhena, 23, said from the Denver Children’s Hospital on Thursday.

On Jan. 24, she had a surgery there in which doctors put rods into her spine and were able to straighten it. And Mountainfilm, in large part, made that happen. Here’s how.

Dr. Rick Hodes knows spines. He appeared at Mountainfilm in 2009 with the movie “Making the Crooked Straight,” a documentary that focused on Hodes’ endeavors in Ethiopia, where he helps facilitate spinal surgeries for children with crooked backs. 

Hodes also adopts as many kids there as he can to put them on his health insurance. He’s a bit of a saint, to say the least.

His film won the Moving Mountains Prize that year, which donated money to his cause — money Hodes used for another life-saving surgery — and Festival Director David Holbrooke brought him back as a judge in 2010.

He crossed paths with Mabhena, who was here with the film about her struggles and triumphs, and Hodes examined her while his son stood guard at the door.
“My whole life is bad backs,” Hodes said Wednesday. 

He took photos and notes, and arranged for a surgery in Ghana. That fell through, but he worked out another surgery in Denver at the Children’s Hospital, performed by Dr. Mark Erickson.

If she hadn’t have gotten the surgery, her back could have pushed into her lungs further. Because she sits in a wheelchair, her problem is worsened.

“She would have, at some point, had to stop singing. Her work would be in breathing, not singing,” Hodes said. “We’re not going to somehow cure her. On the other hand, she’s going to have a much more quality and quantity of life.”

All this, because of a film festival in a tiny mountain town. A festival that got its start with roots climbing films and van-dwelling mountaineers.

“It was Mountainfilm Festival that brought us all together. … It’s sort of funny how life works,” Hodes said. “Somehow, Mountainfilm is making the world a better place.”

That’s not lost on Holbrooke.

“It’s wild — two people from Africa in this world of broken spines, and we’re able to connect them. We’re able to help them,” Holbrooke said. “I love that. This is what the heart of our festival is — making people’s lives better if we can.”

Last Thursday afternoon, Mabhena felt well enough to wheel around the hospital and take a phone call.
“I’m good,” she said. “The doctors are surprised by my recovery.”

She was expected to spend three to four days in intensive care recovering from the surgery. She spent a night and was out, that spirit of hers pushing her along.

If everything goes to plan, she’ll have another surgery on Monday, this one to straighten out her hip so she can sit upright in her wheelchair instead of twisted.

“I feel straighter,” she said. “Now, I can lie on my back, and even sideways without any pain.”

And that seemed impossible at a time for the impossibly contorted Mabhena, who was called an ant in her home country, where disabled people are looked upon like a curse.

Prudence, whose smile beams like streetlights in perfect dark, was abandoned by her mother, looked after by her grandmother and then lived with her father and stepmother, where she was neglected and left alone to wallow.

She ended up at a school for the disabled, where she found her calling in music.

She’s far from alone these days. She’s just recorded a gospel album, and her hope is to return home and belt out an enormous set supporting its release.

“My hope is to go back and launch the show,” she said. “I’m hoping to make it a very, very big launch.”
When Mabhena is waiting to feel better, she sings a song. It’s called “My Hope.”

“I start singing it in my heart, and it gets me going,” she said. “I still have that hope that everything will be fine.”

And for now, it seems, it will.

Sunday 28 October 2012

Ill-discipline, advice hamper Dembo sons

I never met Leonard Dembo (see the story on this blog about Dembo) but in 2006 when the now defunct CBZ A Academy honoured the late musician, I finally met his wife, Eunice Munati.

She is a tall imposing mother who takes no nonsense from any one. This, I have no doubt, is how she managed to keep her children from the prying eyes of the media after the death of her husband.

At the time, she still drove Dembo’s Cressida – it had seen its days though - and stayed in the family’s Belvedere home.

We met at the massive Celebration Centre in Borrowdale where Dembo and Oliver Mtukudzi were honoured for their outstanding contribution to the Zimbabwean music industry.

Earlier in the week when I got the news, I contacted Dembo’s wife, Eunice, for a family comment.

Although in recent media reports she said she last spoke to the Daily news in 1996, it appears Eunice has forgotten that she spoke to me when I broke the news to her that her late husband would be honoured.

It was on 7 December 2006 when I called her for a story that ran in The Herald the next day.

Prior to calling her, I had been warned that she was not media friendly and that she would not talk to me.
But still I went ahead and called her and she spoke to me. 

Our discussion went on well while we spoke about the honour and she told me that she would attend together with her kids.

But when I wandered into her boys’ lives, she stiffened up and I could feel anger and reluctance. It became worse when I spoke about Innocent Mjintu and his efforts to revive, Leonard Dembo’s band, Barura Express.

Eunice had no kind words for Mjintu and I wrote the story quoting her exact words. The next day, she called me threatening to sue.

Just after her call, a man purporting to be her lawyer called me talking about the same issue.

Later, a story about how one of her sons, Morgan, had trouble with police in Botswana after a car break-in fuelled her anger and she went full steam.  The boy was later deported.

That was in 2007.

At the time, nothing much was known about Tendai and Morgan who were 10 and 9 years respectively when their father died in 1996 because Eunice made sure that she kept them away from the public glare and from pursuing their father’s music career.

Now, the boys are coming out too late and there is no sign that they can do much. 

Morgan too admits this in an interview with Silence Charumbira of The Standard.

Mjintu also has doubts that the Dembo siblings will pull off another Chimbetu stunts.

Mjintu believes the boys have no sound advice and parental guidance while growing up. He also says they never had the opportunity to see their father in action.

Dembo problem child reforms

Morgan and Tendai are on a mission to revive their father’s legacy and recently released their debut album titled Kutsika Matsimba.

Morgan hogged the limelight for mischief on a number of occasions and many critics saw him as a stumbling block to the revival of Barura Express, but the young artist last week revealed he had reformed so that the band could prosper.

 “Ours is a more painful journey because unlike Sulumani Chimbetu or Peter Moyo, we never watched our father performing and for us to entertain any hopes of getting anywhere close to what he achieved, we have to up our game,” said Morgan.

 “That is why I decided to do away with the mischief. There is a lot more serious work that needs to be done and I cannot do that when I am drunk.”

His younger brother Tendai said he was happy that his brother had realised where he was getting it wrong.

“We are now fully committed to the cause since Morgan reformed,” said Tendai.

 “We have been touring various places to market our debut album Kutsika Matsimba which is doing fairly well despite the poor marketing by our stable and the problem of piracy.

“Another driving force is that we have a committed manager, Willard Shava Chirenje, who has been working flat out to make sure that we are on the right track.”

 Chirenje has vast experience in music promotion after working with one of the most prolific local music promoters, Patson Chimbodza aka Chipaz.

His engagement has seen the young artists managing to record their long-awaited first album, which they had failed to do on their own.

 “We sat down and had a serious talk with the boys after which, we came up with a plan that we are using now,” Chirenje told StandardLife&Style recently. 

“The fact that Morgan no longer drinks, I think is enough proof of how serious we are.”

 Since making a decision to start careers as professional musicians a few years ago, the brothers have seen both the highs and lows of the sector.

Dembo sons ill-advised

Lovemore Meya
Arts Correspondent
Zimbabwean music is seeing many sons and daughters of musical legends taking up music, though they are not as talented as their parents. Having sampled good music from some of the country’s fallen musical giants that include Marshall Munhumumwe, Big Tembo, Tongai Moyo, James Chibadura, and System Tazvida, just to single out a few, music fans expect to get equally good music from their offspring.

That has not been the case, because the children of these musical legends have failed to measure up to their late parents’ musical prowess.

A number of bands left by fallen musicians have failed to keep the torch burning, living their legion of fans starved of uplifting music.

The few that scratched the surface are struggling to release their own albums, while some are merely riding on public sympathy.

One striking example is that of the Dembo brothers, Morgan and Tendai, who have failed to rise to the occasion despite the lofty heights achieved by their late father, Leonard “Musorowenyoka” Dembo achieved.

The late frontman of Barura Express must be turning in his grave as his sons have failed to carry his legacy.

Innocent Mjintu, one of the surviving members of Barura Express, said the pair was ill-advised, something that has contributed to their demise. 

Mjintu, who worked with Dembo for over a decade, said the duo could have done better had they received proper guidance.

“I started working with Dembo in 1988 till he breathed his last in 1996.

“During that time his two boys, now heirs to the throne of Barura Express were still very young. We had a good working relationship.

“While growing up, they were not willing to learn what they needed to do to carry their father’s brand and ultimately grow their own. 

“I told them that we could still grow the brand but we needed to work together. 

“However, after meeting some other musicians, they got the wrong advice on how to do things. 

“They approached me and said they needed to do their own thing and that is how we parted ways,” said Mjintu.

He adds: “Even though they have recorded their first album, I think it is still early to judge whether they will manage to maintain the Barura beat.”

Mjintu, however, said he was willing to teach the pair some tenets of good music.

“Whenever I meet their mother, she often asks me whether the two are coming to me for advice.
 Instead of telling her the truth, they tell her a different story,” he said.

No comment could be obtained from the Dembo brothers. – The Herald

Monday 22 October 2012

I can do better if dad supports me: Selmor Mtukudzi

Disgruntled Selmor Mtukudzi
Last week, I posted an article about Selmor Mtukudzi where I point out that it appears her own musical career is being overshadowed by her dad's success. On Sunday 21 October 2012, she wrote back and below is our discussion on Facebook. You can also read the other story on this blog

Conversation started Sunday 21 October 2012
Hello Mr Guchu..
I enjoyed very much reading the piece you wrote on me. Thank you so much for putting it out there. Most of it was painfuly true.

I do not believe though that in order for me to be recognised my father should be out of the picture, though it seems to have worked for my fellow 'children of legends'. I think if i had my father's support i would be somewhere else today coz i know, like you said, i am talented and this is what i am meant to be doing, music. I wish i could tell you more but if you start digging you will be shocked by what you find out.
Dear Selmor
Thank you for reading. It's not easy for me putting together the articles. I know what you mean. Remember we spoke at lengthy that day in hatfield. I know the struggles you put up with to be where you are. I know why the late samson had made some strides even if he started long after you. I admire your strength and tenacity. But like I said, suluman or tryson would not have made it had their fathers been alive. Like you said, you can realise your full dreams if you have your father's support but with daisy around, I doubt he will take in and support you like his daughter. I did not include this detail because I do not want to cause a rift between you and your step-mother. But yes, one day my observations will be recalled. Am sorry if I caused you agony.
  • Monday
See, thats the thing though. I wish someone would write the whole truth. Im tired of people asking me why i dont have certain things or why i dont have a better car, i am tired of coming up with excuses for my father. Its also not fair on my mother who has supported me with the little she has from day one. People do not know that my mother was actualy married and wedded with my father coz Daisy wants people to think she is my father's first wife.

You didnt cause me agony you actualy gave me hope that maybe my father will change the way he is treating me. 

I do understand though if you dont want any part in this, i mean noone wants to write anything bad about their legend except maybe Garikai (Mazara). But i dont like the way he writes, he is not respectful and he seems to be out to destroy, thats not what i want. I just want my dad to see that people know that he treats me bad bcoz of his 2nd wife.
Selmor its about me not willing to write about it. Its not about your father being a legend. Its about him doing the right thing for all his children regardless of his second wife. In fact I remember a story where your mother spoke about the wedding. I could not get the story on the net though. But my aim is to look into the musicians I met and interviewed and understand why they have not succeeded. Like I said on the blog, its a work in progress. I will have more whenever something new comes up.
In my case there will never be something new coming up but rather the absence of anything coming up.
Thanks for indulging me in this conversation.