I met Newman Chipeni at his Batanai Gardens office in Harare early May 2006.
It was not an easy thing to get the interview largely because of Chipeni’s work schedule in the real estate sector.
Before meeting him, I had listened endlessly to his album Tumai Rudo especially the song Chati Huwi which kind of inspires me.
I had also spoken to various other people who worked with Chipeni in the Harare Mambos. Although I had some bit of knowledge about his musical background, still I wanted to know why he had a standoff with the late Prince Tendai in the late 80s.
But just like Prince Tendai, Chipeni declined to discuss the issue, opting instead to tell his story.
In short, he told me that he grew up on a farm in Mutare where he learnt playing the guitar from the elderly people. Then he moved to Mutare where he assisted the Muparutsas who later formed the RUNN Family.
To date, the RUNN Family is credited for pioneering urban grooves music. But after I heard Chipeni’s story, I realised who was behind the RUNN Family and who actually should be credited with the title of the Father of Urban Groves. I mean, it’s Newman Chipeni, of course.
Some people have referred to the Rusike Brothers as the pioneers of urban groves yet their style was an imitation of the late Michael Jackson. Unless, we agree that MJ was an urban groover and not a pop singer, then the Rusikes can be said to be pioneers of urban groove.
To show how deft his hand is in urban groves, Chipeni has produced Dino Mudondo, Decibel, Nonsi, Precious Chawatama, and don’t forget I have done work for Innocent Utsiwegota, the Harare Mambos, Michael Lannas, Alexio and Tendai Mupfurutsa among many others.
Apart from being the unsung urban grooves pioneer, Chipeni is only one of two known musicians who can record a whole album playing all the instruments and doing the vocals. The other one is the late Franco Hodobo.
Below is my 2006 interview
If you know or have heard about the Harare Mambos, then you should know or have heard some of their songs like Kudendere, and Mbuya Nehanda.
If you know them, you should certainly know Newman Chipeni.
In case you don’t know him, let it be brought to your knowledge that this Newman Chipeni who was born on a farm in Mutare where he learnt playing the guitar from elderly workers composed the song Kudendere.
In fact, the song is on the album Ngatigare Tose which Chipeni composed and was helped by the Harare Mambos to record during the group’s tenure at Twelve Thousand Horseman Pub at Monomotapa Hotel in the early 80s.
The Harare Mambos’ popularity was waning and for years there had not been any recording when Chipeni joined and tried to steer the group that was composed of some of Zimbabwe’s most talented musicians towards fresh ground.
Being young and adventurous, Chipeni got a contract to play in the Wine Barrel at the same hotel and time.
“The Wine Barrel was downstairs. They wanted someone to play folk, blues and country and western music on an acoustic guitar,” Chipeni recalled.
It was during this period when Chipeni met another adventurous young man who was known then as Tendai Mupfurutsa and they started working together on a session basis.
Mupfurutsa, who now calls himself Prince Tendai, would work with Chipeni when he formed his group, Midnite Magic and created a new beat called Barbed Wire music as embodied in songs such as From Zambezi to Limpopo and others.
“I would do some stuff for him while playing at the Wine Barrel three days a week. I played instruments and was his producer,” Chipeni said.
It is not clear what happened between the two because at one time, Midnite Magic posted a notice in papers disowning Chipeni who soon after released a traditional album titled Ndinofara that carries the song Chati Huwi.
Taken from folklore, Chati Huwi talks about a son who goes out in search of a wife. He is the only child after all his siblings have gone away. In the song he thanks his parents for giving birth to him but that it was his turn to help himself.
On the surface, that is what the song is about but in the real sense of it, it is about a man’s life of risk-taking and endurance and learning to survive in a tough world.
“We recorded that album live in the studio,” Chipeni explained, “Usually, when a group records, people take turns to put in vocals, guitars and drums. But with Ndinofara, we just went in and recorded as a group.”
And indeed, Ndinofara is just brilliant, different and fresh. But then after Ndinofara that came out in the late 80s, Chipeni who says mabhanjo haabhadhare went underground.
“I was working with Innocent Utsiwegota as general manager at Countryboy Records when I produced the likes of Decibel, Nonsikelelo and Culture T among others.
Chipeni said his fourth album; Tumai Rudo that carries a remixed version of Chati Huwi was done on an R&B tip. The title song sounds like a plea for divine intervention since the world is not a safe place any more. There are a lot of problems and love; Chipeni argues in the song, is the only thing that can open hearts.
This was a solo album where Chipeni played all the instruments and did the vocals.
“It is not difficult. The computer does everything for you when you programme it well. The keyboard does everything,” he said.
So now you know who Newman Chipeni is except, maybe that you do not know how he linked up with one of Zimbabwe’s oldest and greatest music groups, the Harare Mambos.
“My parents owned a farm in Mutare. I grew up there and would join workers who were mostly of Mozambican origin when they played music during the popular tea parties then.
“Later, we moved to town (Mutare) where I teamed up with some older musicians and formed the Crazy Union. A Roman Catholic clergyman helped us with instruments,” Chipeni recalled.
At that time, some youths who called themselves the RUNN Family were just starting out but had no instruments.
“So they asked us to let them play during our break and since they practised on box guitars at home, we also invited them to use our equipment,” Chipeni said adding that when the older members of the Crazy Union retired, he incorporated members of the RUNN Family.
In search of new horizons, Chipeni later relocated to Harare where he met and worked with Isaac Chirwa and Bryan Paul under the name Touchy, a funky and jazz outfit that played copyright stuff.
Later he worked with Lannas in Talking Drum, Henry peters and Bothwell Nyamhondera.