The Sunday News
Bruce Ndlovu, Sunday Life Reporter
TOGETHER with his trusted keyboard and guitar, Tafirenyika “Tafi” Dube has become a permanent feature outside Pioneer House Building in Bulawayo.
To passersby, there is little to separate Tafi from the duo that make up the men at work sculpture that has hung over Pioneer House’s White Hall for over five decades.
A description of 8th Avenue and Fife Street would not be complete without mention of those two men at work, forever suspended in time, or Tafi, a man who not only seems to have borrowed Don Williams’ voice while he was alive, but has also taken outright ownership of it since the country star finally bowed out in 2017.
However, despite his status as perhaps Bulawayo’s most well-known street performer, Tafi has never had it easy on the streets of Bulawayo. According to the performer, while some hear Don Williams singing from beyond the grave when they listen to him on his own stage, that little piece of Bulawayo on 8th Avenue and Fife Street, others only hear a lowly crooner only worthy of being compensated with a cup of tea when they book him for performances.
“Some people will pay you using tea,” Tafi said during an interview on the Enkundleni podcast.
“You either get tea or US$50, and when you ask about further payment, they tell you that further payment is coming. So that woman (his manager Sally Dube) said that, you’re a breadwinner and there are people that want to use you so whenever they approach you, you should tell me.”
As he is visually impaired, Tafi said some unscrupulous content creators sometimes shoot footage of him and solicit for donor funds without his knowledge.
“Some people that take me for shows are good and some are bad. Someone will come and say they need a video of me and they sell it abroad and I don’t get a cent of it. They say this is someone that is blind we are helping in Bulawayo but when I ask about the money, they keep on saying it will come until I also forget about it. Others take a video without my knowledge and you will hear people going around saying you have money now since you appear on TV. I would not have any knowledge of the video,” he said.
While collaboration is the lifeblood of the arts, Tafi said he often found himself isolated as artistes in the city, except for IYASA and Impumelelo Shining Stars, seemed to shun working with the disabled. He singled out young music hotshot, Msiz’kay, as one of the few that were always ready to show him kindness, including supporting him financially whenever possible.
“Most Bulawayo groups don’t want to work with a visually impaired person. They’re very choosy except for maybe IYASA or Impumelelo Shining Stars. Impumelelo took me to a gig last year and I made as much as US$2000. Others don’t want to work with me because I am blind. Black Umfolosi used to try but others say we will call you but never do. Maybe it’s because my kit is not complete,” he said.
Tafi said he usually also found himself on the wrong side of abuse by some passersby, with some senselessly pressing keys on his keyboard and inflicting damage to an instrument that was a key part of his income.
“Where I currently play, people do a lot of wrong things. Some just pass by and press the keyboard for no reason when I’m playing and it damages my keyboard. This is something that really bothers me. You can’t really say who it is but some of the people are really grown people who take advantage of the fact that I’m blind and I can’t do anything. These are normal people who don’t even take drugs. As blind people we suffer and go through a lot because people just say what can this person do to me. But what can we do, this is how the Lord made us?” he said.
Life has been anything but an easy journey for Tafi, who only has a fading picture of Bulawayo in his mind, having lost his eyesight at the tender age of four when he first came to the City of Kings. After being struck down by a suspected case of measles, back in the 1970s when vaccination campaigns were not as prevalent as they are now, he never regained his sight.
“I was born in Murehwa but I came here to Bulawayo when I was four years old. At that time, when I came here, I could see. So, I lost my eyesight when I was four years old because of measles. I’m not sure if this is true or not that this was the cause of blindness but apparently the doctor said measles was the cause,” he said.
Tafi started playing musical instruments back in primary school in Gweru, after he had already lost his eyesight. He later dropped out before going to secondary school, having decided that music would be his chosen career path.
“My musical journey started when I was in school back in Gweru. A white man came and gave me a cordless guitar and that’s what I started using. I used to only play it at night when other people were sleeping because I was not supposed to make any noise while jamming. I would get punished if I made any noise. So, I would play and afterwards, everything I learnt would be stuck in my head.
“…I didn’t even reach secondary school because I got annoyed and decided that it was best that I concentrate on music. I decided that school was not for me and I didn’t know anything that they would teach going further. I decided to stick to music up until now. I can say that music is what messed me up in the head. By then Don Williams had already influenced me and his words and songs were already implanted in my mind,” he said.
While he is able to manipulate a guitar with surgical precision, Tafi said this skill was completely self-taught, as no one had ever shown him how to work with musical instruments even during his formative years.
“I used to get called to play for white people in Gweru, I would get hired to perform for them and I would just get maputi for my efforts. At the time I didn’t really care about money so I would play in Gweru and Shurugwi. I can’t say anyone taught me how to play instruments, but I think it’s a God given talent because this is what I’m living off. This is like my bank in life. Music is my bank. I started with the guitar then progressed to the keyboard. No one really taught me, I would just listen to the keys and sound then afterwards I would know what to do. I know things just from the sound for example if something is wrong, I can call the repairmen and tell them where exactly the problem is. Even at home, I fix things like electricity on my own,” he said.
Tafi also narrated how he found himself on that now famous spot in front of Pioneer House.
“How I got to Pioneer House is a long story. In brief, I used to play in front of Meikles Hotel for about four years. Then Simpson, who was at Pioneer House gave me an amplifier and said I should play there. He said the electricity was his, so I could connect and play for free. He said the income was mine and that’s how I came to Pioneer House. That was before Simpson left. So, I stayed behind at the salon and they give me electricity still. Since they say I entertain clients, they said I could continue playing for free,” he said.
While sometimes he might seem lonely on his spot in front of Pioneer House, playing for less than appreciative audiences, Tafi says he prefers that lifestyle instead of the potential collective failure and success offered by being in a band.
“After school I went and joined a band. But the band was not good for me and in the end, I decided to leave it. I also had a family and it did not make sense for me to continue playing while my family was starving at the same time. So, I decided that it was better if I just left the band. So now I’m alone and if it’s my loss it’s my own loss it does not matter,” he said.