The Sunday News
Raymond Jaravaza, Sunday Life Reporter
TODAY it’s unimaginable that Innocent Bitu, a humble man living a quiet life in a village tucked away in Dete, Matabeleland North province, played a bass guitar for a group that was formed with the sole purpose of entertaining miners and their families but became so good that the late legendary Oliver Mtukudzi and Leonard Dembo curtain raised for them in sold-out shows across the country.
Bitu does not think of himself as a yesteryear celebrity but says he was just a small part of a big machine that would be later known as Devera Ngwena Jazz Band — the trailblazing outfit formed at Gaths Mine in Mashava, Masvingo Province, to provide entertainment to the mining community.
He remembers it like yesterday, the day he was interviewed in 1977 to be part of the group to join Jonah Moyo, Patrick Kabanda and Johnasi Machinya. The mining authorities had been toying around with the idea of a group that would provide entertainment for miners and their families and the coming together of the quartet proved to be a match made in heaven as it signalled the birth of Devera Ngwena, according to Bitu.
Sunday Life tracked down the former bass guitarist in Magoli Village in Dete, where he doubles up as the village head on behalf of his older brother when he is away for work in Hwange.
“Our job was to provide free entertainment in beer halls and open spaces at Gaths Mine in the late 1970s for miners and their families and we were employed by the mine under what was known as the welfare department. Patrick had been playing drums for a group known as Mundoz that was owned by businessman Samson Mundondo and he was given a job at the mine to join us as we continued entertaining the mining community.
“Jonah Moyo had always envisaged forming a band so we started song writing and held regular practice sessions just performing for the miners. One day after a successful evening during our month-end performances, which was attended by a large crowd from the mining compound and surrounding areas, Jonah convinced us that forming a band was a worthwhile venture,” said Bitu.
Devera Ngwena Jazz Band was born. The mining authorities too were convinced that apart from the band providing entertainment for the mining community, the venture could be financially viable to the mine.
“After Devera Ngwena was formed a contract was signed between the band and the mine and it was agreed that the mine would provide musical equipment for the band in return for some of the band’s income until the equipment was fully paid for.
“My late brother Jabu (Bitu) had also joined us by that time and we recorded the first single that was called Devera Ngwena Zhimozhi, which did so well that we became famous in the whole country in no time,” he said.
Devera Ngwena Jazz Band’s music was a mixture of different genres such as rhumba from DRC, benga from Kenya and a fusion of mbaqanga from South Africa blended with traditional mbira-influenced rhythms to create a unique sound that was different from other genres at that time. At the dawn of Independence in 1980, the band was becoming very popular with the track Solo naMutsai propelling the outfit to national stardom.
“The likes of Oliver Mtukudzi and Leonard Dembo used to curtain-raise for us and I remember at one time we played in the same show with the Soul Brothers at White City Stadium and the place was packed. We also curtain raised for the likes of Don Carlos and when UB40 (British reggae group) came to Zimbabwe, we shared a stage with them at Rufaro Stadium. I think we were lucky at that time in that most mines had a huge population of workers from Malawi and Mozambique so we took advantage of that by recording music that appealed to them as some of the songs were in their language and incorporated rhythms that they were familiar with,”.
However, in 1986 the band suffered a major split with Jonah and Patrick remaining the only founding members while Bitu and the others formed a band known as Zhimozhi.
“Jonah took away the name Devera Ngwena Jazz Band and we formed our own group Zhimozhi. The split happened after we were involved in a car accident and the mine did not pay anything towards our hospital expenses and Jonah was angry about that and wanted us to leave. We disagreed about his decision to quit and some of us stayed with the mine and formed our own group and he together with Patrick went their separate way.
“I retired from the mine in 2011 but I had remained in contact with Jonah. We were still friends even after the split and I remember we used to meet and perform at national galas that were organised by the government at that time. The one thing that still hurts us today is that we (the original Devera Ngwena Jazz Band) are not recognised as music legends, the same way musicians such as the late Tuku, Cephas Mashakada, James Chimombe are respected and celebrated,” lamented Bitu.
These days he spends his time herding his livestock in the grazing lands of Magoli village in Dete, a far cry from the life of glamour that he once lived in the late 1970s when he and fellow members performed in the mining compounds of Gaths Mine and later formed a band that would take the country by storm.
Some villagers in Magoli have no idea he has been to England, Scotland and Netherlands and today stands as one of the remaining founding members of Devera Ngwena Jazz Band. His brother Jabu passed away in 2010. — [email protected]