The Sunday News
Bruce Ndlovu, Sunday Life Reporter
IT all started, for Jeys Marabini, from his father’s little radio.
Years before he saw the bright lights of the city, back when sounds most common to him were the mooing of cattle and crow of the cock warning him about an impeding dawn, Jeys Marabini used to wait for his father to turn on the radio.
That radio was the source of many delights, with some of Zimbabwe’s greatest musicians in their prime back in the 80s.
However, it was Black Mambazo’s Joseph Shabalala that had Marabini rushing to the stereo whenever his voice came floating from the speakers. As little as it was and to Marabini’s joy, the radio could hold voices even as great as Shabalala’s with ease.
It was from this radio that he decided that music, and imbube, would be his chosen path to greatness even as his parents wished a more formal trade for their son who spent the days at Dekezi Primary and Dekezi Secondary school in Filabusi (Insiza), Matabeleland South, plotting his future as a superstar.
That was where it all began.
“Most people don’t realise that imbube is the backbone of the music that I do now. When I was growing up, the songs we sang at church and at school in the rural areas were all Black Mambazo songs. I loved the way that he laid his words, the lyrics were uplifting and if we were down those songs gave us hope. If we were happy tracks like Nomathemba were also there to please us,” he told Sunday Life in an interview.
Bulawayo has had an embarrassment of riches in the imbube genre. It is a genre that has exported some of the city’s greatest sons touring the globe, singing their lungs out on some of the globe’s most glamorous stages. From pioneers Black Umfolosi to Indosakusa: The Morning Star, imbube groups have brought the glamour of touring life to the City of Kings. For Marabini, this would not be possible without the work done by Black Mambazo founder Shabalala.
“I went all over the world because of Imbube. I went to India, UK, Canada and even the US while I was an imbube singer. Shabalala gave us careers. 40 to 50 years from now my music is an archive where we preserve our language and where we preserve our culture. So, if you have someone like that inspiring generations of musicians, it shows you the value that they brought to the world,” said Marabini.
For Austria-based Insingizi member Vusa Mkhaya, the influence that Shabalala had on the music scene in Bulawayo is hard to shake off.
“His style of writing has stayed with Bulawayo. If you look at Mpumelelo Shining Stars (Indosakusa) they are one of the few groups that have managed to emulate Joseph Shabalala’s writing style. When I listen to them, I hear Black Mambazo and I say that in a positive way.
“As an example of his influence, I can point to the fact imbube is done by six people. The reason for that is that if you listen to any imbube song, you’ll realise that it has five voices. Even if there are 12 people in the group, the others are just there to enhance the sound. There is the soprano, alto, tenor, baritone and the bass. Then there is the lead. If it’s a 10-person group you will find maybe four are doing bass,” Mkhaya said.
According to Mkhaya, the themes that Black Mambazo introduced on songs like Nomalanga and the Paul Simon-assisted Homeless have also stuck, with Bulawayo groups also reading from Shabalala’s hymn book although their songs are written in different social and political conditions.
Shabalala, whose father was a miner, grew up at a time when apartheid South Africa had its boot on the throats of black South Africans. Living in conditions in the hostels, abused at work and lonely from the months spent away from home, the mine labourers found their voices in imbube in the same way that African Americans had turned to Negro Spirituals during the harsh days of slavery. It was this harsh life and these harsh conditions Shabalala sang about. That life is a far cry away from the life led by members of Insingizi, formed at Ihlathi High School in an a Zimbabwe who independence was still in its infancy in 1987.
“The themes that they touched in their music have also stuck with us in Bulawayo. One person once said to me that why do you guys love to sing about girls, cattle and your homes? This is because of history. This music came from the mines where people would leave their families and their homes to work. They would remember their homes, their wives, their children and their cattle.
“So, they sang about those things because they missed them. So, if you look at Black Mambazo songs like Nomathemba and Buya ntombiyam’ its written from the perspective of someone out there in the mines. We were not in the mines but in Bulawayo but we were singing about the same themes. We were writing, as young as we were, like people who were away from home,” said Mkhaya.
For arts administrator cum musician Nkululeko Nkala, the greatest gift that Shabalala gave to Bulawayo groups was the ability to dream. When Nkala became a member of Umdumo WeSizwe, he knew that it was possible to make a life from imbube because he had already seen Shabalala do it.
“The genre itself has got deep cultural value and because it has a lot of originality it is highly exportable and it made sense for a lot of musicians to try it out. Imbube on its own is rich but we owe a lot of that to the work that Shabalala had done with Black Mambazo.
“I remember when we met him as Umdumo WeSizwe in the UK. He spoke to us back stage and us that this (a career in imbube) could happen. We already knew it could happen because Black Mambazo had done great things and here we were as well on tour far away from home,” Nkala said.
Most of Shabalala’s long distance proteges, young musicians in Zimbabwe who he inspired and mentored before he even met them, have gone on to flourish away from imbube. Marabini is one of the country’s most recognised jazz musicians, while Nkala is one of the city’s foremost administrators. Mkhaya has been flying the country’s flag in Austria, where he is usually a vital cog in some of the biggest classical musical productions. How did one genre manage to produce so many gems that have managed to go on and sparkle in other fields?
“One thing we learnt from imbube was discipline,” said Mkhaya. Imbube is like a team sport. You don’t think for yourself but for others. You know you can’t raise your voice. Even when dancing, you can’t outshine the others. Most of us took that same mindset to our solo careers. I don’t see myself as a band leader but part of a band.
“I had a chance to be around Black Mambazo and observed that they follow the same discipline. Even last year when I saw them, I noticed that no one wants to be in front of the others. Even though some have their own individual achievements, like Shabalala Rhythms, when they become a part of Black Mambazo they forget about all that,” he said.
For Marabini, that discipline is responsible for the career he has enjoyed.
“It prepared me for a lot of things that I would go on to face in my career. I gained strength from imbube. I also got surviving power because in imbube you start from humble beginnings. You start walking on foot, looking for gigs. This when you move from schools to weddings and parties looking for opportunities. This is before you even buy a car so that people cannot say you’re living well. You learn patience in imbube. You have to take it step by step and you can’t skip any stages. I, for one, survived. I went through all those stages because there are no shortcuts in imbube,” he said.