The Sunday News
Bruce Ndlovu, Sunday Life Reporter
DESPITE his acclaim with those that might be referred to music or arts gurus, very few people bring up the name Dumi Ngulube when they talk of the country’s greats. Yet in the eyes and ears of those who live and breathe art, Ngulube was the real deal.
“In the league of Dumi I will put Sam Mtukudzi, Don Gumbo, Don Gumbo Junior and Tendai Manatsa,” Amakhosi founder Cont Mhlanga once said.
“They’re different from the rest of their counterparts that play on radio. And unlike the rest of them they know how to play instruments unlike impostors who use synthesised music created by sound engineers and they start claiming to be musicians.”
With its owner no longer there to perform it, Ngulube’s music is now found in the dark corners of the internet. Despite this obscurity, it stands with some of the country’s most formidable Afro Jazz compositions.
The song Siyaphambili for example, finds Ngulube and his Amagents in full flow, with a breath taking instrumental arrangement only interrupted by chants of siyaya phambili and mayibabo during the song’s duration. The flute, drums, bass and acoustic guitars make for an intoxicating taking musical cocktail that anyone with functional ears would find hard to resist. Yet this week the song had a paltry 404 views on YouTube.
In the world where some of the country’s new princes and princesses of music seem to just snap their fingers and garner a million views on YouTube, such numbers make for sad reading.
However, sometimes numbers do not tell the full story. When Dumi Ngulube passed away at the age of 41 in September 2010, in many ways still in his prime as a musician, the collective despair in the arts community suggests that some knew that the country had lost a star, a gem whose brilliance was yet to be fully realised. Sunday Life looked at the life of Ngulube through the eyes of three arts titans who saw him in various stages of his life.
For Cont Mhlanga, a man who had nurtured Ngulube from his early days at Amakhosi, Ngulube was a man who had been destined for greatness. Like many rough diamonds from the rich dust of Mzilikazi and Makokoba, Ngulube had found himself at the gates of Amakhosi Cultural Centre with nothing to his name but a bagful of talent.
“Dumi came to Amakhosi when he was a 14-year-old boy. He looked talented but neglected and came from the dusty suburb of Mzilikazi. All he wanted was to be a jazz musician. He played marimba with the ability of a genius and he aspired to be like Hugh Masekela and I told him that to be like Masekela you should train and that is how our relationship developed. He was a very disciplined and committed boy. I did not know that his life and talent would be so short. I actually saw the next Hugh Masekela in him,” Mhlanga said.
It was this relationship with Mhlanga that had seen Ngulube finally relocate to Harare where he was to eventually settle.
“Dumi together with Clayton Ndlovu were seconded by myself to go and learn Ethnomusicology. After completion of the course, they came back to Bulawayo but there was a shortage of Ethnomusicology teachers at the college so they had to go back and teach. But I reminded him that his dream was to be like Hugh Masekela and that is when he formed Dumi and Amagetsi.”
Throughout his life, Ngulube was to earn high praise for his charitable nature.
At his funeral, his long time friend and colleague Clayton Ndlovu had remarked that Ngulube was “an honourable individual who despite his limited resources always made an effort to reach out and assist not only his extended family but other artistes as well.”
It was Ngulube’s kind and giving heart that perhaps gave Zimbabwe, in Victor Kunonga, one of its greatest music gifts.
“If we talk about Dumi Ngulube then there’s a fact that I have to state. I am what I am because of him. Basically there wouldn’t be a Victor Kunonga if it wasn’t for Dumi Ngulube. For me to be a part of the Saturday Pop Workshops at the Zimbabwe School of Music was because of him.
“I was invited to the Saturday Pop workshops through a friend of mine. I was very late to the workshops and at that time I had not yet really found a path as an artiste. So Dumi was the contact person in those first days. So that’s just how instrumental he was for me personally at the beginning of my career. If he had not been there, my career is something that might not have happened,” he said
Kunonga admits that when he met Ngulube he was still largely a clueless novice who needed his hand held by a more assured and experienced artiste. The Kunonga from all those years is a far cry from the one who went on to work closely with and earn the admiration of Masekela, a man that Ngulube had always wanted to emulate.
“Even when I had gone on with my career on my own, I always respected him because he was someone who gave everyone a chance. When he was settled in the capital, he would invite artistes from Bulawayo of a lesser name to come and perform in gigs that they wouldn’t otherwise get a chance in performing in.
“The one lesson that I got from being close to Dumi was that everyone has potential. When I first came to him, Dumi didn’t know that I was capable or if I was only interested in making up the numbers. Not everyone who enrolled in those classes came up and did great. That’s the one great life lesson I took. Nowadays, when I work with people, their current status doesn’t matter much but I look at how much more they might go on to achieve in life with my help. That’s because Dumi treated me that way when I was starting out.
Like Kunonga, poet Chirikure Chirikure met Ngulube at the Zimbabwe College of Music. After a few collaborations, the two struck up a deep and lasting friendship.
“I was in good books with a number of colleagues that knew him so we would run into each other from time to time. We had performances together with me contributing the song lyrics or sometimes we would be co-composers of the songs that we made.
“This continued until we decided to form a band called Uya Moya which was a jazz outfit. In that group we had a number of musicians that have gone on to make a name for themselves. We had the likes of Lenox Sibanda and Dudu Manhenga in that group,” he told Sunday Life.
While some might remember Ngulube’s forceful voice, his deft fingers on the guitar or the precision of his hands on the drums, Chirikure remembers his laughter.
“We became really close friends. He was a very affable character, very humorous. In fact, even when I’m speaking to you right now I can see Dumi laughing.
“He was one of that rare breed of artiste that could play multiple instruments. He was very versatile as an artiste and he could play the drums, keyboard and guitar in addition to being a very good singer,” he said.
For Chirikure the painful end of Ngulube’s short life will always be a reminder that he never got to leave a house for his wife Lindiwe and children, Nothando and Mandla.
“One of the saddest things about his passing was that it happened when he didn’t even have a house yet. One of his greatest passions was that he wanted to build a house and it was sad when he passed on without completing it,” he said.