All that jazz: Grandmaster of Afro-jazz

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“I am always on the music scene. I am music. I breathe and live music. I always have a musical instrument in my hand; there is always music playing in my head, songs to be sung and music to be composed . . .” Robert Manthenga
Songwriter, composer and multi-instrumentalist Robert Manthenga of the legendary Mandebvu Band is a man with a great passion for his musical mission.

Born in Kwekwe 60 years ago, he has been based in Victoria Falls, playing with the band Mandebvu on a long-term contract since 1980.

Manthenga is a renowned vocalist, guitarist, keyboard player and saxophonist. He is also a composer of note; having composed a number of songs including Prudence Katomeni-Mbofana’s Baba Bhoyi, an authentic, organic Afro-jazz tune that has hit the right chord with many since its release on her debut album.

Regarding his composing prowess, Manthenga said, “There is more where that came from. I am honoured that Prudence chose to sing Baba Bhoyi because I wrote it with a woman’s perspective and her sweet voice in mind. I knew she was going to own it and make it hers, with her distinct style. Her voice and her understanding of the song just warms my heart.”

Manthenga started playing guitar at the age of seven. His passion for music was so great that he used to sneak out of home to attend concerts by Mahotella Queens and most of the well-known South African musicians of the era.

At Highfield Secondary School, he befriended former Dynamos Football Club goalkeeper Laban Kandi and together they formed a band called Dead Civilization, which was later to be renamed Destiny. The band boasted the talents of the late Stanley Zimi, Brooks Mupawaenda, Christopher Mbirimi and Tanga-we-kwa Sando.

Destiny recorded a jazz instrumental tune called Zvichanaka Chete in 1980 with Alois Kumpeu on saxophone.

“I believe that song was ahead of its time. Albert Nyathi, with the late Fanyana Dube on sax, did a rendition of the same song. Lately a friend of mine also wants to cover the same song differently and I guess all will be revealed in due course,” said Robert Manthenga.

The musician has also shared the stage with top drawer acts including Abigail Kubeka, Tumpeter Eddie Calvert, John Denver, Ray Phiri Steve Dyer and Jennifer Jones.

Manthenga recently opened a new chapter in his career; forming a new band called Lalela. The new band boasts the talents of young jazzy minds including Shylett Kunaka (percussion and vocals) and Nozi (vocals), Tapiwa Kawadza (keyboards and guitars), Israel Bhebhe (bass and guitars), Ezekiel Manthenga (bass), Brooks Mupawaenda (drums and vocals) and Robert Manthenga.

“Lalela is a Solo Project. The band Mandebvu will always be there. It’s an established jazz institution that will always cater for those loyal fans that have always supported us. But I have grown musically and need to output more of the sounds that I hear in my head without having to compromise, hence the creation of the new band,” he said.

Mandebvu is indeed an institution and a trailblazer of Afro-jazz in Zimbabwe. They have over the years made valuable contributions to the genre with timeless classics like Gudo guru, Indangariro, Rurimi rwamai and Ndidewo ndide; gaining much popularity in their time.