AS a rural boy, one of my childhood’s greatest moments were bus rides from our home in Musiiwa, near Shamva, to Harare and I remember that my excitement of the prospects of travelling was always capped by the music that played in the Kumukira AVM buses.
By TAPIWA ZIVIRA
Out of those large speakers that were fastened on the bus ceilings, I first listened to the great Leornard Dembo’s song Nzungu Ndamenya, and what caught my ears was the line, “Njiva yangu yatorwa naniko, ndatsvaga mudendere mayo ndaishaya…”
While Dembo might have referred to a girl as the dove, I, then a tender nine-year-old, took that literally, because just a day earlier, my older brother had stolen one of my doves from my cage, as we used to snare birds and keep them in makeshift cages. So the song was significant to us.
When we got to Harare, we both asked our father to buy us a cassette with that song, and he dutifully got it from the Express Music shop. That was how I got my very first copy of Dembo’s Paw Paw album, which I played on our little Trident radio, and I still have the cassette, one of the few remaining souvenirs from my early life.
For us, Dembo became a lifestyle, and when we were not listening to his music, the growth point at Musiiwa had beerhalls that played Dembo so loud that we heard every line from home.
Back then, we did not know that Dembo was a legend and when he breathed his last on April 9, 1996, some of us were too young to understand why our parents experienced so much grief over a stranger.
Yes, 22 years later, musicians have come and gone, there have been new faces to the musical industry, and the golden era of sungura, which had names like Simon Chimbetu, John Chibadura, System Tazvida, Jonah Moyo and Ngwenya Brothers has fizzled out.
Even with the urban grooves and current Zimdancehall craze, Dembo’s influence on the music industry is still significant.
Apart from his very fine voice, catchy lyrics, and composition talent, today’s sungura still borrows many lead guitar lines from Dembo.
Books have been written about the origin of museve or sungura music and while it is clear that among the pioneers of this genre in the 1980s was Ephraim Joe, who fronted the Sungura Boys made up of the likes of Chibadura, Simon and Naison Chimbetu, Ronnie Chataika, Mitchell Jambo, Moses Marasha, Never Moyo, Bata Sinfirio and System Tazvida, it was with no doubt that Dembo perfected the genre in the 1990s.
No sooner were the pioneers following behind, as he had invaded the music space with great force.
His first hit song, Venenziya, which he did in 1984, and subsequent albums were made in the style of what I would like to call classic sungura, which still had a lot of elements of kanindo music, from which sungura was largely borrowed.
It is perhaps with the album Ruvarashe in 1989 that Dembo really cut himself off the classic sungura sound to carve his own brand of music.
The title track on the album had a heavier bassline, more pronounced lead guitar and the wailing rhythm guitar became more prominent. A new form of sungura had been born.
By 1991, Dembo, who released albums every year, hit his highest note with Chitekete, a song that shook not only Zimbabwe, but also the entire Africa and was a soundtrack at the 1994 Miss Universe pageant.
His later albums were now consistently made up of the signature Dembo sound such that by the time of his death, the man had carved his name permanently into the history of Zimbabwean music.
And when it came to sound quality and depth of message, Dembo never compromised, and that is why to this day, his songs can still play and sound like they were produced yesterday.
His music, which was produced decades before social media platforms like Youtube, still competes with current productions and this just proves the man lived in the future, and if there is such a thing as divination, the man had it.
On Youtube, instance, his Musha Rudziiko has 412 000 views, while Paw Paw has 159 000 views, and Nzungu Ndamenya is at a cool half a million views.
And during the sunset of his life, he left his last album, Babamunini, half done. The song Ndiri Mudiki, off that album, probably one he did when he was already unwell, he sounds like he had already given up on life: “Ndiri mudiki ndiri mudiki handina nharo nemi…”
If I was to write a letter to him wherever he is, I would start it off with: “No Dembo, you were not small, you were big. You left us music that we still listen to. If at all, as Zimbabwe, we owe you more, because up to this day no one has done anything to preserve your legacy and that of other greats like Chimbetu, Chibadura…”
Your spirit is surely roaming in the wilderness, searching for a resting place, and that resting place can only be some kind of a musical museum for Zimbabwean greats, some honour in the form of streets named after you and other musicians, and some annual festivals in your honour, or some music school dedicated to you, because your contribution went beyond providing us with something to dance to.
You gave us a lifestyle. You gave us sound that we listen to when we are happy or sad, crying or laughing.”
This week’s instalment is in commemoration of the 22nd anniversary of the death of Dembo.