Fare thee well jazz legend Mbirimi

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By Conway Tutani

OBIRTUARY

TIME dims memory, some details fade, but it must have been shortly before or shortly after independence in 1980.

It was the Saturday afternoon slot for the jam session at the Federal Hotel in downtown Harare when anyone would be allowed on the stage to show their music talent — or lack of it, which would earn them boos from the boozers.

Onto the stage walked Friday Mbirimi and Hilton Mambo to great applause. Yes, great anticipation immediately filled the air because their reputation as singers preceded them.

Backed by the Harare Mambos, the excellent resident band, Mbirimi and Mambo gave a jazzy rendition of the pop-folk classic Everybody is Talking by Harry Nilson as they interchangeably sang the verses.

That was the first time I heard the song sung by a duet; not only that, but with such seamless improvisation and spontaneity.

Boy, oh, boy, Friday and Hilton raised the roof. They pulled it off because of the abundant talent and chemistry between them. (Well, we called them by their first names because of familiarity, and even though Friday was much older, he made it easy for us because of his open, approachable and jocular nature.)

Hilton died in 2010. Friday passed on last week Tuesday after having taken many youngsters like Hilton and others under his wings and tutelage throughout his life and grooming them to perform alongside him on stage as music peers, as is mentioned in the many obituaries about him I have been reading. That was Friday’s nature.

So, I am not surprised that many much younger musicians of today genuinely loved him as we of the older generations did.

He did not regard it as below his dignity to rework, perform and record songs composed by today’s youngsters. Their moving tributes tell of great sense of loss.

I do have quite a number of personal glimpses about Friday which showed his good-naturedness.

I last spoke to Friday some two or so years ago at the funeral of his friend and former colleague, Lemuel Tsikirayi.

After the burial, we went back to the house of the deceased for lunch, as is normally done.

Well, many people — including myself — gathered around Friday as if we had been drawn by a magnet.

Among them was a young lady singer (name withheld), whose father has Mbare roots like Friday and was as humorous until he was sadly struck by mental illness from which he has not recovered.

Mental illness can be an awkward topic to discuss. Many people would rather not talk about it. They would rather avoid the topic. A person suffering from mental illness ceases to be mentioned like they no more exist.

But Friday directly asked the young lady about how her father was. I momentarily thought there would be embarrassment all round. I almost heard a pin drop.

But no. Friday asked her with such sincerity, sensitivity and respectfulness that she and all of us around him in no time at all felt at ease.

He showed us in real-time, so to speak, that there is nothing taboo about mental illness; that we should not have any such hang-ups at all. That was an awesome lesson in destigmatisation.

Friday’s humour was not directionless and shallow; it was focused and intelligent.

Apart from his musicianship, this is one of the great qualities I will always remember Friday for. Yes, he was a superb musician and a great human being.

He was also multi-skilled. Academically, he attained a BA Honours degree in English at the then University of Rhodesia (now University of Zimbabwe).

He had a long and illustrious teaching career. He served as senior registrar at the University of Zimbabwe. Yes, he had life outside music. He balanced and juggled things.

He was lucky that his hobbies happened to be his professions. There is nothing as satisfying and fulfilling as that.

Well, it should not go unmentioned that Friday passed his great sense of humour to his younger brothers Bright (now late) and Clancy, who is also an accomplished musician being a superb bass guitarist.

These Mbirimi siblings were a great laugh-a-minute company to be around. Indeed, background and upbringing are important in life. He was named Friday because he was born on that day.

No one joked more about his first name than Friday. Such self-mockery is done by sharp-witted people with mature intelligence.

Of course, every individual has his needs, personal space and temper like you and I, but Friday did not wear his heart on his sleeve. He did not make a spectacle of himself.

Friday was different from some musicians — too many of them — who behave as if the world depends on them and they don’t belong to this world, who have ego issues. Indeed, performers of any kind have fans.

When you have hundreds, thousands, even millions of fans, it can get to the head. Some handle it with common sense, others get carried away with it. Some already have egos and go into performing arts like music to feed that ego.

Others develop egos when they see that people now treat them differently, as though they are uniquely different from or better than anyone. Well, they are not. It’s just that they happen to have different skills than others.

The fact is that those musicians with a passion for what they do will do it regardless of praise or financial rewards. They are not about ego for what comes at them. They are about creating from what comes out of them. This is who Friday was.

Mukoma Friday, you will be greatly missed and forever appreciated. Goodbye and good rest.

  • Tutani can be contacted on nkumbuzo@gmail.com