BY TINASHE GUMBO
MY twins Tadiwanashe and Tapiwanashe have continued to pin me down seeking some “convincing explanation” as to why the late sungura maestro Leonard “Musorowenyoka” Dembo was not accorded a liberation hero status “if he was, indeed, better” than Zimdancehall singer Soul Jah Love, born Soul Muzavazi Musaka, who was accorded the status.
I always tell them that the concept of heroism in our Zimbabwean context has remained subjective and, at most, controversial.
Yesterday marked 25 years after the demise of Dembo, the sungura hero who has influenced many lives even in his death.
His albums such as Chitekete, Ruvarashe, Nhamo Moto, Kuziva Mbuya Huudzwa and Sharai rocked the airwaves.
The history of Dembo has, however, remained sketchy and, in most cases, distorted.
I have always been concerned that our future generations will not be able to fully understand the history of this music legend.
I, however, salute music critic Fred Zindi and a few others who have committed their time to dig and preserve the history of our late musicians.
One wonders why the Dembo early days have continued to be exposed to various interpretations. I try in this piece to sample a few issues in Dembo’s history which have not seen writers or even fans converging.
I relied heavily on my personal experience with Dembo music (an experience spanning from 1987 to 2021), numerous newspaper articles by Zindi mainly in The Standard (NewsDay Weekender’s sister paper), Dembo’s son Tendai’s letter in The Standard among
Going through much of the available literature on the internet, I was astonished to observe that even Dembo’s birthday is an area of discussion. While February 6, 1959 has always been regarded as his birth day, another date is cited in the literature. One of Dembo’s sons, Tendai, is cited as having written in April 2020, giving December 29, 1959 as the birth day for his late father. Interestingly, Tendai actually warns that anyone who may claim to know his father’s early history will be lying to the world.
According to Tendai, the first “authentic” documentation of the history of his father was when he released the song Manga Majaira Matsotsi in 1979. This assertion by Tendai is not supported by any known literature to the current writer.
However, there seems to exist some agreement that Dembo’s father died and left him while he was five years old and his sister eight, and his brother three. These young ones were left to fend for themselves probably subsequently influencing Dembo’s later messages in his music particularly in Nhamo Takura Nayo, Nhamo Moto and Kukura Kwedu, among other songs he composed.
Chivi-Chirumanzu: Masvingo-Midlands controversy
Many sources I have consulted have indicated that Dembo was born in Chivi, Masvingo province. Yet, alternative sources argue that he was born in Chirumanzu (Chaka area) in the Midlands province. This leaves one confused as to the truth regarding Dembo’s birth place. I tried to figure out how Chivi could have been confused for Chirumanzu considering that these places fall in totally different provinces.
Writing in 2017, Zindi claims to have interviewed Dembo himself in 1993 when he indicated that he was born in Chirumanzu, in the Midlands. Remember, it was rare, very rare indeed, for Dembo to concede for an interview. He was camera shy such that his shows were not officially covered by the media. Reports indicate that he would leave the stage to “deal” with anyone who would attempt to take his picture during the show.
This probably explains why not much is known about this musician. I know of a few videos of Dembo; Manager, Sharai and some live coverage of his show on the internet. Yet, it is argued that all these were impromptu recordings of Dembo, thereby suggesting that it could have been against his will. Ethically, it is wrong to take a picture of someone without his or her consent. At least unethical as it may be, we now have something about this legend in form of videos.
What is in the name(s)?
There is general consensus among those who commit to write about the musician’s history that his first name was Leonard, while it was Kwangwari. Notable differences come with regards to the second and nicknames associated with him. For Tendai, his father’s name was Leonard Tazvivinga aka Leonard Musorowenyoka Mavara Dembo. Please, reader, note how Mavara and Dembo have been separated here. Yet, other sources call him Leonard Dembomavara. Still, others argue that he was born Kwangwari Gwaindepi. Citing, Dembo as the source, Zindi in 2017 indicated that the musician himself confirmed that he was born Leonard Tazvivinga Dembomavara.
Then comes the other one, Musorowenyoka. Some sources argue that this nickname was given to him as an appreciation of Dembo’s skills that could be matched with those of a snake. Indeed, here was a skilful musician whose lead guitar almost “talked”. His artistic hand manifested clearly in Kutinya Marimba.
Others hold that Musorowenyoka came about as a result of the shape of his bald head. If this is true then, what some writers claim can be true too, that at one point, Dembo had to beat up a fan who had called him by that name and it could have been unpalatable.
According to Zindi, at the age of seven when he started his primary education in Buhera, Dembo was already a good guitarist. There is general agreement that Dembo left Buhera for Bulawayo, where he continued with his education up to Grade Seven.
Controversy is back though, as some argue that Dembo never saw the door of a secondary classroom as he could not afford the school fees. This is in stark disagreement with yet another strong position that Dembo attended Chembira Secondary School in Harare and could only drop later due to fees challenges.
According to Zindi, Dembo himself shared that he left before completing Form Four, further strengthening the possibility that he attended secondary education though probably not reaching higher levels.
The search for employment saw Dembo going back to Bulawayo, but it later became clear that there was no employment for him. He is, however, said to have met Cosmas Nyathi in 1979, a good guitarist who advised him to consider entering the music industry.
In 1980, Dembo found his way back to Harare. This was the year the country attained its independence, although it is not known whether this was one of the key factors for his change of location.
The birth of Dembo’s bands
While in Harare, Dembo told Zindi in 1993 that he teamed up with four others and tried unsuccessfully to record any song. This, however, further built his confidence and skills in the music industry. Thus, in 1982, he joined a group known as the Outsiders. It is under this group that the hit Venenzia was produced.
The release of two more hits, Dambudzo and Amalume, changed the whole Dembo brand. Dambudzo is still a hit to this day (though at times for the wrong reasons where opponents of President Emerson Dambudzo Mnangagwa would want to use it to convey their message of disapproval of the regime’s policies).
What is not clear is the year he formed his own group, Barura Express. Some say it was in 1984, while others argue that the band was only formed in 1985. Those arguing for 1984, go further to assert that it is with the Barura Express that Dembo recorded Mai neVana Vavo in the same year.
Members of the Barura Express later included, Innocent Mujintu (only surviving member now according to available sources), Alexander Muudzwa, Chrispen Zimburu, Cosmas Nyathi, Kidson Madzorera, Shepard Akim.
Dembo’s music library
It is with the Barura Express that Dembo recorded the following albums Amai Nevana Vavo (1984), Nhamo Moto (1986), Kuziva Mbuya Huudzwa (1987), Sharai (1987), Kukura Kwedu (1988), Ruva Rashe (1989), Kukura Hakutani (1990, which was a 12-inch vinyl — we called it an LP for long play), Chitekete (1991), Tinokumbira Kurarama/Madhiri (1992), Mazano (1993), Kutinya Marimba (1993), Nzungu Ndamenya (1994), Pawpaw (1994), Shiri Yakangwara (1995) and Babamunini (1996).
Relationship with the media and camera holders
Fame comes with its own package of harassment and criticism by the media, fans and promoters as well as high and at times difficult to fulfil expectations from the fans. What seems to be well known about Dembo is his relationship, or lack of it, with the media. He is often described as a media or camera-shy musician.
Closely looking at the few videos that I talked about earlier, I noted this characteristic of Dembo. It is recorded that he never liked to be photographed. Those who tried to do so, they did it at their own peril according to consulted sources.
There are stories where he is alleged to have beaten up fans or journalists who would have tried to take a photograph of his shows. Interestingly, the “talking” guitar could be strategically turned into a weapon to discipline such “culprits”.
Indeed, sources show that Dembo was such a short-tempered musician. This has been confirmed by Raphael Makwiramiti, who was Dembo’s long-time friend who shared of an incident when Dembo is said to have beaten up his manager at Delta.
At some point, reports were that Dembo in 1992 discharged a firearm when a crowd had blocked his Toyota Cressida trying to stop him from leaving as they wanted him to continue playing. Of course, it is said that he faced the demands of the law in that case.
It was shared by Makwiramiti that Dembo would argue that a video would expose him to witches who could destroy him through a needle (kumubaya netsono patelevision). The man was so superstitious, according to Makwiramiti, that he even suspected some of his contemporary artistes such as the late Simon Chimbetu and John Chibadura (whom he called zvigure) of having supernatural powers capable of destroying his career.
Some showbiz rumours suggest that Dembo hated Chimbetu to the extent of composing a celebratory song Shamwari Yangu Warova (commonly known as Madhiri) when Chopper was jailed in the early 1990s.
Dembo was said to be a believer in ancestral and supernatural. His mother, Mbuya Dembo, shared that her son would always drive down to Chirumanzu to take her to Harare to facilitate the brewing of some traditional beer that would be used as offering to the ancestors each time a new album was to be launched.
I noted that during his last years on earth, Dembo sang much of Yahweh (Almighty). In Mutadzi Ngaaregererwe, Ndiri Mudiki Handina Nharo Nemwi and Yave, Kangamwiro, among others.
Dembo clearly expressed his fear and respect of the Almighty beyond his ancestors.
Indeed, when he was no longer well in terms of his health, Dembo was connected to the Madzibaba apostolic sect by fellow sungura singer Nicholas Zacharia.
Mbuya Dembo shared that despite his son’s association with the Madzibaba Church, on his death bed; Dembo actually requested a scud (opaque beer) from his mother when she had visited him at the Avenues Clinic some hours before his death.
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