By Fred Zindi
The impact of Covid-19 forced some musicians to quit the music industry completely while others decided to persevere until the end.
As for Devera Ngwena’s Jonah Moyo it was time to pack his bags from Thohoyandou, South Africa, where he had been based for several years and re-located to Zimbabwe.
The news that Moyo had come back to Zimbabwe reached me around June last year, but I needed to verify it by speaking to the man himself.
He has been back in the country since March, 2020 and is not regretting that move.
On arrival, he headed straight to Masvingo where he is popular due to his yesteryear hits Masvingo ne Carpet and Chiredzi.
Professor Rungano Zvobgo, the vice-chancellor of Great Zimbabwe University (GZU) was happy with this move.
To Moyo, this move was also a blessing in disguise.
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The Solo naMutsai hit maker tells me that on return to Zimbabwe, he joined Great Zimbabwe University as an instrument instructor where he teaches practicals and projects for the university involving music.
Last year on arrival, he did a six-track album titled Zimba Remabwe for GZU’s radio station with some of his students. This year he composed a theme song for the 15th graduation ceremony, which was held at the Robert Mugabe School of Education and Culture in the presence of graduands attending physically for capping while the rest of the graduands joined the proceedings virtually through the university’s Facebook page and YouTube channel.
Those graduands who attended physically included D Phil, Masters (with the Vice-Chancellor’s Awards) and Bachelors graduands with first class passes.
I joined the ceremony virtually through the Great Zimbabwe University’s Facebook page, thanks to modern digital technology.
The army band and the GZU choir opened the ceremony with music. Songs like In the Jungle The Mighty Jungle The Lion Sleeps Tonight, Tose Tipemberere followed by the national anthem Simudzai Mureza Wedu we Zimbabwe kept the seated audience entertained at the beginning of the ceremony.
It is at this graduation ceremony that the spirit of Devera Ngwena came alive as Moyo and his band, donned in GZU T-shirts belted the graduation theme song straight after the chairman of council, Professor Mandivamba Rukuni’s opening address.
Moyo used this opportunity to perform in front of dignitaries who included the university’s chancellor Emmerson Mnangagwa, vice-president Constantino Chiwenga, Higher and Tertiary Education, Science and Technology Development minister Amon Murwira, council members and Zvobgo.
The theme song which Jonah Moyo put together in his Solo naMutsai style went something like this:
Iwe Great Zimbabwe,
Masvingoyotinhira ne University of Choice
Vana baba mhururuuko
Rovaingoma, hosho, marimba, nembira
Great Zimbabwe iyomaiona
Great Zimbabwe iyoyakapenga
Education 5.0 yauyanema benefits iwe
Moyo’s excellent composition skills are still strong as evidenced by the excitement this graduation theme song brought to the ceremony.
Moyo, who started his music career by playing at train stations in Kwekwe with one of his friends, later moved to Mashava’s Gaths Mine, where he worked as a mine clerk under Shabanie-Mashaba Mines.
There, he thought of forming a band. This, aided by the desire to entertain the mine dwellers, saw the birth of Devera Ngwena Jazz Band.
The group had their base at the mine near, a few kilometres outside Masvingo town. He went to record his first single, Devera Ngwena Zhimozhi, which went platinum in just a month after its release.
Their music was a fusion of rhumba from Congo, Benga from Kenya and Mbaq’anga from South Africa, blended with traditional mbira-influenced rhythms. This created a unique sound which was different from other genres at that time.
At independence, the band became one of the best and the hit Solo naMutsai made waves and propelled the group to national stardom. At their peak, the band had the likes of Oliver Mtukudzi and Leonard Dembo to curtain-raiser for them.
The idea of playing for the Mashaba mine community at month ends became a reality in 1979 when Moyo asked Patrick Kabanda who had been playing drums for a group known as Mundoz (owned by Samson Mundondo, a Masvingo businessman) in Masvingo to join him.
Kabanda was also given a job at Gaths Mine and serious rehearsals with two other guitarists began. For three evenings a week the band was engaged in song writing and practice sessions.
After a successful evening during one of their month-end performances which was attended by over 500 people from the mining compound and surrounding areas, Moyo had convinced his colleagues that forming a band was a worthwhile venture.
The mining authorities were also convinced that apart from the band providing recreation to the children of miners, the venture could be financially viable to the mine.
As a result a contract was signed between the band and the mine whereby it was agreed that the mine would provide musical equipment for the band in return for some of the band’s income until the equipment was fully paid for.
After this, there was no looking back. Moyo soon secured a recording deal with Teal Recording Company. In no time at all they made the top ten charts with hits like Barbra and Solo naMutsai.
As the band grew in status, interest in having a manager came up. This is when hotelier Iain MacIntosh, who was based at Chevron and Flamboyant Hotels in Masvingo began to manage the group. (Iain is now in the Bahamas on a drugs rehabilitation programme).
Between 1981 and 1989, Devera Ngwena recorded 13 albums and 57 singles, most of them selling over 100 000 copies each, thus becoming one of the best sellers the country had ever seen.
A touring British reggae group, UB40, spent several hours listening to their music and later asked the band to share the stage with them at Rufaro Stadium in Harare.
The popularity of Devera Ngwena soared as most people could not believe that unique sound was coming from a mining compound band in Zimbabwe.
The advantage the group had was the fact that most mining compounds in Zimbabwe used migrant labour usually from Malawi and Mozambique.
Moyo quickly learned that to appeal to these people he had to sometimes use their rhythms and languages.
Songs such as Lekani Kuula sung in Chewa, a Malawian language, were written with this idea in mind.
Devera Ngwena left Harare for London on May 18, 1993, thanks to MacIntosh, who sponsored the tour.
Hardly stopping to breathe in the new air, the outfit were soon belting out their brand of Zimbabwean music at the Town and Country Club.
The walls reverberated to the fast beat of Devera Ngwena and the heavier sounds of South African Johnny Clegg and Savuka with whom they were sharing the stage.
All in all, Moyo and his Devera Ngwena Jazz Band performed some 45 shows in England, Scotland and Holland and found a lot of new converts on the way.
When asked what made Devera Ngwena tick, this is what the quiet-spoken Moyo had to say: “The audiences said the music was danceable, easy to follow and they quickly adapted to it.”
The name of the band caused a few difficulties out in Europe. Somehow, reports filtered back home that they were trying to change their name to the literal meaning “Follow the Crocodile”.
“Someone was being naughty,” said Moyo.
“People were asking us what the name meant and we would explain that ‘devera’ means ‘follow’ and ‘ngwena’ is a crocodile”.
The joke was good while it lasted, though. The name is actually drawn from a fish, according to Moyo, known for following crocodiles.
Moyo also says it was a nickname some friends gave him after seeing the type of musicians he played with: his original co-members were drawn from groups like African Herb and Wells Fargo.
On return to Zimbabwe the group became very popular in the Limpopo area of South Africa. They performed several concerts there. This is one of the reasons why Moyo and his band re-established themselves in Thohoyandou before Covid 19 struck.
Moyo is back in the country and it is a matter of time before he is back on our music charts.
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