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Biggie Tembo and Bhundu Boys from garden boy to world stage

By Shamiso Yikoniko

The mere mention of the late Biggie Tembo reminds many yesteryear Jit music enthusiasts of the famed Bhundu Boys. Tembo was born Biggie Mhosva Marasha on October 31 1957 and he was later baptised as Rodwell. Tembo was his totem.
Ratidzai Tembo, Biggie Tembo’s widow, holds a family photo with Kumbirai, Biggie Jnr and Malvin

Ratidzai Tembo, Biggie Tembo’s widow, holds a family photo with Kumbirai, Biggie Jnr and Malvin

His untimely death in 1995 at the age of 37 left a void that no one in the music industry has managed to fill. Rising from the placid town of Chinhoyi, Tembo conquered the world. The intensity and love of his work took him to more than 20 countries across the world, a rare achievement back then.

At the top of their game, the Bhundu Boys ruled the roost and their popularity reached dizzy heights. They shared the stage with the likes of Madonna and Dire Straits’ Mark Knopfler. Tembo won a Sony Award for a superb BBC Radio 1 documentary that he co-presented with Andy Kershaw.

Tembo is remembered for his famous songs such as “Simbimbino,” “Hatisitose”, “Tsvimbo Dzemoto”, “Kuroja Chete”, “Faka Pressure,” “Chekudya Chose,” among many other songs. After completing his primary education he worked as a domestic worker for one Mr Gosllett in the then white suburbs.

Whenever his boss was away, Tembo would ask another domestic worker to pass him the boss’s guitar on which he would play a few chords of Jimi Hendrix’s “Hey Joe”. Many musicians of that time believed that “Hey Joe” was a must for every music beginner.
In 1990, lead singer Biggie Tembo (right) was asked to leave the band and, five years later, he hanged himself in a psychiatric hospital.

In 1990, lead singer Biggie Tembo (right) was asked to leave the band and, five years later, he hanged himself in a psychiatric hospital.

As he became more accomplished as a guitarist, Tembo teamed up with people like Franco Kaunda, the late Cephas Mashakada and Jacob Teguru, and they contemplated forming a band. However, Mashakada and Teguru were taken away by a group that was later to be known as the Muddy Face.

Tembo and Kaunda decided to form their own group, the Missing Tooth, and they played at Murombedzi Growth Point in Zvimba and later moved to Hurungwe. He also tried many other avenues like studying for Ordinary Level through correspondence, but his love was music.

That is a brief background of Tembo, the man who took Zimbabwean music to the world during the early days of the country’s independence.

The Sunday Mail Leisure had a heart-rendering conversation with Tembo’s widow, Ratidzai Mariga Tembo, at her rented one-room in Harare’s Westgate suburb that gave a rare insight into the life of this legend that went too soon.

Ratidzai and Tembo met in Chinhoyi shortly after the country’s independence and they married six months later in 1981. Due to the fact that Ratidzai’s mother had re-married, she was staying in Chinhoyi with her uncle who was a neighbour to the Tembos.

“I got married to Tembo when I was 16 years old and by then I was only in Form One. Tembo asked for my hand in marriage through my uncle and he paid all the lobola for me in full,” explained Ratidzai.

“We then moved in together at his rented Highfield home and we had our first born child, Kumbirai, in 1982.”

During the time of their marriage, Tembo was working at Saratoga Night Club playing guitars with the likes of Sani Takura. Tembo was earning a meagre salary of $12 (the old Zimbabwean dollars) per week then and Ratidzai recalls how difficult life was as they struggled to make ends meet.

His wages later went up to $15 per week but still they lived from hand to mouth. They only started to experience a change in their lifestyle after Tembo and the Bhundu Boys started touring the United Kingdom.

Describing Tembo’s personality, Ratidzai narrated that her husband was down to earth, easy to relate to and exerted too much energy in everything that he did. “My husband was rather on the quiet side, down to earth and his personality was that of always doing the extremes in life,” reiterated Ratidzai.

She recalled how the Bhundu Boys came to existence.

“My late husband was there when the Bhundu Boys was formed and it is not true that he was recruited into the band. What happened is that Tembo and the other members of the band were all playing at Saratoga when they decided to form a group,” explained Ratidzai.

“I remember vividly that my husband wrote down a list of the proposed names for the band and came to me and asked me which of the names I thought was more appealing and I chose Bhundu Boys,” narrated Ratidzai.

She also revealed that amongst the Bhundu Boys band members, Tembo was the only one who could read and write English well such that he literally did the paperwork for most of the band members.

“My husband was the only who could speak, read and write English in the Bhundu Boys band that he even went to the extremes of signing cheques for the likes of David Mangaba and Kenny Chitsvatsva,” added Ratidzai.

Tembo and the Bhundu Boys went to the UK for the first time in 1984. The following year the group decided to move to the UK permanently. Tembo then asked his family to join him in the UK during the same year.

Ratidzai said life in the UK during her first years was rosy and as a family they could make ends meet. She, however, said despite rumours that her husband was having affairs with other women, she never came across anything that made her suspect that her husband was cheating on her.

“Biggie used to respect me a lot and I think that’s why I never discovered some of these things that people say,” said Ratidzai.

After working with the Bhundu Boys for a number of years, Tembo left the group in 1991 after what he termed irreconcilable differences. With Tembo out of the band, the Bhundu Boys’ fortunes plummeted rapidly.

“My husband left the band due to the fact that he was no longer comfortable with the way that their manager, Gordon Muir, was treating them. When he told me that he was leaving the band, he pointed out that he was tired of being exploited,” said Ratidzai.

After breaking away from the Bhundu Boys, Tembo and his family stayed in Bristol for six months and he played at some clubs alone before tragedy struck.

“My husband became ill a while after separating from the Bhundu Boys. He suffered terrible stress. He began to drink whisky straight from the bottle. He said it would help him sleep, but he couldn’t sleep. He was up for days. And all of a sudden, he started to behave strangely,” explained Ratidzai.

“I remember one day whilst we were staying in England, we were watching television and he started saying he could smell something burning in the house and he paced up and down the house looking for smoke, even though nothing was alight.”

He was admitted to a Bristol hospital where Ratidzai said he would appear normal whilst there but the moment they went back home, his hallucinations would start.

Tembo was back then quoted as saying, ‘It was because spiritually I was losing the battle like everyone else. So much that I ended up in the psychiatric unit of a hospital in Bristol at one stage. I was under so much stress I could not cope.”

He was later deported from the UK, leaving his family there, and they followed home a week later. When the Tembos returned home permanently, their bank repossessed the Highfield home which they had bought through a mortgage, due to arrears.

Whilst back home, Tembo was in and out of hospital. His condition is reported to have got better when they started going to Zaoga, but after a considerable time, it resurfaced.

“He used to tell my mother that she must tell his mother to come out clear with him about his fatherhood. He would say, ‘udzai amai vandichenesere’,” explained Ratidzai.

“In our culture, it is very important for a man to know where his father’s ancestors are since a father is a central figure in one’s life. Tembo became obsessed to know his father and he carried the confusion over his paternity for a long time.”

As his condition worsened, Tembo is reported to have become violent even at church. The last blow saw him being admitted to Harare Hospital psychiatric unit before taking his own life on July 29 1995.

“They told me that he broke free from his jacket and hanged himself in his room, but up to this day, I am still trying to come to terms with the fact of how he managed to commit suicide, considering the height of the window bars from the ground in his hospital room on which he hanged himself by the neck,” narrated Ratidzai.

At the time of his death, he was almost three months away from his completion of a pastor’s course at Zimbabwe Assemblies of God. Since the death of her husband, life has not been rosy for Ratidzai and her children as she had to make a living through menial jobs.

“I started out by selling second-hand clothes (mabhero) and it wasn’t giving me much, then I went to work at a nightclub in Southerton as a bar-lady before I moved to another nightclub. I got tired of working in nightclubs and I began cooking sadza in the Southerton industrial area for many years.

After her husband’s death, Ratidzai went to stay with her mother in Mbare for a while before she moved her kids to learn in Zvimba because she could not afford rentals, schools fees and food for all of them in the city.

Kumbirai, now 31, is employed by the Air Force, Malvin (28) and his family are staying at Ratidzai’s plot in Sandringham while Biggie Jnr (25) has tried his luck following his father’s footsteps but with little success.

Currently, Ratidzai is operating a pre-school in Westgate, a joint venture with her half-sister Dorcas Gwekwerere Chikasha and her uncle Gevious Vambe and they hope to develop it into a primary school. The Sunday Mail

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