In 2004 I sat backstage with Simon “Chopper” Chimbetu at Heroes Splush gala at Rudhaka Stadium in Marondera.Heroes Splush was a gala that was held during the Heroes Day holiday. It was an event to celebrate the lives of the country’s heroes.
It was a cold August night and Chopper wore a thick black overcoat that he had just bought in the UK. He had toured the UK a few weeks before the gala and, as a natural fashion fanatic, added a few items to his wardrobe during the trip. He proudly told me so, as he also showed me a new black suit with thin blue stripes that was underneath the overcoat.
He loved making jokes in a subtle way. Some of his apparently serious statements were laced with comic connotations.
He had an artistic way of saying things. It needed someone who understood him to note the intended meaning of statements that an ordinary listener would plainly nod to.
So, as we sat at the backstage on that cold night he appeared surprised by some comments he had heard on radio on his way from Harare to the gala.
“People were being asked to predict the song that would be most popular at this gala and most of them were giving uninformed answers. How can they say “Mabhau” will be the best song of the night,” he said.
I also did not understand how people had come to that conclusion. I took “Mabhau” to mean yesteryear hit “Mabhauwa” by Khiama Boys and the supposed link puzzled me. By then, the track was already an old hit and there was no way people were going to consider it a song for the night when Khiama Boys themselves rarely played it at live shows.
Sensing my bewilderment and failure to note the underlying humour of his statement, Chopper came to my rescue.
“I think some of them were saying ‘Mabhau’ and others were saying ‘Madhawu’ so I am not sure which one they were referring to.”
I laughed my lungs out. It dawned on me that he had calculated that my initial response would have been to correct him saying the song being referred to should be Alick Macheso’s “Madhawu”, which was making waves that time, not “Mabhau”.
He was playing a fool to trick me to lead the conversation and also say my view on the issue, because he had another hidden statement that he intended to make.
But I never thought Chopper would pretend not to know “Madhawu” because that was the hit of the time. Macheso was the ‘man-of-the-moment’ and “Madhawu” was obviously going to be the most popular song of the night.
He obviously knew that “Madhawu” was a hit. So, why would he say radio listeners tipping it be the song of the night were making uninformed decisions?
I was taken aback as I concluded that he was making statements out of jealous. I concluded that Chopper was not happy that Macheso had overtaken him in popularity. I thought he was in denial.
It is not easy to tell a man in denial the truth, especially when he seems to be pouring his heart to you.
But that was not what Chopper was doing or saying at all.
As I gathered the courage to try and convince him to accept reality, he silenced me.
“Goddy, I know very well that Macheso is the most popular musician now. Every musician has his time. I know people will like ‘Madhawu’ tonight more than any other song.
“I was just trying to provoke you to think deeper about this day. This is not just like any other celebration. It is a gala to salute heroes that fought for this country. It is a night to sing songs of praise and salute them.
“Yes, people should dance and make merry. But they should not forget what they are dancing for. We are remembering our heroes. People who shed their blood for this country. Yes, people should dance to ‘Madhawu’, but they should not forget where that freedom to dance came from.
“I am not saying I should be more popular than Macheso tonight. I was just worried that none of the listeners that phoned the radio station was concerned about why we are gathered here. It does not mean that I wanted them to mention my songs. I wanted someone who can tell people what Heroes Day is about. Celebrate, but do not forget the purpose of this gala.”
I understood him. I only nodded and shook his hand saying, “You are right Cde Chopper.”
Yes, he was right. People celebrate Heroes Day as they party at various functions organised during the public holiday.
They take advantage of the public holiday, but rarely consider why the day has been set aside for commemorations.
From that night, I understood why Cde Chopper was steadfast in his patriotic songs although critics suggested that such compositions were making him lose fans.
At most events when he met fellow patriotic musicians like Cde Chinx and Cde Yondo, they would play revolutionary music and dance. They spoke the same language. They were proud of their identity. They were true sons and daughters of the soil.
I understood why Cde Chopper went on to compose the song like “Hoko” when everyone seemed to be against his philosophy.
His songs like “Ndarangarira Gamba”, “Pane Asipo” and “Southern Africa” are all about heroism against colonialism and oppression.
Chopper was not coerced by anyone to sing his pan-African compositions. It was written on his heart. He refused to be swayed by critics that told him his career was going to waste because of his political ideology.
In many interviews he said he was not a politician, but a musician who knew his identity. He was a hero of patriotic music. He believed in the war to liberate Africa. Music was his weapon and he fought until his death.
And the authorities saw it fit to give him hero status when he died.
Today marks exactly 13 years after his death. The legendary musician passed away on August 14, 2005 and was buried at Mashonaland West Provincial Heroes Acre.
He got provincial hero status because of his sterling work as an unwavering singer whose songs always remind people about the liberation struggle and how its gains should be jealously guarded.
His works before and after independence made him a hero.
As the nation marked Heroes Day yesterday, Chopper was among gallant sons of the soil that were being celebrated. His works shall be celebrated forever. His music will live forever.
May his soul rest in peace.