Reliving stories in song

David Mungoshi Shelling the Nuts
Nearly always, whenever a radio or TV presenter asks a Zimbabwean musician where his music comes from, the answer is predictable and expected.

The musician talks about how the people and the things around him inspire his compositions.

This, of course, is the standard response. Paradoxically though, there is a lot of truth in the claim.

The processes of musical composition are many and varied.

In today’s digital age, natural and authentic sounds are often obscured by a typically mechanical expression of music in the songs we hear on an almost daily basis, particularly from so-called up-and-coming musicians, who are overwhelmingly too anxious to drown themselves in what they think is world music.

I am yet to hear a Zimbabwean musician who says they are inspired by bird-song or the sound of water gushing over a precipice.

Stephen Alumenda, the iconic children’s writer used to say that stories came to him in his sleep.

Occasionally you hear that same claim from musicians.

In both cases something or other triggers the creation. Of course we cannot include those who do covers of other people’s songs in this category.

Nor can we seriously include the “riddim” brigade to whom melody is generally alien.

Not many people in our part of the world are familiar with the music of Dr John, whose poetic narrative “How come my dog don’t bark when you come around” is pithy and evocative while in some ways qualifying to be a dark comedy.

The late Safirio Madzikatire

Dr John chants to the rhythm of blues and an accomplished brass section that gives his piece a raw urban feel reminiscent of the ghetto. The story in Dr John’s song goes this way:

Now you say you never met my wife, you ain’t never seen her befo’

Say you ain’t been hangin’ roun’ my crib; well here’s somethin’ I wanna know . . .

I wanna know what in the worl’ is goin’ down

How come my dog don’t bark when you come around?

I got the baddest dog, he’ll bite anybody

He bit my little brother, took a chunk out of my ol’ sweet li’l mother

He bit the mailman he sees him every day

He takes one look at you, he wanna jump up and play

Now I ain’t got a clue as to what you puttin’ down, but

How come my dog don’t bark when you come around?

The tongue-in-cheek narration is more than endearingly familiar. It is easy to reach the conclusion that something is amiss in this homestead where a killer dog goes all tame whenever a specific man is around – someone who, not being a member of the household – basically ought to be torn to pieces. The Dr John narrative probably rings a few bells for many.

In days gone by, before too many people in the villages had shoes or sandals, you could tell who had come by or walked past from the shape, size and other distinctive features of the footprint before your eyes.

It was not uncommon for jealous or suspicious men to demand that their womenfolk keep the yard well-swept for just such a purpose – so that they could look at all the footprints to see who had called in their absence.

Many years ago we had a mixed-breed dog that we called Fox.

Fox was a so aggressive a dog that one literally had to hold him back to prevent him from savaging anyone entering our homestead for the first time.

Curiously, Fox would go particularly ballistic whenever a certain villager, well-known for his thieving ways, passed by to say hello.

And my father would enigmatically tell the man that if he found any of his tools and property missing, he knew who to ask.

The man invariably gave a sheepish laugh and shrugged his shoulders as he took his leave.

Fortunately for him, nothing ever went missing in our homestead. Fox made sure of that.

Louis Satchmo Armstrong, the gravelly-voiced jazz trumpeter, did the salacious “You Rascal You” song.

The raunchy humour in Armstrong’s song is unmistakable. The persona is less-gory about the details of his vengeance than in the Dr John piece.

In one verse of a live version of the song, despite being cuckolded by the rascal, all that the persona wishes for is a vantage position from which to view the dead rascal on the day that he is taken to his resting place.

There is an anticipatory and even celebratory feel to:

I’ll be glad when you dead, you rascal, you!

I’ll be glad when you dead, you rascal, you!

You know you done me wrong

You done stole my wife and gone

I’ll be glad when you dead, you rascal, you!

In the song “Reminiscing”, one-time heavyweight boxer turned blues singer and pianist Champion Jack Dupree makes a wry but incisive comment about all the things that people go through for nothing in the world.

Champion Jack reflects upon America’s wars.

The Vietnam War has proven to be very difficult to erase from the consciousness of the American people.

In that regard and in reference to American discrimination against black war veterans, Champion Jack says: “I’m a veteran too, but that don’t count for nothing on account of my colour.”

This poignant observation is something that many people can identify with in former European colonies in Africa.

The father of a schoolboy friend of mine was in Burma during the Second World War.

When he returned from the war in his boots and military fatigues, he named his son after the place where he had fought the war.

None of the black men who fought for the British in Burma, Malaya and elsewhere received anything for their devotion and sacrifice.

By contrast, their white counterparts, were rewarded handsomely with pensions and huge tracts of land. Thus, white war veterans were more equal than black war veterans after World War 2.

A perfunctory attempt was made by the UK some 20 or so years ago to trace surviving black Zimbabweans from World War 2 with a view to compensating them.

It was half-hearted and unconvincing. Hardly any of the survivors benefited anything. The families of such people should have been paid the benefits of their deceased loved ones.

This is something that can be followed up, even now. The new dispensation should look into the issue diligently.

Champion Jack’s song is invaluable in that it makes people think twice about rushing to participate in white man’s wars.

Songs are, therefore, a true record of a people’s life and history. For that reason, we must treasure Zimbabwe’s liberation war songs.

They teach valuable lessons to today’s youths. And of course, without doubt, songs in general capture a wide repertoire of human history and experience.

The Ames Brothers’ philosophical hit song called “It Only Hurts For a Little While” has a hauntingly beautiful melody whose message is decidedly reassuring.

The song says at some point in time the hurt and the suffering, whatever their cause, dissipate.

The Epworth Theatrical Strutters did an accomplished version of the Ames Brothers’ song which went by the title “Ndakambokutaurira” (I Warned of You This).

Spurned lovers found solace in this song: the piano, the melody and the harmony were something else.

With today’s publicity, the song can still become a treasured golden oldie.

A translation of some of the Shona lyrics of the song goes something like this:

I warned you of this

You will forsake me

You will leave me

At the end of the song, the pained lover makes a last-ditch attempt to save their love. The call to not act hastily is to no avail.

One of the best ever compositions to come out of this country is the mellifluous Sonny Sondo classic about the ease with which people in the eastern highlands of Zimbabwe walk up and down the slopes of mountains.

The song gave the Black Evening Follies one of their most memorable and enduring hits, and Sonny Sondo became hugely popular.

To this day, there is a street named after him in Harare’s Mbare high density suburb.

He was later to do more hit songs with the City Quads, the group that recorded the first album of Zimbabwe.

It would be remiss of me not to look at Safirio Madzikatire’s discography.

His hilarious duets with Susan Chenjerai, Temba Mandizha, Willie Dzara, Ernest Kachingwe and Jordan Chataika are priceless.

I experienced what Madzikatire was doing, musically, when he recorded his series of “drunk songs”.

His story of a drunken man proudly singing on his way home, in creative English, “I don’t eat someone’s house” is an all-time great.

Another iconic group, “The Zebrons”, with Nelson Jero, gave us the inimitable “Bhutsu Yangu Yapera Hiri”, in which they lamented the fruitless to and fro walks of a suitor whose shoes are worn-out trying to win a coy girl.

Someone should do a collection of the stories told in Zimbabwean songs across the genres.

Source :

The Herald

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