The Bhundu Boys, Hupenyu Hwangu, live 1987
Jinxed: the curse of the Bhundu boys
The Zimbabwean group first flew into Britain 20 years ago, and became stars overnight, world music pioneers who supported Madonna. But their fall was equally dizzying – as tragedy wiped out the band. Founder and survivor Rise Kagonga tells a story of optimism and despair to Graeme Thomson
Rise Kagona is sitting in an Edinburgh cafe. It’s a warm August afternoon but he is dressed for winter, swaddled in a bomber jacket and a thick woollen shirt, the ever-present baseball hat glued to his head as he sips his tea and wonders. A quiet, thoughtful man, he wonders about a lot of things: the way humans impose boundaries on a world belonging solely to the Creator; how the value of life back home in Zimbabwe continues to deteriorate; above all, he wonders what on earth happened to the Bhundu Boys.
It was, the band’s guitarist, singer and founder member recalls with surprise, 20 years ago. In May 1986, Kagona and his young compatriots – singer and guitarist Biggie Tembo, bass player David Mankaba, drummer Kenny Chitsvatsva and keyboard player Shakespeare Kangwena – landed at Gatwick and stepped into the unknown. For a short spell they were welcomed with open arms, the infectious, virile joy of their music seducing all-comers and earning them a support slot for Madonna at Wembley and a record deal with Warner Brothers. The Bhundu Boys were by no means the first stars of what we now understand as world music – that accolade could go to anyone from Ravi Shankar to Bob Marley – but they were the first African band to make an appreciable impact upon the archetypal NME-reading, gig-going, Peel-listening Eighties music fan.
And when it fell apart, it did so in truly tragic fashion: Aids, suicide, prison, poverty. Kagona now lives hand-to-mouth in a farm cottage in Scotland and is only just beginning to pick up the threads of his life and career. His friends weren’t quite so lucky.
The Bhundu Boys did not arrive in Britain as unknown entities. They were met at the airport by ‘Champion’ Doug Veitch, a Scotsman whose unique brand of Caledonian Cajun swing had briefly made him an NME favourite in his own right. Veitch was a world music pioneer. He had founded the Discafrique label with Owen Elias and discovered the Bhundu Boys when in Harare, subsequently releasing three of their songs on the 1985 ‘Discafrique’ EP. The music entranced Andy Kershaw and John Peel, who championed the band and other Zimbabwean groups such as the Four Brothers on their Radio 1 shows.
Post-Live Aid and amid the growing clamour to end apartheid, the cultural and political climate in Britain was ripe for the Bhundu Boys. According to Veitch, they arrived for the six-date tour, starting that night in Glasgow, clutching only their toilet bags. ‘Not an instrument in sight,’ he laughs today. ‘We flew up to Scotland to buy them instruments while they took the slowest train possible to Glasgow and walked straight onstage.’ Although he had released their records, Veitch had never actually heard them perform live and was ‘praying’ they could play. ‘Ten seconds into the first number you knew,’ he says. ‘They played for three hours and were absolutely fucking sensational.’
They had learnt their trade in the less than salubrious nightspots of Harare, playing from 7pm until 4am without a break and often without acknowledgement or recognition. ‘In Zimbabwe, if you play for only one-and-a-half hours, people will stone you to death,’ says Kagona, matter-of-factly. Glasgow must have felt a little like home.
Newly independent Zimbabwe was intrinsic to their identity. Under the old Rhodesian regime, traditional African music wasn’t allowed on the airwaves and Kagona grew up playing rock and pop music: the Beatles, Stones, Hendrix. Around the same time as Robert Mugabe’s Zanu-PF were sweeping into power in 1980, Kagona met exuberant singer and guitarist Biggie Tembo, who became his chief foil as their band, the Wild Dragons, mutated into the Bhundu Boys. Although never a political group per se, the Bhundus were forged in the fire of independence: they took their name from young bush guerillas who aided the resistance fighters, wore army fatigues, and viewed Mugabe as a hero. Once they started writing their own songs and singing in their native Shona rather than English, they were almost immediately successful. Between 1981 and 1984 they had a string of hits, including four number ones.
After coming to prominence, the band would occasionally be summoned to meet their president. ‘He was a decent man,’ claims Kagona. ‘Everyone was proud of him after 1980, but as time went on things started to change. He started ignoring the promises he had made.’ It’s fair to say Kagona is no longer a fan, comparing Mugabe to Idi Amin. ‘How is he helping his own people now? High rate of poverty, high rate of unemployed, people suffering. Bulldozing their homes where some of them were living pretty.’
In Britain, the band had to adapt swiftly. Although they had arrived in the UK with a manager in tow, he swiftly vanished with much of their money. The volatile Veitch, drowning in a sea of alcohol, soon disappeared too. It was left to his school acquaintance Gordon Muir, a graphic designer with no experience of the music industry, to take charge. Muir was based in the small Scottish Borders town of Hawick and soon the band were also living there, five of them sharing two small rooms in his basement, quietly absorbing the culture shock. ‘When we lived in Hawick, we were the only five black people in the whole town,’ recalls Kagona. ‘Children would cry! Old ladies would shout.’
It was anything but glamorous. They toured relentlessly through 1986 and 1987, promoting the Shabini and Tsvimbodzemoto albums on Discafrique, both major hits on the indie chart. What made the Bhundu Boys unique in UK terms was not so much their ‘jit’ music, which was a superior but fairly generic representation of the Zimbabwe Shed Studio sound, with zinging guitars, bubbling bass and throaty, percussive call-and-response vocals, but the fact that here was an overseas band who were willing to put the hours in.
‘They came over to play the British club scene: B&Bs, sleeping in vans, travelling all over the country in uncomfortable conditions,’ says broadcaster and OMM contributor Charlie Gillett, another early champion of the band. ‘Very, very few groups from outside the UK are prepared to surrender to that fairly humiliating grind. I have great respect for them for making that connection with the British audience – you almost need to see them as an extension of the British indie rock scene at least as much as a world music band.’
Tembo, in particular, was a magnificently garrulous frontman, but the whole band had a gift for communication which hurdled the language barrier. ‘If you don’t make them dance, they’re not going to sit there and listen to you because they don’t understand what you’re saying,’ explains Kagona, who remains an expert at getting a crowd upstanding. ‘We wanted everyone to feel happy, [although] some of the songs are very sorrowful.’
They made swift inroads. Little over a year after their Glasgow debut the band were supporting Madonna at Wembley and had signed a two-album deal with Warner Brothers. The music, however, was already suffering. The truth is that the Bhundu Boys created their best work before they ever reached Britain. The Shed Sessions – a still-available compilation of tracks from their early albums – knocks several spots off their 1988 major label debut, True Jit, slickly and soullessly recorded by Sade producer Robin Millar. Most of the songs were in English and called things like ‘African Woman’ and ‘Happy Birthday’. It was, without question, a disaster. ‘They were already very commercial,’ says Doug Veitch. ‘You’ve got a product that is hugely popular and you think, “Right, we’ll change it completely.” People liked it being sung in Shona. They didn’t want brass sections and “Come on, let’s join hands” and all that rubbish.’
The follow up, 1989’s Pamberi, was an improvement but fared little better. They were dropped by WEA and inter-band tensions began to open up. Most of the Bhundu’s £80,000 advance from WEA was spent buying a house in Kensal Rise, a decision which divided the group and which Kagona still fumes about today. He wanted to keep the money and put down roots back in Zimbabwe, but he was outvoted.
There were also problems with Tembo who, claims Kagona, wanted more of his own songs on albums and started talking about a solo career. According to Veitch, Tembo ‘fell for all the trappings of fame. He was ripe for it’. Psychologically, he began to disintegrate. ‘He became mentally sick,’ says Kagona. ‘We’d say, “Biggie, calm down, you’re messing your mind.” It started affecting the band. I didn’t used to quarrel a lot, I used to use my hands.’ At Harare airport matters spilled decisively into violence, and the Bhundu Boys became four.
They limped on without Biggie, but their moment was over. In the Nineties they released three patchy albums with a series of revised line-ups, the personnel changes enforced by cruel necessity. Between 1991 and 1993, David Mankaba, the original bassist; his replacement, Shepherd Munyama; and keyboard player Shakespeare Kangwena all died from Aids-related diseases. During the same period almost 40 per cent of Zimbabwe’s population was diagnosed HIV-positive as the continent of Africa plunged headlong into an HIV/Aids crisis. That was not all. Tembo committed suicide in July 1995, hanging himself in a Harare asylum after years of rootlessness and increasingly unhinged behaviour.
His band reduced to rubble, Kagona patched things up as best he could. He spent time in London and Zimbabwe, but most of the Bhundu Boys’ touring commitments were now in Scotland. When Gordon Muir moved to the village of Kirkliston, just west of Edinburgh, Kagona and the band – Kenny Chitsvatsva was now the only other original member – came as well. They lodged with villagers, not having the resources to do anything else. Entirely broke and recording sporadically for an ill-advised ‘groove-based’ album, the Bhundu Boys finally called it quits as the millennium dawned.
‘We were playing to backing tapes, which we didn’t like,’ says Kagona. ‘We’re a live band, we make our living on the road. The guys needed something in their pockets, they got frustrated and left.’ Kagona believes that Chitsvatsva is now driving a mini-cab in London. ‘He went to find another job. I think he’s still there, but I haven’t talked to him for a long time. I’m sure he hasn’t gone back home because the situation there isn’t good.’ Washington Kavhai, the last in a long line of doomed bassists, is currently in jail in Preston for assault. Kagona has not maintained contact.
The all-too-literal death of the Bhundu Boys would be a tragedy in any context, but it stings all the more because their music was so replete with the promise and joy of being alive. Kagona, now 44, is a father of three, but his smooth, youthful face doesn’t betray either his age or his travails. Nevertheless, he is a man who has spent the past few years searching for a way to get his derailed life back on track.
I first met him in the summer of 2005, and in the ensuing 12 months have spent time with him on buses, in cafes, in rehearsal rooms and at gigs. Though always warm and friendly, he’s a difficult man to get close to. Understandably, he sometimes seems a little detached, lost in his thoughts. Born the son of a displaced Malawian tribal chief, there remains something almost regal in his demeanour. Deeply religious, he has never drunk alcohol, never smoked, never taken drugs – although women, he suggests, have often been a weakness.
When we first met, Kagona was emerging from a period of intense frustration. Following the disintegration of the band he returned to Zimbabwe to visit his ill father. He had paid a deposit on some land and was hoping to farm. ‘That’s what I wanted, something my children, relatives and friends would be involved in,’ he said. ‘Two weeks after I came back here I heard that the comrades [Mugabe’s violent henchmen] went onto my land and chased everyone off. My wife ran away. Everything just went to hell.’ He hasn’t returned to Zimbabwe since. His marriage to Barbra is over and he doesn’t see his children. ‘The young one used to come in school holidays, but hasn’t come for years now. I speak to them all the time on the telephone. They are living and they are well. They have got a roof over their top.’
He was, it seemed, stuck. His wrangles with his manager, Gordon Muir, were also coming to a head. Accusations and counter-accusations flew back and forth, and tensions that had simmered for many years finally boiled over. Kagona wondered what had happened to the money from the house bought in London, sold years previously for, he was told, no profit. He had received £5 for his bed linen from the sale, a rather modest return for his share of an £80,000 investment. He was not playing any shows and he wasn’t earning a living. He had discovered that his meagre royalty cheques were being poured into the Bhundu Boys album he and Muir had been working on since the late Nineties, a poor piece of work which featured Kagona singing largely in English. He had finally decided to block its release. Meanwhile, he was effectively living on charity, lodging for free in Kirkliston with friends, picking up cheap chicken legs at the supermarket on a Sunday evening. He got most of his clothes from the Cancer Research shop where he occasionally worked as a volunteer. He had neither the money nor the inclination to return to Zimbabwe, but tried to send the odd pound or two back to his family.
He wasn’t bitter, but he was full of regret at the way things had played out. ‘I feel sorry for the children of my late colleagues who have no roof over their top right now,’ he said. He was also angry, believing that the band had ‘lived on promises’ and were ‘taken advantage of.’ He seemed to view the story of the Bhundu Boys as the inevitable fate of a naive African band given bad advice and exploited to death by the white west, rather than a particularly dramatic version of the oldest tale in the music industry, writ anew year after year, regardless of ethnicity.
‘We came over and the white man was the boss,’ he argued. ‘In a foreign land, you don’t try to be so clever, you go along with what you’re hearing. They knew the law. We had to abide with what we were told. At the end of the day, it reminded us of the system back home, where the white man is the head. Now I’ve been here some time, I don’t want to be treated as if I just canoed from Africa. I have my own voice. I’m not going to stand being bullied. I’ve learnt a lot from the past 20 years of being in Europe. I know what is right and what is wrong. I know where to go, what to say, where to sit. And I know one other thing: I will always be seen as a third-class person, because I come from Africa.’
The good news is that, since last summer, Kagona has made steps towards wresting control of his destiny. He still lives a few hundred yards from Muir in Kirkliston, but the two no longer maintain a business or personal relationship.
Muir, for his part, has always strenuously denied any wrongdoing. ‘The implication seems to be that I’ve swindled the band over the years, which is a hideous misinterpretation,’ he told me last year. ‘On the house and virtually every other aspect of the Bhundus, I’m well down financially.’
However, Kagona, after almost 20 years, has renewed his friendship with Doug Veitch, now working in the Borders as a woodcutter and studying part time for a PhD.
The two began playing together with the notion of creating a culture clash between Kagona’s jit and Veitch’s Caledonian Cajun swing, although it hasn’t quite worked out like that: Veitch has been learning to speak Shona and the emphasis is firmly on performing Kagona’s music, but the union has clearly rejuvenated both men. There has been a radio session for Andy Kershaw, a concert appearance with Elvis Costello, and enthusiastically received sets at the recent Tartan Heart and Summer Sundae festivals. An album of new material will be released next month, Kagona’s first for almost a decade.
Although he struggles with the frustration of teaching the ‘language’ of jit music to the Scottish musicians who make up his touring band and concedes that, to his ears, the nuances of the music still don’t sound quite right, Kagona is relieved to be back on stage. He is touched that audiences and people working at the venues remember the Bhundu Boys fondly. ‘I’m happy when I play,’ he says. ‘For the past four years I have felt as if everything has been taken away from me. But now I feel great and back on the road again. That’s my life. It’s so exciting, playing new songs and having people cheering for you.’
It’s all he wants. He seems entirely unimpressed by past brushes with celebrity. Supporting Madonna, for example, clearly meant very little to him. He never once mentions it. In fact, he talks little about times past, but can eventually be persuaded to recall the camaraderie between his old friends and the kind of details that really mattered to young men from Harare. ‘I remember buying a 14-inch colour TV in 1987,’ he laughs. ‘We were the first young guys [in Zimbabwe] to buy a colour television. How privileged we were!’
Kagona doesn’t yearn for those days. Despite the limousines and the money, they were hard. He simply wants to be allowed to make a living. Playing his music allows him to retain his self-respect in a business which he acknowledges has given him countless precious experiences but has also bruised him badly. ‘I’m not into riches,’ he says. ‘I’m only alone anyway, what do I spend money for? I come from a poor country and I come from a poor background, but I should be paid what I’m worth.’ He rolls the phrase around in his mouth, almost singing. ‘Yes, I should be paid what I’m worth.’
‘They were the greatest’
Andy Kershaw on the Boys
The Bhundu Boys remain the single most natural, effortless, catchy pop band I’ve ever heard. I went to Zimbabwe at the height of it and saw all the groups, and although I championed people like the Four Brothers and John Chibadura, it was blindingly obvious what the Bhundu Boys had over them all: they had great tunes, musicianship and a pop sensibility; they had the personality; and they had the communication skills – few of the other bands actually spoke much English to start with, but the Bhundus could. And they were willing to work. They came from a tradition of very, very hard-working Zimbabwean musicians.
In terms of personality, their big asset was Biggie. He was a great character on stage, a great communicator. The biggest mistake they ever made was to get rid of him. He was the front man, the spokesman, the leader and the ambassador. Everyone loved him, and he loved that role.
I can never decide between my two favourite songs: ‘Hupenyu Hwangu’ from Shabini or ‘Chekudya Chose’ from Tsvimbodzemoto. They were simply the pinnacle of Zimbabwean music in what we now must regard as its golden age, and they have never been replaced.
· Tanzwa Nekutambura by Bhundu Boy Rise Kagona and Champion Doug Veitch is released next month on RDKV Music. They play Musicport World Music Festival, Whitby on 21 October. For further information on the release or live dates call 01555 841789
The Observer, Saturday 16 September 2006