The Herald (Harare)

11 September 2012

Zimbabwe: Blast From the Past

SHE speaks with a soft but audible voice, cutting a completely different figure from the explosive mbira queen known for her trademark electric smile, pulled amid the twin twang of the thumb piano. Beaulah Dyoko or simply Mbuya Dyoko, is now a ghostly figure of her past self, after a liver cirrhosis attack which made her lose all her teeth.

But, the mbira queen still makes jokes out of her situation:

"Even without a single tooth, please don't deprive me of meat. Ndinongosvisvinawo nyama yacho!" says Beaulah Dyoko, one of the first Zimbabwean women to play the mbira instrument in the 1960s.

In June 2005, while on a whirlwind tour of the United States of America, Mbuya Dyoko heard that "Operation Restore Order" or "Murambatsvina", had reduced her backyard cottage to debris and cancelled the tour and turned alcoholic.

"I got stressed to the point that I lost my mind. I started abusing alcohol and partook hot stuff like brandy, whisky and cane spirit to get out of the misery.

"The booze didn't help, but worsened my situation such that I burnt my liver.

"Seeing that I was unwell, my last born Oscar called my friends in the US, the organisers of the abandoned tour, and they suggested that I quickly return to America for treatment.

"When I got to America the doctors discovered that I had developed liver cirrhosis and I got treated. They then advised me not to take any alcohol especially the clear hot stuff except opaque beer, which they said was food and drink," she said.

Mbuya Dyoko, who is a spirit medium, possessed by a long gone ancestor who played the mbira instrument, says she has slowed down but has not killed her music career.

"I am still active on stage and it is only a matter of time before I resume live shows. If it wasn't for ill health I would be staging shows because music is in me," she said.

Asked if she had fallen on hard times, Mbuya Dyoko said her career was far from over.

"What hard times?

"This is my house and I have another one in Bulawayo which I bought through music. I used to own a car, which my late husband used to drive before it broke down.

"The truth is I am tired of being used and abused by promoters and record companies. I now want to have solo projects because I am setting up my own studio and once its finished I will release an album," she said.

The 66-year-old mbira queen's music career was almost by default.

Back 1960, Mbuya Dyoko fell ill for more than a year and she left her home for the then Sipolilo now Guruve, where she lived with a traditional healer.

The traditional healer confirmed the young girl was about to be possessed by an ancestor who had played the mbira. The ancestor wanted her to play the instrument.

Since women were not allowed to play the mbira, the instructions were resisted and Mbuya Dyoko remained sick for another year until she dreamt playing the mbira.

Her mother was puzzled when she found out that her daughter was possessed by the spirit of a mbira player. She then bought her the instrument.

According to Joyce Jenje-Makwenda, an archivist and writer, sometime in 1996, Ambuya Dyoko told her how she was initiated into playing mbira.

"The day her mother brought her the mbira she dreamt playing a traditional folklore song "Buka Tiende" (They asked me to wake up and go).

"When I told my mother I had dreamt this song she asked me to play it and when I did it was as if I had been playing mbira for a long time because I played it so well that day," she said.

Jenje-Makwenda said when Mbuya Dyoko started playing the mbira she was healed.

"As a result, those in her community near the border with Mozambique grudgingly accepted that a woman could play the mbira."

In the 1960s, Mbuya Dyoko thus became the first woman to record mbira music.

Her mbira songs such as "Baba Munyaradzi", "Kuenzera", "Taireva", "Nhemamusasa" and "Rasai Mapfumo", which she penned to call for ceasefire before Zimbabwe's independence in 1980.

The song "Munozofa" warned people about being promiscuous in the face of HIV and Aids.

Mbuya Dyoko has performed alongside other mbira gurus like Dumisani Maraire, Sekuru Gora, Jonah Sithole and Ephat Mujuru - all late.

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