22 January 2018

Zimbabwe: Tracing Nicholas Zakaria Way Back to 2006

Photo: The Herald
Zimbabwe Sungura music legend Nicholas Zakaria.

You cannot believe the excitement that I went through recently on coming across my article done way back on Tuesday, March 7, 2006! It was an article that I did for the Moses Magadza edited Southern Times. It is on Zimbabwean sungura musician, Nicholas Zakaria. It was titled "Nicholas Zakaria release Chewa Hits."

I post it here for the benefit of those who have been following Zakaria since then. I know that he has released various albums ever since. I am just overexcited. Never mind the changing times. Here it is below:

Zimbabwe now has many highflying musicians who are well known throughout Southern Africa. Nicholas Zakaria is arguably the humblest and the quietest of them all. Always clad in modest attire, he talks less about others and his achievements.

Six months ago, at Simon Chimbetu's burial, in the absence of Thomas Mapfumo and Oliver Mtukudzi, he became the obvious spokesman for the Zimbabwean musicians present. A very tough looking introvert, Zakaria doesn't begrudge his successful former students, the late System Tazvida and Alick Macheso. "Mbiri yavo imbiri yanguwo. I take pride in their fame," he said in a recent interview. Even when Macheso complained about copycats Zakaria did not say "But you copied me yourself." He only said if people copy you it means you are good. That was quite an ironic sting.

If you listen carefully you will realise that although Zakaria plays the same style as Macheso, his music is decidedly calmer, mature and more meditative. While Macheso's Sungura is more innovative and appeals more to the nerves, Zakaria's is soulful and finds you only with the benefit of a series of replays. His more popular albums include "Mabvi Nemagokora" and "Ndine Mubvunzo".

On stage Zakaria's dance is not a dance at all. These are ordinary up and down rhythms of one who knows the source and centre of sound. He plays his lead guitar as if he has never listened to it himself and would rather go away and dig in the garden instead. But beneath it all you see a very private pride and that mischievous Chewa man's satisfaction that says I play not because I have no other things to do but because I like it.

Born at Zimbabwe's Belgownie Estate in Mazowe farming area, Nicholas Zakaria's origins are in Malawi and he is fluent in Chewa although it is not established if he is Chewa. Although Chewa people have roots in Malawi, Zambia, Mozambique and Tanzania, they are now virtually in all Southern African countries. Outside their countries of origin, most of them are in Zimbabwe and South Africa where their parents or grand parents migrated as migrant labourers.

Because their general impoverished condition stems from the days of colonial conquest, the Chewa people have participated in many liberation movements in the region. Their names were found within the ranks of Frelimo, Zanla, Zipra, ANC and other such organisations. Their roles in the politics, sports and arts of the region are very difficult to ignore.

However, it is sad that their official population figures have not been properly established in a region where migrant labour was and is still a huge economic reality.

Considered peripheral, they are generally a peaceful lot, who have, however, kept in touch with their traditions through constant journeys back home or through song and dance. A true Chewa man is simple, generous, joyous, daring and resilient.

Researches reveal that Chewa is interchangeable with Nyanja. Some documents reveal that "Chewa people speak a language called Chinyanja." Their ultimate origins are the Luba-Lunda kingdoms in Zaire from where they wandered southwards. Sometimes languages like Ngoni, Nsenga, Nyasa, Peta, Maravi, Chikunda . . . are considered to be Chewa/Nyanja dialects. But the Chewa people have intermarried everywhere they have gone showing that Africa is their home.

It is in that light that Zakaria's new album called "Chewa Hits" is very important. This is a compilation of 12 Chewa songs from Zakaria's major albums of his music career. On most of his albums, Zakaria had always included several songs in Chewa. This has continued since his founding of the Khiama Boys around 1984. Macheso's backing voice and baas guitar are very evident in this album since these songs were done while he was still at Khiama Boys.

"Chewa Hits" is very historic in that it is one of the very few all-Chewa songs album in Zimbabwean history. This despite the fact that most Sungura gurus like the Chimbetu brothers, Somanje brothers, John Chibadura, Amon Mvula, Ephraim Joe and others could sing fluently in Chewa even if some of them might not have been strictly Chewas.

Most of these musicians, like Zakaria, grew up on the Zimbabwean mines and farms where their parents were ordinary labourers. Influenced by the Rumba rhythms from their countries, played by their parents, they evolved a kind of Zimbabwean sub-Rumba now known as Sungura.

In Zimbabwe these young banjo-playing musicians migrated to Salisbury from the farms and perfected their guitar playing whilst working as the so-called garden boys. Wonder Guchu of The Herald has done an interesting research in which he discovered that these young musicians, including Zakaria, almost always congregated in the African township then called Gillingham.

Gillingham could have been convenient because of its proximity to Salisbury's leafy suburbs where these lads found employment easily. The name of Gillingham is central in the development of Sungura and one day a more wide range research might be necessary.

It is no surprise that sometimes the Sungura drums and bass guitars are distantly reminiscent of the mbarure, the drums for the Gure Wamkulu. Sometimes the singing too as in Chimbetu's "Dyera" and Macheso's "Mundikumbuke" vibrates with the harmonies of some Gure songs and traditional songs common in Zambia and Malawi. Videos show John Chibadura twisting and cutting out his legs and performing the fast final circle the Gure way. It is important to realise the role of art in showing the syncretism of human traditions.

In a recent interview Zakaria admits that he was once a Gure dancer and that nobody matched his dancing prowess. However he sadly thinks that he now "sees the emptiness and meaninglessness of it all" because he is now a Christian.

This is sad because Gure Wamkulu "the big dance" is central to the identity and culture of Chewa people. Considered a secret society, the dance is only a tip of the iceberg because beneath it is a whole community coming together to learn about the traditions, wisdom, history, medicines, secrets . . . passed down the line since Luba-Lunda.

The Gure is considered to be in mythical animal state when fully dressed, something akin to the egwugwu of the Ibo people of Nigeria. Of course the Gure has been both abused by some insiders and misconstrued by the condescending outsiders.

Zakaria's "Chewa Hits" album is generally prayerful and sometimes very sad. Although very implicit, these songs capture the loneliness of the migrant labourer far away from home, relatives and ancestors.

The hottest one, which people in Zimbabwe will recall from yesteryears, is "Zomveramvera", meaning what you hear through rumours. In that song the persona calls for reunion with his ancestors and the source of his being. He feels thrown out of the family circle and even forsaken:

Makoro anga rero rino mwanditaya

munditayira chiyani, chifukwa chochoka mzomveramvera?

Ine pokara ndichita ngati mwana wamasiye

Ine kurira, kurira siku riri ronse

But the sadness does not end there, as this album is dominated by the crying and weeping motif. The titles of some of the songs here tell it all: "Kudandaula", "Ndili Kulila", "Ambuye Yesu". In "Ndiri kurira" the persona regrets the time he has spent looking for charms to improve his image and wealth.

Maybe the most soulful song in this album, with the lead vocals by Alick Macheso, "Ndili Kundandaura" records the migrant labourer's constant struggles with poverty and segregation. The sad thing is that even with or without the luck charms he cannot get out of the vicious circle. Chewa, like all African languages carries eternal poetry which can be enjoyed even for it sake:

Ntawi imene ndinataya kufika pakari pano

Ndiribe kantu kari kose.

Ndine wosauka.

Azin'anga azin'anga

Mwanditayila ntawi

Ayeye ndiri kurira.

The idea that Zakaria is a devout Christian comes out clearly too as most of the songs seem to find answers in Christ and prayer. Zakaria's music can easily pass as gospel music. There is also belief in self-worth and muman dignity -- Uremu, which is the reason why most left home in order to look for it in foreign lands. There are teachings about establishing a family and building a home as in "Bajna", "Akarongosi" and "Ayudhe".

It, however, remains to be seen how much Zakaria's marketing will take advantage of the huge and widespread Chewa audience in Southern Africa. The greatest weakness with Southern African music is its failure to cross colonial boundaries.

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