Zimbabwe: Leonard Dembo Must Never Be Forgotten

Jamaica is the country where dancehall was born. It has since spread its wings to reach countries like Zimbabwe where the Zim-Ghetto youths have labelled it Zimdancehall. In Zimbabwe this genre has, to some extent, toppled other genres like sungura and jiti.

Today's urban youths in Zimbabwe tend to think that Zimdancehall is the only music that is hip.

When I visited Mbare and Highfield last week, I did a quick survey of 100 youths. I asked several young persons aged between 25 and 30 years who their best music artiste in Zimbabwe was. Ninety percent of the responses I got from them were names of Zimdancehall artistes such as Killer T, Enzo Ishall, Seh Calaz, Freeman, Soul Jah Love, Winky D, Sniper Storm, Jah Signal, Kinnah and Shinsoman. Only 10% mentioned Oliver Mtukudzi, Andy Brown, Jah Prayzah, Leonard Zhakata, Baba Harare and Alick Macheso.

I then went to ask them if they had ever heard of Leonard Dembo. Eighty-five percent of them did not have a clue what I was talking about. Two percent thought that Dembo is a Zimdancehall artiste. A few of them had heard the song Chitekete being sung at the Zimbabwe Music Awards, but did not know who had composed it.

One said that it was a Winky D song and another said it was by Stunner.

I was astonished by the responses I got. I asked myself: "How can such a phenomenal artiste like Leonard Dembo be easily forgotten?"

It looks like I have to keep writing about Zimbabwe's old school music, which was massive before Zimdancehall came into being.

First of all, Zimdancehall is not even Zimbabwean music per se.

Artistes like Dembo, Tinei Chikupo, John Chibadura, Simon Chimbetu, Tongai Moyo, Fanyana Dube, Solomon Skuza, James Chimombe, Biggie Tembo, Paul Matavire, System Tazvida, Chiwoniso Maraire, Tendai Mupfurutsa, Andy Brown and many more who have since died, should be credited for their contribution to Zimbabwean music . This is one reason I keep writing about them.

Chitekete was released in 1991. Within two weeks, it had sold over 100 000 copies. Even Gramma Records were surprised by Dembo's achievement with this song.

This is the period of ghetto blasters. Every hostel at the University of Zimbabwe from Manfred Hodson Hall, New Hall, Mount Royal Hostels, Carr-Saunders Hall, Swinton Hall to Complexes 1, 2, 3, 4, and 5 was blurting with the sound of Chitekete. University of Zimbabwe students just went beserk when they heard this song. It became the student theme of the year 1992. Everyone was singing:

Honai ruva rechitekete chaamai nababa

Parizvino votadza kurara nekufunga iweeee

Chiteketeee.

In 1992, just after he had released this monster hit, Chitekete, the students decided to invite Dembo to give a performance at the University of Zimbabwe's Students' Union Cafeteria. He came with his band, Barura Express, and they performed from 9pm. until midnight. Halfway through the performance, Dembo decided to take a break to go to the toilet. About a dozen drunk students who called themselves UBAs or MaUBA (some university girls told me that the acronym UBA means Unable to Buy Anything) who were known for their rowdy and sometimes violent behaviour, followed him to the toilet and started to harass him. "We have paid our money and you decide to leave the stage? Why did you stop? You can sing for us now in this toilet," they demanded.

Dembo politely replied that he would soon go back on stage once he had finished relieving himself. "Besides", he said, "I cannot sing here in the toilet without my band."

The UBA's would not take it. They started heckling him and at the same time screaming: "You can sing for us here in the toilet without your band. Sing Chitekete now Sing! Sing! Sing! UBA Ahoy!"

That is when I walked into the toilet and discovered what was going on. One of the students recognised me and told the others to stop. Dembo was fortunate that I came to his rescue in time as some had started pulling his shirt by the collar while others were trying to pull down his trousers. I pulled Dembo to one side and told these UBA's to behave themselves. This was my address to them: "This gentleman has committed no crime, why are you harassing him? Like any human being, he also gets tired, and like you, he also answers to the call of nature. So, let him be. After all, he has come to this university to entertain you." They obliged.

Dembo was soon back on stage.

Leonard "Musorowenyoka" Dembo, who died on April 9, 1996 at the age of 37, was one of the greatest musicians to have graced the Zimbabwean music scene. He was born Leonard Tazvivinga Dembomavara in 1959 in a poor family in Chirumanzi, Midlands province. By the time he started his primary education in Buhera, Dembo was already a guitar connoisseur at the age of seven. However, Dembo never thought that one day he would make it big.

Dembo left Buhera for Bulawayo where he continued with his primary education. After his seven years of primary education, Dembo attended Chembira Secondary School in Harare. However, his family could not afford the costs of secondary education and he had to cut off school before completion.

Dembo then started searching for employment. The search took him to Bulawayo, but after pounding the streets of Bulawayo for months without any success, Dembo finally decided that his future lay in music.

While in Bulawayo in 1979 Dembo met Cosmas Nyathi, the guitarist who later performed with Dembo's Barura Express. With the encouragement of Nyathi, Dembo took to music, probably the best decision he made in his life. Nyathi was apparently a good guitarist and his playing prowess naturally appealed to the young Dembo.

The biggest change in Dembo's life occurred in 1980 when he decided to go to Harare. While in the capital he teamed up with four other guys and they tried unsuccessfully to record a song.

Armed with the necessary skills and self-confidence, Dembo joined the Outsiders Band in 1982 and immediately took the music scene by storm. He made headlines with his first single Venenzia, which not only went gold, but also stayed on the number one spot on the charts for a number of months. The release of two other hits, Dambudzo and Amalume, established Dembo as a force to reckon with. With recognition achieved, Dembo was on the way to stardom.

In 1984 Dembo left the Outsiders and formed his own backing group, Barura Express, and it was with this group that he recorded all his six albums namely Chitekete, Shiri Yakangwara, Kukura Hakutane, Nhamo Moto, Ruva Rashe and Kukura Kwedu. All his albums were well-received while songs like Venenzia, Dudzai, Chitekete, Sharai, Murombo, Nhamo, Kuziva Mbuya Huudzwa and Manager all stayed on the number one spot of the Zimbabwean charts for several weeks.

Dembo's best known album was Chitekete, which went gold in 1992. Chitekete was the best album ever produced by a local musician in Zimbabwe during that period.

Shiri Yakangwara, released in 1995, was the last album by Dembo. The album went straight to the top of the local charts with hits such as Yave and Dzinde Rerudo.

Dembo's music could be classified as jiti with rhumba fusion. His supporting group included Alexander Muudzwa, Chrispen Zimburu, Cosmas Nyathi, Kidson Madzorera, Shepherd Akimu and Innocent Mjindu.

Dembo was a humble man who earned the respect and admiration of everyone.

Despite the high sales of his recordings, he was not interested in publicity. He refused to be drawn into discussions on his status on the Zimbabwe music scene. He allowed only his music to talk for him.

Despite this, Dembo remained at the top of Zimbabwean music where he competed with his contemporaries like Thomas Mapfumo and Mtukudzi. His two sons Morgan and Tendai have made an attempt to keep his legacy alive.

They released an album titled Kutsika Matsimba in 2013. Tendai also released Kupakwashe in 2014, Mushando in 2016 and Dzinde in 2018. We hope he will keep reminding us about his father.

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