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Bhundu Boys: lost boys

By Robert Chalmers

IN 1987, the Bhundu Boys played at Wembley, United Kingdom. Today, the band’s members are either dead, in jail or broke. The legendary guitarist Rise Kagona works in a Scottish charity sho

p. The wife of late frontman Biggie Tembo reveals how it all went so horribly wrong.

I HAVE to wait 10 minutes before my interviewee appears: not an uncommon experience when you’re dealing with people connected to show business, though in this case it’s because my subject has to finish cleaning the ladies’ toilets.

Ratidzai Tembo finally joins me at a table in the Octopus, the dim, cavernous beer-hall where she works near Mbare, one of the more intimidating townships close to Harare. I’d first driven to her home, a broken-down shack she shares with two of her children and her mother. The poverty in Mbare is shocking even by the standards of Zimbabwe, the country that recently finished bottom of the Economist magazine’s world index for quality of life.

Ratidzai and her family live in two cramped rooms without electricity, in a property that even the most creative estate agent could not avoid describing as a hovel. Her family explained that she was already at work, and gave me directions to the Octopus, which is what Zimbabweans euphemistically call a “nightclub”. Her boss, understandably alarmed by the arrival of a British journalist, given the climate of paranoia and menace generated by Robert Mugabe’s Zanu PF government, finally agrees to let us speak alone.

“Were you at those Wembley Stadium shows? Did you meet Madonna?” I ask Ratidzai.

She shakes her head.

“No. I went to many shows in England, but not those.”

She pauses.

“When you mention Madonna… all that seems like another life. There have been times since then when I have had to sell my clothes so that the children could have food.”

Ratidzai is the widow of Biggie Tembo, singer and guitarist with the Bhundu Boys, the band John Peel (former BBC Radio DJ) famously described as producing “the most naturally flowing music he’d ever heard in his life”. Andy Kershaw was best man at her marriage. Tembo won a Sony Award for a superb Radio 1 documentary that he co-presented with Kershaw, hosted a special for Channel 4, and appeared on Blue Peter. The Bhundu Boys were lauded by Eric Clapton and Mark Knopfler as well as Madonna, who personally requested that the band support her for the three nights she played, to a total of 240 000 people, at Wembley in 1987. Elvis Costello, another admirer, briefly acted as their producer. At the height of his success in the late 1980s, Biggie Tembo, one of the most convivial and engaging men I have ever met, lived with Ratidzai in a bungalow with a swimming pool, in an affluent suburb of Harare.

Almost 10 years ago, Biggie, distraught at having left the Bhundu Boys in acrimonious circumstances, was found hanged in Harare’s psychiatric hospital. He was 37.

“He died on July 29, 1995,” Ratidzai tells me. “You can see the hospital from here.” She points to a forbidding concrete building across the yard of the beer hall, where a few clients are passing around a blue plastic bucket filled with Chibuku – a challenging but affordable beverage whose unforgettable bouquet is produced by ingredients including yeast and gruel.

I tell her how I had lunch with Tembo, Kershaw and John Peel in London, nine months before the Zimbabwean died. Biggie’s once irrepressible manner had become subdued. There was a disconcerting intensity about him. He talked about giving up music and becoming a comedian or a preacher.

“All of that started after he was separated from the group,” Ratidzai says. “He suffered terrible stress. He began to drink whisky – lots of it, straight from the bottle. He said it would help him sleep, but it didn’t. He couldn’t sleep.
He was up for days. He started to behave strangely. One day we were watching TV – this was towards the end, when we still had a place in England, a flat in Bristol. He kept saying he could smell burning; that something was on fire in the house. He was pacing around, looking for smoke, even though nothing was alight.”

They returned to Zimbabwe permanently at the end of 1994. Barclays Bank repossessed the bungalow. “Then he was kept in the mental hospital here for several months.”

“How did he kill himself?”

“They told me that he broke free from his straitjacket and hanged himself in his room.”

For the past year, Ratidzai has worked here at the Octopus, as a waitress and cleaner. She earns $50 000, a day.

A handsomely packaged special edition of the Bhundu Boys’ first two albums was released in July 2001, under the title The Shed Sessions, to considerable acclaim. The website run by Stern’s, the London-based World Music specialists, shows that the double CD, priced at £12,95, remained in its Top 25 for 13 months, and at one stage reached Number Two. The Shed Sessions is available from Amazon’s sites in the UK, the US and Japan. Tembo’s widow says she has received none of the royalties due to her husband.

“Do you ever hear the Bhundu Boys on the radio?” I ask.

“Sometimes. That is painful. I turn it off. It upsets me. Where I am living now, the only heating is firewood or paraffin, and we cannot always afford them. My life,” she adds, “has become a nightmare.”

At the height of their fame in the mid-1980s, the group were signed to Warners (WEA). They toured North America, Australia and Hong Kong, chauffeured to venues from luxury hotels. They owned a large house in London. Their manager says the advances the five band members received – not including fees from their heavy tour schedule – totalled around £120 000.

To call the Bhundu Boys one of the greatest African bands of all time is to demean their achievement; their unique talent never required a geographical prefix.

“I first heard them when they put out an EP in the autumn of 1985,” Andy Kershaw recalls. “Peel and I were in the office at Radio 1. We sat staring at each other, thinking this recording was absolutely wonderful. It was the dazzling quality of the music, the harmonies, the sparkling guitar playing. The Bhundu Boys were simply one of the greatest pop groups I have ever heard.”

The following spring, Kershaw adds, he and Peel went to see the group in Chelsea.

“I realised after a few minutes that I had this enormous grin on my face. I was surrounded by kids of college age.
They were all grinning too. I turned to look at John, and – Peel being Peel – he was weeping. The tears were just running down his face. It really was a revelatory moment. We introduced ourselves to the band. I immediately hit it off with Biggie, who was an ideal frontman; a superb communicator with a wonderful sense of humour and full of enthusiasm for everything. The band played like they were having the time of their lives. They played like that because they were.”

No single story is so chillingly symbolic of Zimbabwe’s decline as the tragic history of the Bhundu Boys. Their formation, in April 1980, coincided with the country’s declaration of independence. “Bhundu Boys” were anti-colonialist bush commandos, and the band embodied the exuberant optimism engendered by liberation from British rule.

The group were fêted by President Robert Mugabe in the days when he was acclaimed by many – including senior British politicians – as a positive influence. But the band angered Zanu PF when they played benefits to raise awareness of Aids, a disease which, until recently, Mugabe refused to acknowledge as a problem in Zimbabwe, where an estimated 40% of the population (and up to 80% of the military) are HIV positive.

Former Bhundu Boys Shakie Kangwena, David Mankaba and Sheperd Munyama are “late”, as Zimbabweans put it, all from Aids. Another, Washington Kavhai, is in jail in the UK, in Preston, serving seven years for violent assault.
Kenny Chitsvatsva, the drummer, was last heard of driving a minicab in London.

As I leave the beer hall in Mbare, Ratidzai Tembo’s last words to me are: “Please help me.”

Biggie Tembo was born Rodwell Marasha in Chinhoyi. The town is famous for having seen the first skirmish between the Zimbabwean Liberation Army and Ian Smith’s Rhodesian Security Forces – a clash which launched the conflict that eventually led to Independence. As a boy, Tembo was involved in the armed struggle as a messenger and lookout, and he liked to address friends, Peel and Kershaw included, as “Comrade”.

He came to Harare in the late 1970s and was recruited to the Bhundu Boys by their founder, the inspirational guitarist Rise Kagona. The group were playing in township beer-halls when they were spotted by Steve Roskilly, a former Mayfair property developer, who began recording them at his studio in the capital. With Roskilly, they had four Number One singles in three years in Zimbabwe.

The odd circumstances which brought the band international fame began in the mid-1980s at a squat in a disused hospital at Earl’s Court, London, where Owen Elias, a student at Chelsea College of Art, met Doug Veitch, a maverick Scottish guitarist whose supplementary sources of income included driving tube trains and cleaning windows. Using the £2 000 then gifted to new businesses under the Enterprise Allowance Scheme, they formed a label, Discafrique, and left for Harare to look for artists. There, Roskilly played them the songs they issued on the EP that would captivate Peel and Kershaw.

It was when Elias and Veitch decided to bring the band to the UK in 1986 that things became increasingly surreal.

Unable to fund a tour, they turned to Gordon Muir, a designer of knitwear brochures who grew up with Veitch in the border town of Hawick. Muir provided the cash and was soon sole manager of the band. (Elias now makes wine in Kent; Veitch is in Lanarkshire, completing a PhD in woodland management.)

Muir got the band bookings on the lucrative student circuit, from which base, with the support of DJs such as Peel, Kershaw and Charlie Gillett, they built a national following.

When I return to London from Zimbabwe, I find a number for Muir, who now lives in Kirkliston, a village outside Edinburgh.

Could I talk to him?

“I’ll have to think about that,” he replies.

“What happened to Rise Kagona,” I ask. “Is he alive?”

“Rise lives here,” he says, “in Kirkliston.”

A couple of days later, on the train to Scotland, I find myself pondering a number of questions. How can a guitarist of Kagona’s ability be living in such obscure circumstances? What made Tembo kill himself? Why is his widow receiving no royalties?

I sit down with Kagona and Muir in the living room of the Scot’s isolated cottage. The guitarist lodges with a philanthropic neighbour on an adjoining farm. To keep himself occupied, Kagona – this is a musician who, apart from Clapton et al, was revered by the late Joe Strummer – does ironing at the local charity shop. His clothes and his manner attest to this proud but gentle man’s minimal sources of income. Whenever possible, he travels into Edinburgh to play with local bands.

“But the last bus for our township – I mean village – leaves Edinburgh about 11pm, so if I miss it, I have to sit in the railway station to keep warm,” Kagona explains. “The first bus is at 7am. But I am a musician. I have to play.”

A few years ago, he invested his savings into a farm outside Harare.

“When I arrived there with some relatives, a gang of youths – those who call themselves ‘comrades’ – were waiting. They said: ‘Show us your Zanu PF Cards.’ We didn’t have any. We showed them the deeds. They said:

‘Show us Zanu PF cards or you have five minutes to get out before we kill you.’ I decided land was not worth dying for.”

Kagona has been working on a new album with Muir, which the Scotsman hopes to finish by May and issue under the name of the Bhundu Boys. The tracks they have recorded are, in Muir’s words, “basically grooves”. Sung in English, not Shona, they are some way removed from the sound that established the band’s reputation.

Muir, a slim, intensely-focussed, grey-haired man of 44, recalls how he and Doug Veitch took a battered van to meet the band when they landed in London in May 1986.

“Doug had no soles on his shoes,” says Kagona. “We thought they must be henchmen for the people with money.” He was mistaken.

The group arrived with no instruments.

“They were determined to acquire their own gear,” Muir says. “With the monies per gig, this was not realisable. I got into a hire purchase agreement.”

For a year, the Bhundu Boys lived with the Scotsman and his partner Anne in Hawick. After overseeing the band’s success with Shabini and Tsvimbodzemoto, their first two albums on Discafrique, Muir brokered the deal with WEA.

“That is one thing I will blow my own trumpet on,” he says. “The deals we got have been unsurpassed by any world music act. WEA must deeply regret that they ever came into contact with us.”

“How much did you get?”

“From Blue Mountain (the publishing company) about £50 000 to £60 000 in advances. From Warners, about the same.”

Income, Muir says, was split equally between himself and each of the band members. “There were a lot of expenses,” he says. “We sank large amounts into purchasing a PA and studio equipment. We were all taking a reasonable salary; about £300 a week.”

As is often the case in the music business, it was when the major label became involved that things went badly wrong. Muir’s boldness and initiative as a manager have never been in question. At the time of Nelson Mandela’s 70th birthday concert at Wembley in 1988 – a bill with a disappointing ratio of black artists – the Bhundu Boys organised a rival event in Brixton, where Mark Knopfler sportingly appeared as “The Token Honky”.

But once at WEA – instead of Roskilly, who had captured their elegant simplicity on their early records – the band hired Robin Millar, the producer of singer Sade. True Jit, the first of two albums for WEA, introduced an anodyne, westernised sound that horrified some of their core admirers.

“We came from a poor background,” says Kagona. “We toured the US. We met Ray Charles. We played Central Park with Eddie Murphy. Limousines took us everywhere. We rode along with our heads sticking out of the roof. One time in New York the limousine arrived and Biggie wouldn’t join us.”

“Why not?”

“He felt such behaviour was not correct. I told him that the record company had arranged the car, and if we went by bus we wouldn’t get the money back. Biggie used to say that we were enjoying too rich a life, while our brothers and sisters were suffering back home in Zimbabwe. I understand what he meant. But I told him ‘look, enjoy it while you can. Because these things go away, and once they have gone you will never get them back again’.”

Kagona’s instinct was prophetic.

Together, the band, which was registered as a limited company, bought a large house in Kensal Green, north-west London, where they lived for 18 months or so.

As the Bhundu Boys’ reputation grew, Tembo’s behaviour, according to Muir, became unpredictable. He says Tembo got to thinking he was bigger than the band. He gives me details of the singers’ affairs with a number of women. He says that when Biggie left the band, in 1989, his last words were: “I quit. F**k the lot of you.” Kagona agrees that Tembo walked out. Not long afterwards, Muir adds, Biggie attacked him.

“He beat the s**t out of me. I have pictures.”

Tembo, for his part, told Kershaw and others the group had become envious of his individual popularity, and sacked him. Nobody disputes that Tembo could be extremely difficult, or that, subsequent to his departure, he pleaded to rejoin the Bhundu Boys, but was rejected.

“Now I don’t know who my enemies are,” Tembo had sung, in an improvised lyric on the second WEA album, Pamberi. “It was better when I knew.”

“Tembo was fired from the Bhundu Boys and he found that rejection very difficult to deal with,” one friend told me. “At almost the same time, he discovered that the man who brought him up as his son, in Chinhoyi, was not his natural father. The two things knocked him sideways. I went to see him in the mental hospital in Chinhoyi. He said: ‘I cannot deal with this.

These things have been such a shock.’ In career terms, he had been promised the earth. To have begun to achieve, then to have everything snatched away from him, was just too much.”

With Tembo out of the band, the Bhundu Boys’ fortunes waned rapidly. The group’s prize asset had always been a more complex man than his ever-smiling stage persona suggested and his departure exacerbated a pattern of aberrant behaviour. Kershaw says that Tembo would come round to his house and begin weeping for no apparent reason, then start talking about how much he missed the band, and about his confusion over the identity of his father.

“It was very important for him to know where his father’s ancestors were,” says Kagona. “In Africa, your father is the central figure in your life. Biggie became obsessed with contacting his ancestors. He would lock himself in his room and make these strange noises.” Kagona demonstrates the sound, a sustained rattle similar to a Spanish “r”.

“He would do these rituals, praying to spirits, taking snuff, and making that rrrrrr noise. He believed he had drawn evil spirits to him. He had no idea where his real father was. Those rituals took him somewhere else. They took him to a bad place. He ended up mad.”

Tembo divided his time between the UK and Zimbabwe, where he joined a fundamentalist church generally regarded as a cult, and took to preaching and speaking in tongues on public transport. Once, he went on Zimbabwean television and confessed that demons possessed him.

In Britain, he embarked on a series of unsuccessful solo ventures, collaborating with a Bristol band called the Startled Insects, occasionally performing stand-up comedy to a bewildered public.

“The audience was polite,” says Kershaw, who saw one 1993 comedy show at Ronnie Scott’s, “but frankly it was painful to watch.”

“What happened to the money from the London house?” I ask Muir.

“We bought that as a company. The house was mortgaged.”

“So the profits were divided among the band, once it was sold?”

“What happened was,” Muir says, “I bought the house off the band four or five years after we first purchased it. I was owed money I hadn’t taken out of the company.” He sold the property “a couple of years later,” he explains, “for virtually the same price. We paid £93 000 in 1987 and sold it in 1993 for £98 000”.

The recent reissue, The Shed Sessions, was put out on Sadza, Muir’s label. Is Ratidzai Tembo receiving royalties?

“Through the producer Steve Roskilly, yeah,” says Muir. “This is something you seem keen to talk about.”

“That’s because Ratidzai is not getting anything.”

“I account directly to Roskilly.”

One of the most bizarre aspects of Kagona’s current situation is that he is recording not only with Muir, but with Doug Veitch. Veitch, now 45, is a gifted songwriter who enjoyed a brief but inspired solo career in the 1980s as Champion Doug Veitch, the world’s greatest exponent of Caledonian-Cajun-Dub crossover, before vigorous socialising brought him to the point of physical collapse.

In the course of writing this article, I get a message from Veitch asking me to return to Edinburgh, where I find him with Kagona in a recording studio.

Veitch plays me the demos that he has made with Kagona. They are inventive and unfussy, sung in Shona, and echo the vibrant, melodic spirit of the original Bhundu Boys recordings.

Muir had told me that, though he’s had differences with Doug Veitch, the forestry expert is “basically still my best friend”. Veitch, who could not be accused of being reticent on any subject, describes Muir in terms which are unrepeatable in a family newspaper.

At this, our second meeting, Kagona, a naturally introverted man, is in reflective mood. The deaths of so many colleagues, he tells me, combined with the implosion of his career, have been almost impossible to bear.

“I find myself asking, why me?” Kagona says. “Why am I still alive? I feel as if I have never existed,” he adds. “I feel as though my life never happened.”

When so many contemporaries began to be diagnosed with Aids, he explains, “It got so that, as a musician from Zimbabwe, if you even had a headache, you didn’t tell anybody.”

Muir denies any suggestion of impropriety where the distribution of income is concerned. “Were we naïve? Yes. But I don’t want to stray into territory that suggests we are exploiting Biggie’s widow. All the money was distributed among the band or sunk into equipment. The monies that would be going to Biggie’s widow would be generated by sales of The Shed Sessions. I pay the money directly to Steve Roskilly, who passes that on to her, as far as I am aware.”

While I was in Harare, I’d driven out to Roskilly’s house in Borrowdale, a rich suburb on estates protected by dogs and razor wire. A caretaker appeared at Roskilly’s electric gate and gave me a number for him. “He is in Cheltenham,” he said, “and he’s not coming back.”
A journey that had began in Mbare ends at Cheltenham Racecourse.

Roskilly, who now runs a stage-equipment company, meets me at the venue’s conference arena, where he is supervising a lighting rig. On stage, Olympic Bronze Medallist horsewoman Pippa Funnell is rehearsing a speech she will make that evening.

Roskilly (57) has brought a file of balance sheets relating to the Bhundu Boys. He comes across as a well-meaning man doing his best to peer into what Kagona perceives as the fog surrounding the band’s affairs. He says he recalls a conversation with Muir in which it was agreed that the Scot, not Roskilly, should pass on the money to Ratidzai. After looking through his papers, though, he concedes that the responsibility appears to be his, and that the money has not been paid to Tembo’s widow, though he is not yet clear as to whether he has received all of what is due to her from Muir.

We’re not talking about huge sums, Roskilly points out – a few hundred pounds, at most.

“That’s a lot of money in Mbare.”

Roskilly agrees.

“I am taken aback by this,” he says, looking sincerely mortified. “I need to call Muir and sort this out.”

The story of Tembo, Roskilly says, “was a disaster from start to finish. He didn’t resign. He was fired. And he couldn’t take that. Tembo was the one who came up with the special songs. Tembo had the personality. The others couldn’t deal with the attention he was getting. It’s true that he was a volatile man. But the band made a terrible mistake when they fired him. Neither Tembo, or they, ever recovered.”

The sad thing, Kagona had told me, “is that, for all the cities we visited, and all the friends, and all the music that we made, the Bhundu Boys are mostly remembered for dying of Aids.”

* This article was originally published in the Independent (UK) newspaper.

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