In the groove: Celebrating the life of James Chimombe (1951-1990)

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We celebrate the life of Zimbabwe’s most iconic and most committed star on this day. I deliberately use the word celebrate because to many of his fans, he is still alive and we are in a party mood. We should therefore celebrate his great pieces of music and all the good things he left behind for us which we still enjoy today.

By Fred Zindi

Today, October 24 is one day away from the 31st anniversary of the death of the legendary James “Bindura” Chimombe who died on October 23, 1990.

We celebrate the life of Zimbabwe’s most iconic and most committed star on this day. I deliberately use the word celebrate because to many of his fans, he is still alive and we are in a party mood. We should therefore celebrate his great pieces of music and all the good things he left behind for us which we still enjoy today.

In the past, I have argued with those traditionalists who think that when one is dead, they should not be celebrated. According to them, that is a Western concept which should remain in the West.

The problem is that these views of death fail to explain and morally justify when, if ever, the death of a human being should be celebrated. Death is seen as a pure and serious phenomenon that should be kept sacred and should not be celebrated according to some people.

Although it is seen as a desirable necessity that can end serious social ills, it should be taken more seriously by showing off one’s emotions through mourning and crying out aloud. (Thus, against the emergence of those discourses that argues that death is desirable in some contexts because it ameliorates human suffering and should therefore be celebrated).

The question I am posing for you today is whether we should celebrate death by engaging in festivities after James Chimombe’s successful life or should we commiserate and start to mourn?

In my opinion, the life of James Chimombe is worth celebrating as it was a life lived well.

Chimombe was one of Zimbabwe’s leading musicians who influenced a lot of young artistes. He is regarded as one of the post-Independence revolutionaries in the music business.

He, together with  Thomas Mapfumo, Oliver Mtukudzi, Jonah Sithole, Zexie Manatsa, Jonah Moyo, Lovemore Majaivana, Picket Chiyangwa, Tinei Chikupo and a number of others were responsible for transforming Zimbabwean music from what it was in the colonial era to what it is today.

One poet named  Tipei Tariro who has just completed his O’levels  and was looking back at his Form Four poetry book, sums up this thinking by using Chimombe’s own lyrics to compose a poem:

James Chimombe, Jikinya yawaitsvira mwoyo ticharamba takaitsigira

Tiri mumusha we Chitungwiza wawaidiwa nariinhi

Tichachengetedza, tichasiya tawoneka

Zvatinopiwa na Ishe, Tinogamuchira, Hatirambe

Vana vadiki Mweya ya Mwari

Tinoriritira, Hatiregere

Tati Pindikiti mu Jemedza

Kuvadzimu tichakumbira tungamiro

Edmund Mutetwa, another Chimombe enthusiast and a close associate of Jenaguru director, Clive Malunga writes:

“James Chimombe deserves more recognition in music. If you listen to his music now it sounds like new,” said Mutetwa.

“He did original music, but our radio stations play Zimdancehall most of which is not original and ignore our true artistes.

“I blame ZBC library by not bringing out videos of legends like Chimombe.

“We thank people like Clive Malunga of Jenaguru Promotions for bringing out and keeping the spirits of the legends alive as shown in the recent unveiling of Tinei Chikupo’s tombstone.”

Chimombe was born in 1951 in Chivhu, although he spent most of his youth in Harare. He attended school in Highfield and this is where he first learned to play the guitar.

Among the various bands he performed with were the Pop Settlers, the Acid Band, The Blacks Unlimited, the Ocean City Band, Huchi Band and the OK Success. He had a long stint playing in nightclubs with the latter band and was contracted to perform at Mushandira Pamwe Hotel in Highfield for nearly three years before he decided to form his own band.

He also spent a considerable amount of time playing with the Real Sounds of Africa band since his music was at first inclined towards rhumba.

His first hit which only came out in 1982 was titled Chigwaya.

Chimombe’s talent was first discovered when he wrote George Mudiwa for the OK Success Band in the 1970s, but credit for this was given to the whole band rather than the individual. In 1983, with a number of major hits behind him, Chimombe joined an already existing band, The Ocean City Band as lead vocalist and guitarist. This marriage proved to be the peak of his career as most of his well-known hits today such as Cecilia (which was re-recorded by the late South African musician and blind singer, Steve Kekana), Siya Waoneka, Mavanga and Jikinya were recorded with this group. The biggest hit was titled Bindura and he earned his nickname from the title of that song.

Paul Mkondo, owner of Club Hide-Out 99, was instrumental in establishing Chimombe who was the resident musician at his club.

Chimombe made several hits in his own right with several of the bands mentioned above.

These included Gloria, Nyamupfukudza, Kana Ndoda Munhu, Mercy Usandisiye, Ropa Rangu, Nyarai, Munakandafa, Cacilia, Denga, Maitiro, Ini Newe (featuring Oliver Mtukudzi)), Zviyedzo, Mavanga, Vanhu, Zvaitikia, Jemedza, Siya Waoneka, Botswana,  Zvingashure, Chikenda, Kudakwashe, Mureza we Zimbabwe and Zimbabwe Ndeye Madzibaba.

Philip Svosve, one of his brass musicians played a strong part in shaping the  direction of the music and arranging the brass section of the band to which Chimombe is famous for.

In 1988 Chimombe left the Ocean City Band and formed Huchi Band with whom he recorded two albums.  Apart from being a professional musician, Chimombe also spent time teaching youngsters to play music through the Ethnomusicology programme of the Zimbabwe College of Music in Harare.

He was one of those unusual musicians who made serious investments from his earnings in music. In 1988 he bought himself a house in Cranborne and another one in Highfield.

In the song Jikinya, he showcases his wealth by singing: “Imba yangu yandinayo varume voye, ndakaiwana nekutamba jikinya. Honai ndisiyeyi zvangu nditambe jikinya. Jikinya maworesa” (I purchased my house through dancing jikinya. Leave me alone to dance jikinya).

Chimombe was married to Synodia Govera, mother to Tendai Chimombe. They divorced later after misunderstandings over Chimombe’s fans who had begun to interfere with their family life.

Tendai Chimombe, their daughter,  is an accomplished musician in her own right. She attended the Zimbabwe College of Music’s National Certificate in Music (NCM) classes and passed with a merit. She is also mother to Tafadzwa Marova, Winky D’s bassist. So, in a way, music circles around the Chimombe family.

Chimombe died at Parirenyatwa Hospital in Harare on October 23, 1990 at the age of 39. Rumours of his imminent death had begun to spread as early as January, 1990 and Chimombe would often go on radio to announce that he was still alive.

He would always say, “Handiende ndisina kuoneka. Kwandinoenda husiku” (I am not going anywhere without saying good bye to you because where I am going is filled with darkness); as if he knew he was going to pass on. Chimombe is suspected to have been HIV positive, but this does not diminish how much he was loved by the people of Zimbabwe, especially people from Highfield, Chitungwiza, Chivhu, the rest of Harare and Bindura.

Soon after his death, his two sons, Kudakwashe who was afflicted with paralysis and Freddy who had gone blind after a snake bite, also died.

Chimombe will always be remembered through his music. He churned out classic songs such as Siya Waoneka, Zvaitika and Cecilia which all still sound fresh today.

Tendai recalls the last day she visited her father in hospital.

“It was on October 23, 1990. He was sitting on a chair in his hospital ward at Parirenyatwa Hospital, holding a tissue in his right hand as if he was about to wipe off tears,” Tendai said.

“He kept looking downwards and avoided eye contact with me. We spoke for a while.

“When it was time to leave the hospital as the visiting hour was over, I sensed that something was wrong and I didn’t want to go until my father instructed me to do so.

“I went straight home from there. As soon as I got home, I got the shocking news that my father had passed away. That was it.”

The news also shook the whole country and 31 years later, tributes are still pouring in.

There is no doubt that James Chimombe was one of Zimbabwe’s giant songwriters. That is the big reason why we celebrate his legacy until today.

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