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History of Sungura Music in Zimbabwe
Sungura is Swahili for “hare” and it was named such because of the high velocity in which the hare can run. It’s also popularly known as museve (arrow) because an arrow travels at a very high speed.
Sungura or Museve is a popular music genre in Zimbabwe. This genre was popularised in the 1980s by groups like Khiama Boys, Zimbabwe Cha Cha Cha Kings and Leonard Dembo amongst many others. Sungura, the mother of genres, is characterised by lengthy songs with fast tempos which are full of high energy. Sungura is said to be the offspring of kanindo and rhumba put together. The music was named after Phares Oluoch Kanindo, a politician and music producer, whose studio was churning out hits from his POK Music Stores.
It is believed that the sound of Sungura reportedly originated from the East and Central Africa and the story goes like this, it was the 1940s and 1950s and a man named Mura Nyakura working for a trader in a job that allowed him to travel between Central and East Africa from the then Rhodesia. He fell in love with the Congolese kanindo-rhumba beat, and he brought home several records. Not just records, but sound. At the time the influence of black American jazz was at its peak in Rhodesia. The hot acts were performing mostly in quartets and they had exotic names like De Black Evening Follies, The City Quads, the Epworth Theatrical Stutters and Capital City Dixies. They all worshiped Nat King Cole and the black American jazz scene. So, in essence rhumba was merely a niche fascination.
Another version of events was that in the 1960s, and fighters from across Southern Africa were stationed in camps across the Tanzanian countryside, training to liberate their people. They passed the empty hours listening to kanindo music, a close cousin of rhumba. Among those young fighters in the camps were the likes of Ketai Muchawaya, and other comrades who known by their war names – Dhembo Kenyatta, Rex Moto Moto, Stalin Organ. They immersed themselves in the music, and formed a makeshift band to entertain fighters and refugees in the vast camps. As the war drew to an end, they returned home and together with Marko Sibanda and Knowledge Kunenyati they formed The Kasongo Band. This band was named after the popular Orchestra Super Mazembe song ‘Kasongo’. But years later a few daring bands emerged with the influence of exiled Congolese bands such as the Great Sounds and OK Success, and they started experimenting with this new African sound, hoping to break away from western influences. They weaved together rhumba and traditional jiti sounds, laying the foundation of what would be known as sungura music. It’s safe to say that kanindo was borrowed, repackaged and gave birth to a new style called Sungura. The sungura record label, which was written boldly on LPs at the time, saw Zimbabwean musicians subsequently naming the invented guitar style sungura. More than forerunners Kasongo Band and Sungura Boys were to have the strongest influence on the genre. Not only did they adapt the sound, but would give us many of the genre’s superstars. The comrades had not only won us our independence but they had brought home the sound from
Ephraim Joe and his band the Sungura Boys popularised Sungura music. The Sungura Boys counted many notable future hit makers as members and these included John Chibadura (guitar), Simon and Naison Chimbetu, Ronnie Chataika (guitar and vocals), Mitchell Jambo (drums), Ephraim Joe (guitar), Moses Marasha (bass), Never Moyo (lead guitar), Bata Sinfirio (rhythm guitar), System Tazvida (guitar and vocals), Peter Moyo (guitar and vocals). Within a few years’ time, the genre had become the most popular music genre with over three quarters of the musicians playing it. Legendary producer Bothwell Nyamhondera is credited for producing sungura music becoming one of the originators and earliest proponents of the genre. The Khiama Boys emerged as natural successors to the Sungura Boys after their demise during the mid-eighties. Members would include System Tazvida (Rhythm guitar), Nicholas Zacharia (Lead guitar), Alick Macheso (Bass), Silas Chakanyuka (Drums) and Zacharia Zakaria (Sub Rhythm guitar). A great number of these artistes went on to forge successful careers with their own bands.
Sungura has remained a contending genre despite the popularisation of dancehall music, Afro-pop and hip hop in Zimbabwe. It is characterised by lead vocals with catchy choruses, fast guitar lines played by two or three guitarists, bass and drums. A lot of music lovers have enjoyed listening to the genre because most musicians touch on real issues that affect our society although some regarded it as music for the rural folk and uncultured.
Most musicians who play this genre usually tackle different life experiences that include love, hardships and unity. Some of the earlier proponents of this genre like Leonard Zhakata and John Chibadura’s music was marked with hopelessness, entrapment and despair. In extreme contrast, others sang of hope and optimism in hard times and the hope that everything would be fine in due course. One such musician was the late Tongai Moyo whose music was rooted in purposeful urgency, unity in struggle and an optimistic outlook on life. Sungura rooted itself among the masses, from the rural ‘growth points’ to urban townships, because many could identify with its messages the daily social struggles of the people and the many complexities of human relationships.
According to Mitchell Jambo who recorded (‘Ndini Uyo’- which is Zimbabwe’s longest recorded song which is 25 minutes) explained that sungura wasn’t about just singing a 2 to15 minute song there was more to it than that. The longer the song, the more your expertise and craft was displayed. Dance played a major role in sungura and many bands had dancers who exhibited superbly choreographed dancing styles. It is believed that the earliest sungura dance style was bhasikoro adopted from farm workers and people who lived in rural areas. The dance has moves that resemble a cyclist pedalling a bicycle. Another version says bhasikoro was developed by the Kasongo Band which was made up of liberation war fighters who had been to Tanzania. The fighters are said to have adopted it from Cavacha, a dance that was popular in East and Central Africa in the 1970s through bands like Zaiko Langa Langa and Orchestra Shama Shama. New dancing styles came into play including the Chimbetus’ dendera dance. Discussion about sungura dances cannot be closed without mentioning Alick Macheso who has choreographed a lot of styles over the years. These include Borrowdale, Razor wire, Kangaroo, Kochekera and Zora Butter.
Sungura’s sound as we know it now, is descended from Shepherd Chinyani and Ephraim Joe, the two patriarchs of the Sungura Boys. They took the kanindo sound and gave it an extra edge; the lead guitar remaining the key instrument, but pitched just a bit higher. The pace got faster, capturing the buoyant mood of the time. James Chimombe on the other hand whose romantic ballads and influential sungura guitar melody (consisting of lead, rhythm and bass), made him a favourite in the late 80s. The 90s was dominated by musicians like Leonard Dembo, the effervescent Khiama Boys, veteran Simon Chimbetu and upcoming artistes of the time like Alick Macheso, Tongai Moyo and Somandhla Ndebele. The star of the decade was Leonard Zhakata whose musical project was a spinoff of the double play Maungwe Brothers an act fronted by Zhakata and his cousin Thomas Makion.
In the 1990s, Zimbabwe began to go through great changes, and so did sungura. A government that had flirted with socialist pretences swung right, and adopted the neo-liberal Economic Structural Adjustment Programme (ESAP) of the International Monetary Fund. The policies threw thousands of people out of work, and prices rose.
Into all this entered Leonard Zhakata, with his colourful viscose and silk shirts, and baggy trousers often accessorised with more than one belt. His sungura borrowed heavily from soukous, a fast-paced brand of rhumba, popularised by the likes of Kanda Bongo Man, a nod perhaps to old shared roots.
But beneath all that glitter was a genius, whose lyrics in his 1994 hit, ‘Mugove’, captured the abuse of power by those in authority, and the growing divide between the haves and the have-nots.
Sungura is predominantly sung in Shona, but it is also hugely popular among the Kalanga people of south-western Zimbabwe. The two fathers of Kalanga sungura were Nduna Malaba, known as “Ndux Malax”, and Solomon Skuza, whose 1980s song, “Banolila”, remains an anthem. Like Kasongo Band’s Ketayi Muchawaya, Skuza developed his music while in a guerrilla training camp during the 1970s. His band was called Fallen Heroes and was in honour of liberation war fighters. Musically, the Kalanga brand of sungura had a faster pace to it than other sungura, and was laced with humourous skits and chants mid-song. Even amid the humour, weighty issues were subtly tackled. Khumbulani Moyo and his Tukuye Super Sounds mocked one Chakanetsa, a notorious Mashonaland police officer operating in the predominantly Ndebele area of Tsholotsho. The success of these other acts showed an ethnic diversity within sungura that probably other Zimbabwean genres lacked.
The stories of Sungura’s golden years were also told in the romantic album covers. The covers portrayed young men who, much like their nation, were full of confidence that they were on the way up. Jonah Moyo and Devera Ngwena Jazz Band had the best ones. The liberal outfits, bell-bottom trousers, large shades, floral shirts and afros and this struck a chord in this new, young nation that was only beginning to explore its freedom.
Devera Ngwena had come out of the booming mines of Zimbabwe’s heartland, but their fortunes fell with the collapse of the asbestos industry that had funded them. The mine tied them down for years to a slave contract. The mine would fund the band, as long as the men surrendered the bulk of their earnings. When the band became popular, the mine raked in the money at their expense.
Despite what has become of the music, sungura has had a good run. It has had its three golden ages: the era of Kasongo Band and Sungura Boys, the era of Zhakata, Khiama Boys and Leonard Dembo, and the last phase of Alick Macheso and Tongai Moyo. There are no new Chinyanis’ or Ephraim Joes to nurture a fresh new cadre of sungura artists.
This was the music that once best captured the national mood at key turns in Zimbabwe’s history, from the euphoric early years to the economic and political struggles of latter years.
Unfortunately, and sadly for Zimbabwe a lot of the musicians associated with the rise of sungura have all sadly passed away with the likes of System Tazvida, Simon Chimbetu, John Chibadura, Leonard Dembo, Thomas Makion, Tongai Moyo, James Chimombe, Marshall Munhumumwe, Daiton Somanje, Solomon Skuza and many more and they shall all be remembered for their input and contribution to Zimbabwe’s biggest genres Sungura Music.
Credits: Pindula.co.zw, Wikipedia, The Herald Newspaper, NewsDay and Sunguracentral.tumblr.com (Ranga Mberi)