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Can we croon some more?

A tribute to Abel Sinametsi Sithole

06/07/2017 00:00:00
by Professor Mhoze Chikowero Chikowero@history.ucsb.edu
 
Passed last weekend ... The late Abel Sinametsi Sithole
 
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WHILE Zimbabweans still ponder the life and legacy of a man who penned some of the most prominent Second Chimurenga soundtracks, Cde Chinx, who passed two weeks ago, another crooner of the epic of story of self-liberation slipped away rather silently over the weekend.

News has been very thin on the passing of jazz maestro and former ZIPRA combatant, Abel Sinametsi Sithole (82), who fronted the Cool Crooners. Like Cde Chinx, Sithole was very to my heart.

I first met him in person in 2006, when I started my research on the country’s music history. My musical map of Bulawayo was quite hazy, and, as I write in my book’s acknowledgements, Sithole did not shut his door after our first conversation was over; he took me on a tour of the city. He led me to the homes of the late Kenneth and Laina Mataka, the Mutyambizi brothers (who played with the late August Musarurwa), and his friend Kembo Ncube (who accompanies him on my book cover), among others. He became the grandfather that I would visit each time I visited Bulawayo.

Below, from my book, African Music, Power and Being in Colonial Zimbabwe (Indiana University Press, 2015) is an excerpt on the life and works of one of the first fighters to leave the country to train for the liberation struggle:

On July 19, 1960, the Rhodesian state arrested NDP leaders Michael Mawema, Sketchley Samkange, Leopold Takawira, Jane Lungile Ngwenya, and others, alleged fomenters of the endemic political “disorder” in the country, and “exiled” them to Gonakudzingwa Restriction Camp, deep in the wilds of Gonarezhou Game Reserve, bordering Mozambique. In response, seven thousand Africans marched from Highfield into Salisbury, but the Whitehead government violently repulsed them. Similarly, very early on July 24 a crowd gathered at Lumumba Square in Bulawayo. It swelled to about five thousand as it snaked through Makokoba, heading for the city a mile away. Again the protestors were scattered by police batons, gun butts, dogs, and tear gas, touching off a rampage of violence as Africans targeted government property and that of alleged quislings. For three days, they looted, crushed, and burned things to the chant of “Zhii!” an onomatopoeic call to destroy utterly (Nehwati 1970, 250). State agents killed more than a dozen and jailed hundreds. The crowds seemed possessed by the spirits of the First Chimurenga (Umvukela) of sixty-three years earlier.



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The war cry “Zhii” had unnerved settler forces during the First Chimurenga, as Frederick Selous (1896, 161), a colonial soldier, recorded: “The Kafirs . . . commenced to shout out encouragingly to one another and also to make a kind of hissing noise, like the word ‘jee’ long drawn out.” “Zhii” never left the African anticolonial repertoire, becoming a popular ZAPU slogan that captivated the imaginations of both urban and rural crowds. According to Francis Nehwati and other foot soldiers, the so-called Zhii riots were an act of spontaneous popular heroism and a call for all-out war against dogged settlerism, while in settler imagination they confirmed the colonial myths of “native savagery” (Frederikse 1982, 38). Allan Wright (1972, 373), who was then mudzviti for Nuanetsi, was alarmed to hear the slogan echoing around Gonarezhou, clandestinely propagated by the same wily nationalists the state had condemned to live with wild animals at Gonakudzingwa.

Abel Sithole and his Cool Four made sure Zhii was destined to live forever in African memory. They reconstituted the chant into a song feting Africans’ show of valor, setting it to the tune of Faith Dauti’s “Nzve,” which celebrated the more mundane African defiance of urban criminalization in the earlier decades. In “Zhii,” the Cool Four chronicled the brutality and Africans’ bravery in confronting the colonial state, “all for the sake of Africa”:

Zhii!!!
Madod’ akithi alizaz’ inkathazo
Ezavela kithi la e Africa
Kwadibana, ‘bamnyama nabamhlophe
Bebanga i nkululek’ e Africa
Ingane za zifihliw’ emakhaya
Omama be lila izinyembezi
Babehamba bebaleka bevik’ inhlamvu
Abanengi babehamba bethwel’ induku
Kwalwiwa, kwafiwa ngal’ amalanga
Baphela abantu, babotshw’ abantu.
Zhii!!!

Our fellow men, you don’t know the tribulations
That emerged among us here in Africa
Blacks and whites confronted each other
Quarreling over African freedom
Children were hidden in homes
Mothers were wailing, in tears
They were going, running away, dodging bullets
Many prowled around with knobkerries
There was fighting, there was death those days
People were finished, people were arrested.3

To Sithole (interview, 2006), “Zhii” signified an emboldening spirit of popular Chimurenga: “We were saying how hard we fought, throwing rocks and things at the whites. The song eventually led to our exiling.” He and his group were sent not to Gonakudzingwa, but out of the country altogether.

During his fund-raising performances for ZAPU in exile in Zambia, Abel Sithole (interview) endured taunts from some of his uncharitable hosts, who told him, “Go back to your country and fight Smith.” He eventually did. In 1969, after training for a year in Tanzania, Sithole was deployed as part of a ZIPRA reconnaissance and recruitment unit. He was captured in battle and sentenced to death under Rhodesia’s terrorism laws, but his sentence was later commuted to life imprisonment and he was interned at Bulawayo’s Khami Maximum Security Prison. Empire brought its jail to reinforce its authority and African subjugation.

To Sithole and his guerrilla compatriots, the pain of colonial jail was aporic, testing their resilience and convictions. Culturally, it proved a transcendental opportunity to deepen the imagination of the struggling, self-liberating African. Rather than depoliticizing African consciousness, imprisonment often achieved the opposite. Thus, when Thomas Mapfumo was detained for singing “terr” songs, he reportedly dared his jailers to kill him, for that would be easier than forcing him to stop “singing Chimurenga songs—our own African traditional music” (Frederikse 1982, 110). The Chimurenga sensibility was defiantly lodged in the African desire for freedom. The songs also provided a psychological antidote to the harsh treatment and uncertainty of jail.

Colonial imprisonment was particularly tough for political prisoners, who had to sleep on bare cement floors and undertake punitive make-work tasks like crushing rocks. Song remained one way to ease the psychological toll. Sithole and his colleagues thus formed prison bands:

I formed a band called Down Beat, with K. Shumba and Zizi—the three of us. Another five colleagues formed a separate group, Merry Makers. So we took turns to entertain prisoners, encouraging them not to worry too much, because death hung over our heads and also because of the ill treatment. We grouped together as ZIPRA and ZANLA to sing Chimurenga songs until it was time to sleep. That helped the inmates not to lose their heads; though five or six did! (Interview).

Unlike prison writing, singing was a more communal mode of marking time and collectively contesting the mental paralysis that the authorities intended. The songs helped reinforce the inmates’ political beliefs and cement their struggles and ideals. This defiant guerrilla agency disarmed the colonial jail and transformed it from a spiritual desert into a space from which to collectively (re)imagine the nation. It allowed Sithole to compose, learn, and share songs and experiences with fellow countrymen from different political parties and other parts of the country: “I composed some of the songs, and learned a lot from my fellow inmates like Mbengeranwa, who taught me mbirasongs. . . . There was much scope to exchange these songs and also to share thoughts and experiences.” 

One of the songs that Mbengeranwa taught Sithole was “Tsenzi” (Honeybird), a deeply spiritual mbirapiece:


Gogogoi tasvika isu nherera                                  We have arrived, we the orphans
Musango dema rinochema tsenzi                         In the dark forest of the chirping honeybird
Mhondoro dzesango dzinozarura                         The guardian spirits will open the way
Musango dema rinochema tsenzi                          In the dark forest of the chirping honeybird
Vakadzi musarase dota mariri                               Women, don’t dispose of ash in it
Musango dema rinochema tsenzi.                         The dark forest of the chirping honeybird.

Tsenzi is a chirping honeybird that escorts hunters to bee colonies so that it may also enjoy the spoils. Zimbabwe cultures revere this bird, as they do mhondoro, the spirit lion, and chapungu (pl. zvapungu), the bateleur eagle, often interpreting their sighting as epiphanic. During the war, vadzimu deployed these creatures as messengers and signs to guerrillas, as Cde Shungu explained to Munyaradzi Huni (interview):

To us, these were not ordinary birds. They were zvitumwa [messengers] of the ancestors. . . . When you see approaching bateleur eagles hitting each other, know that a battle is imminent and be on standby and alert. Sometimes chapungu would come shrieking and flying very close to the ground. That was a sure sign that the enemy is close and you should leave that place and follow in the direction of its flight; that was your safe route.

Harming these sacred creatures would desecrate the forests and upset the ancestors.

In “(Gwindingwi Rine) Shumba” (Gwindingwi Mountain has a predator lion), Mapfumo used the dark forest as a metaphor for the confusion and uncertainty that had struck the Africans. However, in “Tsenzi,” the dark forest is also the holy abode of the ancestors, who maintain the balance of nature and manifest through symbols like tsenzi, zvapungu, and mhondoro to guide people through such confusion and uncertainty as long as they uphold ancestral precepts. People do not ordinarily venture into the dark forest save in a desperate search for refuge from a life-threatening invasion, for an organized hunt, or because they are lost. In all such circumstances, they would supplicate their ancestors for guidance and observe the precepts that govern the sacred forests as both a refuge and a resource, as the ancestors are the ultimate guardians of the land and African ecology. To Madzimbabwe, the independence war was a desperate bid to drive out obstinate invaders who imperiled their very existence, so they took both literal and psychological refuge in the dark forests, as Mbengeranwa sang.

The same meaning is shared by “Haisi Mhosva yaChinamano” (It’s not Chinamano’s fault), composed by Lot Nyathi, Dennis Dhlamini, and Ken Ndhlovu, ZIPRA captives also held at Khami:

It is not the fault of Chinamano,
It is not the fault of Musarurwa
That the children of Zimbabwe must carry guns to fight in Zimbabwe 
Truly we have suffered;
Our relatives are in the wire,
Others are orphans,
Their riches have vanished
Let’s fight in Zimbabwe,
Let’s be brave and fight the war of our ancestors,
The war of Chindunduma;
Let’s be brave—we, the Africans—to finish the war of liberation in Zimbabwe. (Frederikse 1982, 110)8

Chimurenga song assuaged the pain of imprisonment and inspired even those thus shackled to fight on. Thus, as Nyathi and his colleagues told Julie Frederikse, “Those who were released earlier had to convey the message to the people outside. They had to sing those songs and let the people get to know them. We knew that they were going to be sung and that we, too, were going to sing them outside one day.” Prison songs, therefore, perpetuated the spirit of the historical revolution which Nyathi and colleagues conceptualized as the war of the ancestors, hondo yeChindunduma.

Imprisonment could not kill this transgenerational spirit of Chindunduma. Nelson Chikutu (interview) was imprisoned briefly in Chikurubi in 1976 for public stoning and sabotage. He was amazed to find that inmates in the notorious prison were jovial, defiantly singing such songs as “Tinoda Nyika Yedu”—“Tinoda nyika yedu nehupfumi hwayo hwose; Zimbabwe; Nyika yedu yakatorwa nevauyi; Zuva rayo rasvika (We demand our country—the whole of it together with all its wealth; Zimbabwe; Our country colonized by aliens; Its day has come). The experience was incisive to Chikutu: “When you are in jail and those sorts of songs are sung, you see that jeri racho harina zvariri kushanda” (the jail is serving no purpose). In other words, Chimurenga song disarmed the colonial jail and rendered it not only ineffectual but, nightmarishly for the colonial state, one of the many unlikely spaces from which guerrillas propagated the revolution and held the colonial state to account.

Throughout the near century of colonial overlordship, Africans wielded song to articulate their cultures, their overwhelming sense of loss and unhappiness, and their defiant celebration of life, hope, resistance, and self-liberation. Jane Lungile Ngwenya summarized the power of song best when she noted to me in 2012, “Song made life easier. When you go to a jakwara or nhimbe [communal work party] the task does not go smoothly without song. All collective endeavors are driven by song.” Chimurenga was a jakwara of self-liberation, mobilized only by a few, “as others still doubted its feasibility, doubting whether we were really going to beat mabhunu.” Yet the thrill of militant jakwara summoned and intoxicated participants, steeling them to confront their fear of the cannibalistic settler state.

The genealogy of Chimurenga song draws from the depths of African historical independence, spanning the decades from the First Chimurenga (1896–97) through to the outbreak of the second in the 1960s, and it exists today as interwoven historical memory. Between the two wars, Africans largely expressed their opposition to colonialism nonviolently, with villagers, schoolteachers, and students as well as professional musicians weaving a rich repertoire of musical cultures of resistance that eventually inspired armed struggle. Leaders of the nationalist movement drew on this vault of defiant arts of self-liberation to marshal a discourse of mass cultural nationalism and to mobilize for the war that finally dismantled colonial rule. Song, then, constituted an indispensable arsenal in Africans’ struggle for freedom. 

For your contribution and sacrifice, rest in power, Cool Crooner Abel Snametsi Sithole!

Mhoze Chikowero is Associate Professor of African History at the University of California, Santa Barbara, and the Director of Research at the Mbira Institute, Harare. He is also an American Council of Learned Societies Fellow and an ACLS Visiting Research Professor at Wits University, Joburg. His book, which won the H.K. Kwabena Nketia Book award (2013-16) African Music, Power and Being in Colonial Zimbabwe (Indiana University Press, 2015), from which this piece is extracted, can be purchased at the Mbira Centre in Highlands, Harare. Professor Chikowero can be reached at Chikowero@history.ucsb.edu


 
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