I am in the habit of moaning about encounters that never happened : how Jimi Hendrix never played with Miles Davis; how Dambudzo Marechera never met JM Coetzee. But we should be grateful for appointments that occurred, for rendezvous that weren’t disrupted by tropical storms.
Take Chimurenga music, for instance, what would it be like if its chief exponent Thomas Mapfumo (Mukanya from now on; the musician is one of a few people who have earned the right to be rid of forenames and surnames and be called by their clan names) hadn’t met guitarist Jonah Sithole? It’s possible there would have been no Chimurenga music, certainly not as we know the rebel sonics now.
Sithole was to Mukanya what Nigerian drummer Tony Allen was to AfroBeat founder Anikulapo Kuti: brothers and bedfellows, companions and comrades. Sithole was at the nucleus of the music, right at the centre of the smithy at which the sound was forged, the man whose ears were attuned to the genre’s slightest susurrations. An inventive presence, always updating the music, he deserves to share the title of co-creator with Mukanya. Yet theirs was a frictional fraternity better summed up using that biblical adage “iron sharpens iron”.
But whoever tells the story, both are keen to acknowledge the contributions of the other. There is an interview on Youtube, in which Sithole, on a 1996 tour of Amsterdam, speaks with Dutch aficionados of African music.
It was a year before his death. He was just 42.
Let’s get the biographical details out of the way. Sithole was born in 1952, in Masvingo, near the majestic stone walls of Zimbabwe.
1952 was a leap year.
Sithole and his family moved to Zvishavane, a mining town nearby. Over the centuries, out of Zvishavana’s red earth, asbestos and beryl, diamonds and gold, have been forcibly removed. He then moved to Bulawayo where he was soon expelled from school while still in junior secondary. What to say about Bulawayo, already a bustling city when Rhodes and his column raised the Union Jack on the Kopje, whose claim to capital city status was stolen through the connivance of Rhodes, the same Rhodes whom the kids have recently felled?
Sithole taught himself to play the bass, his brother’s guitar. His brother was a miner and part of a mine band. “I was just listening to [and seeing] what he [his guitar playing brother] was doing.” From around the age of 12, whenever his brother wasn’t around the homestead, he would “steal” his brother’s instrument to try out melodies floating in his head. (I can’t find any information which suggests that he could play the mbira but it’s an instrument he would certainly have known and of whose rhythms he would have been intimately aware).
The young Sithole then trekked from Bulawayo to the steel-making town of Que Que. He was looking for his musician brother. When he got to Que Que he was told his brother had left for Salisbury. His brother’s musician friends invited Sithole to join their band, Jairosi Jiri Kwela Kings. After playing in the group for about six months, Sithole left, joining his brother in Salisbury.
At its inception Salisbury was by most accounts a shitty place. Some would say not much has changed. “It was an untidy place: the buildings looked as if they had been shaken out of a pepper-pot,” one account says.
On arrival he joined Lipopo Jazz, an exciting Congolese band ruling the intensely competitive Salisbury live music scene led by Jackson Phiri. Sithole wasn’t immediately welcome in the band. He’d play dance and popular western tunes, preparing the audience for the main Congolese fare. Then one day Lipopo’s guitarist didn’t arrive, so they turned to Sithole. He couldn’t play rhumba but they said to him, “we’ll teach you how to play rhumba.” The responsibility was delegated to the band’s Zambian guitarist, one Passmore.
It didn’t take him long to get the music right. Not just rhumba but other genres as well. So accomplished did he become that in the 1996 interview, conducted while on a tour of the Netherlands with Mukanya, Sithole said: “I am not boasting, but nobody can teach me new tricks.”
When Sithole first met Mukanya in Harare 1975, he was about 21; Mukanya was already 30. But in musical years, he was already approaching ancestorhood. Mukanya himself told me that “Jonah knew a lot of music.”
After playing in a number of bands (Great Sounds, Pepsi Combo, Vibrations, Drifters and Storm) he finally started his life-long, on-now-and-off-the-next-moment collaborations with Mukanya.
Around the mid 1970s, Mukanya was looking for a gig as the resident band at Jamaica Inn, a hotel near Salisbury. There was a small problem. Mukanya had no musicians and there was competition from six other bands for the same position. In the event, they got the gig. “We were a hit with him, one time.”
But they weren’t playing Chimurenga music then, that epoch would come later. They were doing cover versions of popular rock and soul tunes. At Sithole’s insistence, according to the guitarist’s version, they started doing renditions of folk music. “We weren’t playing mbira music then; it was traditional [folk] music, songs like Chikende, Chiruzevha chapera.”
But Sithole’s signature stamp on Chimurenga music would eventually arrive in 1977. For some time he had been trying to get the sound of the mbira on the guitar. “[Initially] I thought it couldn’t be done … The difficulty with the mbira is that it is different from the keyboard, where there are straightforward pitch keys. [On the mbira] there are flat and sharp pitches, but it’s needed; that’s how it should be. If you have a good ear you’ll have to imitate all that. Most of the guitarists were lazy and thought they couldn’t do it…it was a challenge which I took up.” “Sabhuku” was the first track on which the experiment worked.
It was an achievement both for him and for the music. The two men had left the provinces to come and make it in the city. They had never entirely discarded the rural sensibility: the aesthetic of the work song, the intrepid hunter and his tireless dogs or the witch of a woman who had a python for a son (With the benefit of hindsight, we can classify some of the mystical, otherworldly stuff they did as Afrofuturism, but that’s a topic for another day). But they didn’t just want to bring the country into the city, after all it was a parched, rocky land they had fled to look for opportunities in the fabled city.
They wanted to infuse a new sensibility, that of the segregated city, of the sharp dressers, of the factory and of the war against the white minority regime that had begun in earnest. So while the music contained the moonlit rustic landscapes and nostalgia for wild fruits yet they were able to bring in the new realities and the colonial imprint of the white man, who now traversed the sacred earth as the new lord.
Explaining the decision to use the template of the mbira instead of other African instruments, Sithole said: “the way we were singing then, as we tried to understand our own culture, I thought if we are going to be more traditional I have to look somewhere where we can find real [traditional] sounds to incorporate into this thing [guitar]. I decided the mbira [was going] to be the instrument. We have marimba, chipendani (mouth bow), the drum. But we had to look for an instrument with force to experiment with … .” The mbira, described by guitarist Andy Brown, as the most spiritual instrument of the Shona people, seemed the perfect instrument for this experiment.
Sithole’s virtuoso stroking of the guitar as the mbira would find fullest expression on Zimbabwe/Mozambique (1987) and Kuvarombo Kuvarombo (1989). The 1987 release is a dark and brooding offering whose inspiration seems to be the embittered ghost of Mozambique’s founding president, Samora Machel, whose plane had just crashed to his death.
So successful was Sithole at playing the mbira guitar that when he left to form a band called The Deep Horizons, Mapfumo had to recruit actual mbira players. Sithole was so crucial to the Chimurenga sound that even when he wasn’t in the band, he would be contracted to play whenever Mukanya was in the recording studio.
A man supremely confident of his own talents, Sithole pointed out: “there was no way to separate my guitar from his [Mukanya] own thing.”
And that’s the truth of the encounter that happened, for which we are grateful.
 In the novel Amulet by Chilean writer Roberto Bolano, a character moans, “the truth is our history is full of encounters that never occurred.”