Since what happened happened, I have been so touched by many people who have contributed towards this project, and, by default, to my healing process. One such person is film-maker and photographer Graeme Oxby, who gave me this wonderful gift.
We met, I think, in 1999. I was working for darts, Doncaster Community Arts, in our brand new building The Point. He did a week’s residency for us with Sunduza. I was drawn to him for his talent and his easy, friendly manner; I was greatly impressed by his workshop skills, but it was a full ten years of him coming and going before I dared to think that we could be together. For most of those years, we were colleagues and friends. He was never around for long periods – he was always based in Sheffield when he came to the UK – but he worked with us as much as he could. My fondest memory, looking back now, is of the two of us sitting on the floor of the Studio as he taught me a southern African lullaby – I was doing a project called Lullabies with parents and babies and wanted an African one. I think of that day every time I hear it:
On a much sadder occasion, driving with Simon’s dear friend Albert Nyathi from Harare to Bulawayo for Simon’s funeral, Albert played a version of the song in the car and we both wept. He said he and Simon had listened to it just a week before and Simon had said how much he liked it.
In 2009 I planned a sabbatical from work and decided to go to Zimbabwe. I’d met and worked with a group called Umdumo Wesizwe and they offered to host my stay. Prompted by my good friend Godfrey Pambalipe, a close friend of Simon’s then living in Doncaster and working regularly for darts, I got in touch with Simon, having not seen him for well over a year, and we met up in Bulawayo. A relationship developed, surprising us both. In between rehearsing and performing with Umdumo, I began to fall in love with this man, fourteen years my junior, and embarked on a roller coaster ride. We visited the Matopos and Victoria Falls, two of Zimbabwe’s beauty spots, and then left Zimbabwe to meet Godfrey and Shuna, another friend who worked for darts, in South Africa. We had an amazing time full of stories, laughter and inevitably a few tears – we were testing each other out and it was not always plain sailing. But by the time I flew back from Johannesburg at the end of the trip we were both convinced that we had something worth working on.
Fast forward to two years later through ups and downs, falling apart and coming back together. We met at Oliver Tambo airport, briefly met Simon’s daughter Ormmie and her new baby Ashley, and then travelled to Swaziland where Simon had been working for some months. From there we went on to Zimbabwe where Simon introduced me to his family – two of his children Charlie and Amanda, his older brother Claudius and his wife who had brought him up since the death of his mother, and some of his mother’s relatives in the countryside. It all felt hugely significant.
As with all my trips to Africa, it was a stay never devoid of incident. Returning to Jo’burg for a night before catching the bus to Bulawayo, we again met up with Godfrey who insisted we meet members of his family in a Zimbabwean pub before going on to a birthday party. Simon was really reluctant to go and his discomfort increased when we saw a demonstration by Congolese nationals going on in the square opposite the pub. However, we went inside and I chatted happily with members of Godfrey’s family, until Simon came over and said there was gunfire outside and we should leave. I readily agreed and Simon went to fetch Godfrey. Suddenly police swarmed into the pub and lined the walls. Simon and Godfrey came through, waving me over to follow them to the door, but at that point the police swung into action, shouting and pulling at Simon and Godfrey, barring the door and attacking Simon with a whip. The officer in charge yelled at everyone to crouch down, and it was all very ugly and disturbing, until the officer seemed to clock me, the one white woman in the place, and said to everyone, “Do not go outside, it is dangerous.” Why could he not have said that before, I wonder? And then just as quickly, the police melted away, the pub returned to normal, and an enraged Simon called a taxi and took me back to the hotel.
Back in Jo’burg at the end of my stay, in the same very basic little hotel in Yeovil, Simon, rarely known for his romantic tendencies, took a necklace from his neck and put it around mine. “Hold our love, sweetheart,” he said.
It has rarely been off my neck since. For the album, I translated that phrase into Ndebele and put the story into a song – Bamba Uthando Lwethu.
Now our love has been tested by borders and miles,
And the ultimate parting, but still it survives
Until I find asylum in Spirit with you for eternity
Bamba, bamba, bamba uthando lwethu, sizesibonane njalo
There were several theories. Some said they had seen advance publicity of the launch event we were planning. Some said they were alerted by my putting “musician” on my immigration form. Some favoured a conspiracy and sabotage theory. Some pointed to the uneasy relationship between our respective governments. Whatever it was, they – immigration that is – were not going to budge. The officer at Bulawayo airport and, later, the chief officer in town, both insisted that I could not perform in public without a temporary work permit costing $500, the same as it would for much longer than the period I was staying.
I explained in full the context in which I was wanting to perform – the second anniversary of Simon’s passing, the tribute album we had recorded last year, and the planned launch. I emphasised that I would not be paid for this performance or indeed any other occasion that I might be invited to sing during my stay. The chief officer, although kind and professional, was firm and unmoving. “Rules are rules,” she said.
And so began a long trail of paperwork and visits to offices – endless walks along drab and dreary corridors past doors marked with impenetrable job titles, endless repetitions of the same information, endless frustration at time wasted, endless waiting around for people to show up or to do what they had promised.
Many people helped – my old friend Mbazo Phiri of Sabela Music Projects, who runs the Ibumba Festival, explained in detail what we had to do, gave us office space to write letters, made phone calls to Harare on our behalf, introduced me to a government minister and generally gave a lot of moral support. Annabel, one of my strong women, helped with a lot of the paperwork and lent her laptop. Desmond Ntini, another old friend who put a lot of energy into the launch project, accompanied me and Charlie on several of our immigration visits, and found me a hotel where I could get a drink after a particularly bad day. William Nyandoro at the Bulawayo office of the National Arts Council was very supportive and although he was off work in the second week did not turn us away when in desperation we turned up at his home late one evening.
We produced a contract, a budget indicating how much of my own money was going into the project, and a letter to the main Arts Council office in Harare. Everyone we spoke to, apart from immigration of course, said we should not have to pay. On the Tuesday of the second week, endorsed by the head of the Arts Council as permission was in process, I performed at the opening of the Ibumba Festival.
Days dragged on – not one without a trip into town related to this and other snatched errands to do with the launch concert. Every day we would swear that we would return from town in time to rehearse, and almost every day we failed to do so. The rest of Sunduza, bless them, were understanding and sympathetic.
On the Thursday of the second week we finally received, via the Bulawayo office, the official letter from the Arts Council in Harare giving me permission to play at Ibumba on the Friday and the launch on the Saturday. After another long wait at immigration for an answer from their Harare office, during which Charlie’s cousin Leroy was sent to an internet cafe, at my expense, to scan and email a document because they didn’t have a scanner, I was told to come back on the Friday morning to pay for the work permit.
Rules are rules, indeed, and in hindsight we should have dealt with this a long way in advance. Mbazo has intimated before that I have been lucky to escape the scrutiny of the authorities, and earlier this year a South African gospel singer he had engaged was turned back at the airport, so I guess they’re tightening up. Artists in Zimbabwe operate under a lot of stresses too – when we went for the required police permission for the concert, for example, we were asked for a copy of the CD so that it could be screened for any political content. Even diverting from the standard version of the national anthem can invite censure apparently. So on the whole I guess I got off lightly.
The experience bruised me however, dominated the short duration of my stay, and only just failed to totally spoil the launch concert. I’m not going to say, “Never again,” but I do feel that a break from my regular visits is indicated.
More positive blogs to follow, I promise!
Simon often called me a strong woman – usually when I was bemoaning the distance between us, how much I missed him, how hard it was to sustain a long-distance relationship, the British immigration system, I could go on…He had a particular mix of traditional African values and an awareness of the changing status of women and the different way of life in Europe; he respected the fact that I could never be a traditional African wife but still went through the motions of introducing me in the traditional way to his much older brother and his wife, who brought him up, advising me to wear a long dress rather than jeans – not because of the formality of the occasion but because modesty for an African woman means draping the bottom half of her anatomy in long skirts or dresses.
In the days following his sudden death I felt anything but strong, going through the motions of booking a flight and getting myself to Bulawayo, sitting on the floor of the house with the women, insisting on seeing his body and then somehow getting through the funeral, singing a song I’d learned on the flight and getting through it before collapsing in the heat. I took advice on what to wear and covered my head with a scarf, which apparently went down really well with the family. I was treated very much as Simon’s wife, riding in the funeral car with the coffin and being given a central seat by the graveside.
Strong women in Zimbabwe range from young girls from the countryside functioning as maids to earn their keep, through grandmothers raising children because their mothers are either working away or have passed over, to those struggling to forge a career for themselves.
When I returned to make the album, I asked Charlie to find me some women – it felt important that I be not the only female voice on the album. There are many female artists in Bulawayo but most are dancers rather than singers. One excellent female imbube group, Nobuntu, had just returned from a European tour and were spending time with their families, so we didn’t feel we could ask them.
Two neighbours of Charlie’s in Magwegwe often came to watch our rehearsals and always had interesting things to say about our performance. I came to regard Nonsie and Annabel as friends and slowly Charlie and I formed the idea that perhaps they, along with his sister Ormmie, could perhaps do a song with me. They were very keen and came along to the house one evening with their friend Gamue where we workshopped some ideas about strong women and what that meant for them. I strummed some chords and we soon came up with a chorus – “umfaz’olesizotha, sitsh’umfaz’olesimilo” – strong woman, a woman with dignity. Each of us then wrote her own verse and we ended up with a mix of Ndebele, Shona and English, also mixing sung and spoken words.
The song has worked a treat with my choirs. When I first came home there was an exhibition in the gallery in the building where I work called “Brilliant Women.” The Quirky Choir made up their own verses about brilliant women in their lives, and came up with a second chorus that was an English translation of the Ndebele. Sheffield Socialist Choir did a version for International Women’s Day in March 2013, celebrating Malala Yousafzai the Pakistani woman shot by the Taliban for campaigning for girls’ education, the less well-known Hina Kahn, and a Palestinian poet. More recently Retford Community Singers have celebrated Jayne Tomlinson, Mother Theresa, Camilla Batmangelidjh and loved ones closer to home.
Simon and I both had a history of several past relationships and really wanted this one to work. Although it was sadly untested in the cold light of the everyday, I like to think that we, as two creative thinkers, could have worked something out, and that the strong woman he so admired would have thrived alongside him.
So in less than I week I’ll be flying back to Bulawayo, Zimbabwe, to launch Shine Like A Rainbow, the album I’ve produced with Sunduza, Jeys Marabini, Albert Nyathi, Willis Wataffi, Desire Moyoxide, Otis Ngwabi and others in tribute to my wonderful and much missed partner Simon Rainbow Dr. Mahlaba Banda, otherwise known as Sam, and to mark the second anniversary of his passing with the unveiling of a gravestone. I can’t quite believe I’m writing this, but it’s true.
The concert will take place on Saturday 20th December in the open air theatre in Pumula, which is the home of the Amasiko Lemvelo community project and the place where Sunduza regularly rehearse. Prior to that we have other gigs, notably at the Ibumba International Festival in Stanley Square, and of course plenty of rehearsals.
The clip above shows us rehearsing Woza Ngena, one of the original Sunduza songs which Simon adapted from a traditional song exhorting children to honour their traditional games. Our version includes children both from the Sunduza family and from the neighbourhood where Simon lived. I wanted to include games that they might play – there is a reference to a clapping game, a rhyme to pick teams, and to hopscotch, as well as a list of the children’s names – ending with a boy who really is called Marvellous! We list the names of Simon’s five children too, and his little granddaughter Ashley, and include my own son and three granddaughters whom Simon never met but always wanted to hear about. On the video you can see Charlie at the front conducting the children, and his brother Tonny behind another camera.
It’s interesting to watch this again, in the little shelter within the theatre – if we used this space rather than the stage it was because either it was too hot or it was raining – our clothes suggest the latter. We spent hours on this song before arriving at the version for the recording, and will no doubt spend many more to ensure that the children are comfortable on stage. Mind you, if you watch to the end you will notice that it wasn’t the children who made a mistake on this occasion!
Charlie has started a WhatsApp group for people connected with the concert and it’s very touching from this end to see the excitement and willingness to help with the organisation. There is an almost tangible buzz in the air.
Meanwhile, I’m mostly wondering if I’ll ever be ready in time…
October has been a pretty frantic month – my three choirs have all been learning songs from Shine Like A Rainbow, and last weekend saw me heading off to Whitby to do a special workshop at Musicport world music festival. The next couple of weeks will see workshops for Sosa-Xa! in Sheffield and Harmony Choir in Leeds. Somewhere along the way I decided that I need not rush to get the album online and fully “out there,”as there will be plenty of time for a launch in the UK when Sunduza come over, so I have been selling CDs in my choir sessions and at the workshops, which has proved highly successful.
At the Musicport workshop I was joined by three members of Siyaya, good friends from the artistic community in Bulawayo, who are just coming to the end of their tour of the UK. They agreed to help me out with the workshop on their way to a gig in Newcastle, but at the last minute one of the Musicport headliners pulled out and Jim McLaughlin, the festival organiser, invited Siyaya to take their place. I was really pleased that they got a paid gig out of doing me a favour.
So Ishmael, Mkhux (who also sings with Sunduza and is on the album) and Makula brought their tremendous energy to the Royal Hotel Ballroom, where a great crowd gathered for the workshop. We learned Rainbow/Zulu Buya and Somewhere You’re Dancing, two songs which have also proved popular with Retford Community Singers and Quirky Choir. Floating out of the workshop on a real high, we decided that I should join Siyaya on stage that evening to perform Somewhere You’re Dancing, and invite anyone who was at the workshop to come down to the front to sing with us. This we did to a fantastic reception – I hadn’t expected to sell any of my CDs that evening, but people were asking for them and two women rushed up to me saying, “We want that song for our funerals!”
I originally wrote it to sing solo at the memorial concert for Simon and his nephew Mandla in Sheffield in April 2013. When I went to Zimbabwe last December to put the album together, Charlie and the Sunduza guys made it their own, adding harmonies, references to one of Simon’s songs, percussion and a real party atmosphere. The chorus goes:
I don’t want you to rest in peace
That would never be your kind of heaven
I feel better if I believe
That somewhere you’re dancing
The words have provoked strong reactions in people – mostly positive, although I appreciate its sentiments are not for everyone. But what if we didn’t say “rest in peace” as a cliched reaction to a passing? What if, having acknowledged the pain and loss of the person left behind, we said something like, “I bet s/he’s having a great time over there?” Would it be disrespectful? I fully empathise with those whose loved ones have had a long, drawn-out and painful passing – there the time-honoured words may seem more appropriate – but when the death has been as unexpected and untimely as Simon’s, and when the person in life was so full of activity, positivity and light, they do not sit comfortably with me.
People have commented, over the past few weeks, on my “strength,” and asked how I could do this project, sing these songs, at such a difficult time. Firstly, I would say that no one who could see me at my lowest, crying at home and feeling unable to complete the simplest of tasks, would define me as a strong person. Secondly and more importantly however I would say that I draw whatever strength I do have from doing precisely what people find so remarkable – singing is what I do, as is encouraging others to do so. It is what Simon did brilliantly, and what draws me closer to him whenever I open my mouth. There is no definitive guidebook to grieving, in this death-denying culture of ours. I have chosen a very public way to express my shock and sorrow. Some people have generously told me that it helps them process their own grief, which is wonderful. To others, while I hope I am not causing offence, I hope at least it gives pause to consider there may be other ways to cope with the ultimate certainty in life.
When my friend Sophy and I were working on the bid for Arts Council England funding for my project the funders were keen to know how audiences in this country would benefit. This was not the most straightforward question to answer – there are perhaps two of the thirteen songs on the album that I can perform on my own, and Sunduza are not able to come over just yet – although we are hoping that they will some time in the not too distant future. But the material does adapt well to workshop settings and as I have mentioned before in my blogs a great many children have taken part in workshops based on some of the most accessible songs. Over this year I have also introduced some of the songs to my choirs – The Quirky Choir, Sheffield Socialist Choir and most recently Retford Community Singers – and they have really made the songs their own.
Simon was himself an inspirational workshop facilitator and the first time I met him, in 1999, I was deeply impressed that he could engage with so many different ages and abilities. He and Sunduza did a week’s residency at The Point, where I work with darts, Doncaster Community Arts, and I remember watching him work with adults with learning disabilities, a young people’s dance group, a group of older people wanting to learn drumming, children and the Quirky Choir, and being so impressed with his easy manner and flexible working style.
With his manager Philip Weiss Simon set up a choir in Sheffield called SOSA-XA! – Sounds Of Southern Africa – passing on the leadership to his nephew Mandla Sibanda who worked with the choir for many years before his tragic death just months before Simon’s. I was privileged to work with this choir in a memorial concert for Simon and Mandla in March 2013 and will be returning to share the Shine Like A Rainbow songs with them in November with their current leader Richard Mahachi.
And next week I am excited to announce I will be travelling up to Whitby to do a workshop/presentation as part of the Musicport Festival. I’m lucky to have the assistance of four wonderful singers from Bulawayo group Siyaya who are just coming to the end of their tour here, including Mkhuxunque Sodoyi who features on the album as a member of Sunduza, and Ishmael Muvingi, a good friend of Simon’s.
So if you’re doing to be at the festival, please come along to the Royal Hotel Ballroom at noon on Sunday October 19th and sing with us!