Woza Ngena

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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…

Zulu Zulu Buya…again

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One of the most enjoyable performances Sunduza and I did was at Eziko Arts Laboratory at the Ndlovu Centre in Tshabalala. These events are run by performance poet Desire Moyoxide and provide the opportunity for artists at any stage of their careers to try out new material on a friendly, supportive and enthusiastic audience.

I was pleased to meet up with old friends like the amazing marimba group Rainbow Blaze ¬†who did a storming performance, and familiar faces in the audience like Ishmael Muvingi, a good friend of Simon’s and a superb singer, from the dance theatre group Siyaya.

It had been two years since I was last at Ndlovu. It is an old and rather rundown youth centre and several groups of artists rehearse there – when I first visited Zimbabwe I went there regularly to rehearse with imbube group Umdumo Wesizwe. The place suffered from neglect and lack of funding – I have a strong unpleasant memory of finding maggots in the women’s toilets. Now however the place has been transformed into a vibrant arts venue. It was buzzing with activity and I was both nervous and excited at the opportunity to perform some of the songs we had been rehearsing and recording.

The Sunduza guys were wearing matching blue tops and Charlie took me around one of the markets in the city centre to find something suitable for myself, an impressive flowing purple dress which I hoped gave me a Miriam Makeba look. Simon was always vary particular about his stage wear and as this was the place where he and Jeys Marabini had performed Zulu Buya I wanted to do him proud.

I look back fondly on our set at Eziko – it was chaotic at times with sound engineers running around fixing my microphones but the atmosphere was electric and our performance elicited an emotional response from the audience. I hope this comes across in the video clip.

Rain, rain, rain…and rainbows

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Janet and Sunduza One of the first songs Sunduza and I rehearsed was Rainbow, a song written by Charlie to celebrate one of his father’s nicknames and also the significance of rainbows to Charlie and to me since Simon’s passing.

Soon after I got back to the UK after the funeral, still in shock and pain, I drove to a favourite place of mine, the Idle Valley Nature Reserve near Retford. On the way, I sent up a silent prayer – “Sweetheart, if you can hear me, send me a rainbow!” It was a cold, clear and sunny day, and as I walked around the lake there was no sign of rain.

I met up with a friend for a cup of tea, in the cafe looking over the lake. We had been chatting for nearly an hour when she suddenly said, “Oh look, a rainbow!” – and there it was, as if painted onto a huge black cloud which had suddenly appeared over the lake. It was the first of many comforting signs that Simon is still around. I shared the experience with Charlie, and within an hour he was calling me back saying that he had seen a rainbow too.

Zulu Zulu Buya (Rain, Rain Come)is a traditional Ndebele children’s rhyme – at the first sign of rain after a dry spell, they run out chanting “Zulu zulu buya, sidl’amakhomane!” (Rain, rain come, we eat pumpkins!). For one of his last major performances Simon and his good friend Jeys Marabini did a lovely arrangement of Zulu Buya that became very popular. https://www.facebook.com/#!/photo.php?v=324943367607263

So I was very surprised and touched when Charlie said that he wanted me to sing Zulu Buya following on from the first part of his Rainbow song. He had written a new tune for it and it fitted in really well. It became a bit of a joke between us all that every time we rehearsed and performed it, sooner or later it would start raining – well, it was the rainy season, but Charlie tells the story of one day when Simon sang it during the previous so-called rainy season, when they had suffered weeks of very hot dry weather and water was scarce – and after his performance, lo and behold, it rained.

The first time we performed it was at a Christmas festival in Mpopoma. It was in a park and there were several children in the audience. When I started singing Zulu Zulu Buya there was a roar from the crowd and everyone started clapping and cheering – partly because here was an ikhiwa (white person) singing in Ndebele and partly because they recognised it as something Simon used to sing. I felt like a pop star! A couple of weeks later, driving past some children in the street and hearing them call out, I asked Charlie what they had said. “You are famous Mum,” he replied. “They are saying, ‘there is that ikhiwa who sings Zulu Buya!'”

One day I went to Jeys’s house to rehearse a song for the album. I sang him a song I had written and got quite emotional. It was pouring with rain as we worked. Then I received a phone call from Charlie, who was on his way to pick me up; he had got off the bus and was walking up to the house. “Mum! Go outside! Quickly!” he said. Jeys and I went to the door and gasped. The most perfect rainbow lit up the sky.

When we came to record the song for the album, I realised quite late in the day that the children’s nursery rhyme “I hear thunder” would fit into the arrangement, so I taught it to the children and we put it in at the end of the track. When I teach the song in workshops, as I have now started to do in primary schools, I point out that our nursery rhymes tell the rain to go away, whereas Africans celebrate it.

We also asked poet Desire Moyoxide to add his inimitable style of performance poetry to the track. We are extremely pleased with the result and if there were to be a single from the album, this would be it. Charlie’s line, “Shine like a rainbow,” soon became the title of the album – a fitting tribute to a man called Rainbow who continues to shine in our hearts.