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…

Good grief…

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The last photo of Simon and me, at Oliver Tambo Airport in Johannesburg in August 2012

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.