Woza Ngena


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…

Sharing the Music, Spreading the Word

Musicport Festival workshop flyer

Musicport Festival workshop flyer

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!

Long time no see

Shine Like A Rainbow CD

Shine Like A Rainbow CD

So the album arrived, way back in May after my last post. I wasn’t prepared for my reaction – of course I was pleased and proud of what is, I am assured, a beautiful piece of work, but the expected elation didn’t happen – rather the reverse, actually. I found myself plunged into a pit of inertia and indecisiveness over the best way to proceed with it, I became confused by conflicting advice, and apart from giving away a few copies to friends and family and a couple of boxes to Philip, Sunduza’s manager, it’s pretty much sat around in my dining room for four months. With no prospect of Sunduza coming here any time soon, I couldn’t see how I was going to promote it and I guess I experienced another phase of the grieving process.

Well, no more, this has to stop and I need to take it forward. I owe it to Simon’s memory, to Charlie, the other musicians who put so much energy into it, and ultimately myself.

So here I am again, taking a vow of seriousness and re-committing to the blog, the promotion of the music and to the project.

I haven’t exactly done nothing however. Over the summer two of my choirs created and performed their own versions of a song from the album – worth its own blog post so I won’t say any more here. I continued to deliver children’s workshops based on some of the songs –


All set up for a workshop with young people with learning disabilities at The Point in Doncaster

and I will continue this work into the autumn. Sheffield Socialist Choir are now learning Matata, intending once again to add our own words about a current “matata” (problem) – most likely on an environmental theme. Quirky Choir and Retford Community Singers will also learn some of the songs, and I am offering workshops to other choirs in the region. And I am very excited to be doing a workshop at this year’s Musicport Festival in Whitby on 19th October – even more so since some of my old friends in the performance group Siyaya, including Mkhux who also sings with Sunduza and is on the album, have offered to come and help me.

Philip went to Zimbabwe in August and took some CDs for Charlie and the others. They are now busy planning an album launch in Bulawayo featuring as many as possible of the musicians and also creating an exhibition of photos of Simon and of ourselves during the creation of the music last year.

So one of the few things I did manage to do was to book a flight for December – I am flying out again on the 5th for a couple of weeks – no doubt to another packed schedule of rehearsals and gigs, and for the second anniversary of Simon’s passing including the unveiling of a gravestone.

Early reactions from the few people who have heard the album so far have been extremely positive – I was worried that it would only appeal to those who knew Simon, but it seems to be touching others too and resonates particularly with those who have lost a loved one. I have had a kind offer from one such person to make a promotional video for the album, free of charge, which is lovely.

Still have a packed to do list including getting it on iTunes etc. but I finally feel as if things are moving again. I promise not to fall silent again!

Kicking up a storm…

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I knew early on in planning this project that there would have to be a song about football. Simon loved the game, both as player and spectator; Charlie played professionally for a while until he decided to follow his father’s legacy as a singer, as did his brother Tonny, and his youngest sister Amanda is goalkeeper for the national women’s team The Mighty Warriors and during my stay participated in a decisive win against Lesotho in the Unity Day Cup. Click on the link for a pre-match photo of Amanda, looking incredibly like her father!

Along with thousands in and around Bulawayo and its diaspora, Simon was passionate about the city’s team Highlanders and rarely missed a match. I was often left to my own devices, or put in the care of family or friends, whilst he went off to Barbourfields Stadium. He was over the moon when I bought him a Newcastle United shirt which sports the same black and white stripes as the Highlanders home strip.

(Click on the YouTube icon to play this clip)

We already had a song of Simon’s that we could work on – Amahlolamyama (one of many nicknames for the team meaning a type of black and white bird)was written for the show Matata and is still very popular. Charlie took the chorus and added new elements to the song including the sound of the vuvuzela, the ubiquitous plastic horn which endeared itself to the world in the 2010 South African World Cup.

Other nicknames for the team – Siyinqaba (we are victorious), Tshilamoya (we turn spirits around), Bosso (the boss)and Bossolona – appear in the song.

So what could my contribution be? The lonely cry of a football widow – “please excuse my jealousy, but did he love you more than me?” – and a rap over some commendable beat boxing from the guys, telling the story of a weekend trip to the wonderful Victoria Falls, quite early on in our relationship. Our idyllic stay in one of the most beautiful and romantic spots in Africa, if not the world, had to be cut short – painfully so, as it necessitated getting up at two in the morning to get the bus – so that Simon could be back in Bulawayo for the match on Sunday afternoon.

Our version of the song is proving immensely popular with children in the workshop I have devised for primary schools based on this project. They enjoy singing parts of the song, trying to get a sound out of the vuvuzelas, and joining in the final chant – Bosso! clap clap clap…

Matata, matata…problems, problems!

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a moment of concentration in the studio

a moment of concentration in the studio

Matata is perhaps the song of Simon’s that we re-interpreted in the most straightforward way. He wrote it as the title song for the theatre production of the same name. “Matata” is a Swahili word meaning “problem”, perhaps best known to non-Africans in the phrase “Hakuna matata” – “no problem” which was famously used in The Lion King.

It was the first song I chose when looking for songs to adapt for the album, as it is quite simple and affords a lot of opportunities for new material to be inserted over the top of the bass ostinato: “There is a big, big problem.” I wrote a section about the big problem being Simon’s sudden and untimely demise and us all having to carry on without him. Charlie wrote a couple of new bits too, necessitating some fast and (for me)tongue-twisting Ndebele phrases which he insisted I had to learn: “Ukhon’uhlupho lukholu kunzima kumatata!” gave me a few problems!Like all such things, it’s easy once you master it, and I’m glad Charlie pushed me to get it right as audiences were impressed that I managed it.

It sounds like a miserable subject for a song, but it is fast and spirited and quite uplifting. I’m hoping to sort out the video of the Eziko performance to put on here soon.

Zimbabweans live with problems on a daily basis, but never get down about them. I’m not going to go into the political causes of those problems here – I want to go back, and there are plenty of more informed sources. But life is generally quite hard, and has been for some time. I have seen some improvements since my first visit in 2009, when there was little food in the shops, refuse was piled high on the streets (including wads of worthless Zim dollars)and schools were closed as the teachers were not being paid. Now that people are used to using US dollars and South African rands, things are much better for those who are lucky enough to have jobs. Still, however, things that we take for granted over here continue to be issues for Zimbabweans.

Electricity, for example, is at a premium – there just isn’t enough. To address this there is what is called load-shedding – different areas are scheduled for power cuts at pre-arranged times – although sometimes when I was there it seemed pretty random. The family keeps stocks of candles and alternative ways of cooking – gas rings or open fires outside. One of the reasons I failed to keep up a regular blog while I was there was that the times I could do it never matched the times that we had power.

More crucially, water is also rationed. There was no water to be had from the taps during the day – it would typically come on around nine in the evening, when every receptacle in the house would be filled, and we would use water during the day from large plastic bins allocated for each purpose. The first person up in the morning would put on water to heat for bathing – which was done in a small plastic bath placed in the old defunct bath in the bathroom – I got used to these strip washes, with hot water in the plastic bath, a smaller container of cold water to modify the temperature, and a plastic cup for washing my hair. Then I would flush the toilet with the water I’d used – I became much more mindful of not wasting water. Laundry of course is all done by hand – here is Simon’s youngest daughter Amanda doing some washing:

Amanda doing the laundry

But it is money that is in really short supply with unimaginably high unemployment levels – many Zimbabweans rely on support from relatives outside the country and the culture within it is very much that of helping each other – I am amazed how people cope, and not only that but remain so cheerful – it’s a cliche but it’s true. People grow their own vegetables, there are food co-operatives, and a general sense of family and social responsibility that extends beyond blood ties.

All of which gives me even more respect for artists in Zimbabwe, who pursue their passions with such infrequent and insufficient reward, and gratitude that I was given the chance not only to honour Simon but also to offer paid work to those who were involved in this project.

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.

Diving in at the deep end

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After just one day’s rehearsal we set off on Sunday for the first day’s recording session with Tswarelo of 10th District Music at Ingwe Studios in Hillside, one of the leafier suburbs of Bulawayo. The early start is due to Tswarelo having to be away for much of the next two weeks.

Getting everyone there on time – and Tswarelo is meticulous about timing, belying his country’s stereotype – is no mean feat. Charlie, Tonny and I use the car that Simon and I bought in Swaziland when he worked there for a while, but there are another eight Sunduza members to pick up from various meeting points in the townships. We have to stop in the city centre to buy gas for a stove, as we need to feed everyone at lunchtime and have brought stew cooked at home the previous evening. Add the state of the Zimbabwean road network and the prevalence of road blocks into the mix, and I at least arrive feeling more than a little on edge.

We soon settle into the pleasant surroundings at Ingwe, however. After a warm-up we rehearse our first song. Tswarelo’s procedure is to record what he calls a pilot, which will serve as a guide track, in the main part of the studio, and then to record each individual voice or instrument in the sound booth. This ensures the best possible results as each voice can be perfectly balanced in the final mix, which will be done back in the UK with Keith Angel at Wavelength Studios in Doncaster.

After a trip to the local supermarket for some sadza, or, more accurately, isitshwala as we are in Matabeleland, to accompany our stew, we have a relaxing lunch outside before a few more hours’ recording, establishing what is to become a normal pattern of laying down an average of two tracks per day. Things are shaping up.

Relaxing during a break in recording.

Relaxing during a break in recording.

Leon recording

Leon recording

Shifting into panic mode


Can’t believe how much I’ve got to do before I go – apart from all the trip and project preparations, it’s my youngest granddaughter’s birthday at the weekend and I’ve also got to take Christmas into consideration, never mind about all the other projects I’ve got on the go…

Charlie, Simon’s son, is well on with rehearsing songs with Sunduza after a Skype chat we had about potential song collaborations. One is based on Woza Ngena, a traditional song Simon performed exhorting children to learn and keep alive their traditional songs and games.Simon loved children – he has five – Charlie, Ormmie, Tonny, Cristabel and Amanda – plus a little granddaughter Ashley.

Simon's first meeting with his granddaughter, Johannesburg 2011

Simon’s first meeting with his granddaughter, Johannesburg 2011

I found this video on You Tube of a nice exchange Simon had with children in the audience during a Sunduza tour.