Bamba Uthando Lwethu

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Johannesburg, 2009

Johannesburg, 2009

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.

Godfrey and Simon in Knysna

Godfrey and Simon in Knysna

My favourite photo of us in Knysna

My favourite photo of us in Knysna

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.

Simon in Swaziland

Simon in Swaziland

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.

Buying food for the family in the rural areas

Buying food for the family in the rural areas

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.

The necklace Simon gave me

The necklace Simon gave me

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

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.

Long time no see

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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 –

workshop

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!