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.

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.