Only a few months ago Leonard Zhakata was a bitter man.
BY TAPIWA ZIVIRA
After shaking the showbiz in the 1990s with all-time hits like Mugove and Nhamo Dzenyika among others, the veteran musician watched helplessly as he fell deep into obscurity in the early 2000s.
This was after he released tracks that were deemed politically sensitive at a time when there was rising dissent against the ruling Zanu PF government’s political repression and economic mismanagement.
With songs like Sakunatsa, Warrior, Ngoma Yenharo (struggle) and Mirira Nguva, among others that have deep lyrics and are thought-provoking, the king of Zora music found himself a target of mainly state-sponsored propaganda messages.
His music was taunted as being sympathetic to the emerging anti-government sentiments, and his tracks no longer featured on the state broadcasters.
For fear of reprisals that came with being sympathetic to anything condemned by the authoritarian regime, fans, promoters and other supporters deserted, or kept a distance from Zhakata.
Speaking to The Standard Style this week, the Mugove hitmaker recalled the painful experience, saying he is an artist whose career suffered the worst attacks in the history of Zimbabwean music.
“I was persecuted, isolated, snubbed, mentally tortured, unjustifiably blacklisted, all because of the riddle-laden lyrics which I think should have been embraced for bringing or adding versatility, but alas, it nearly cost me my life,” Zhakata said.
Once a crowd-puller, Zhakata found himself singing before near-empty auditoriums and according to him, this was because the nation was made to believe that he was a spent force cum a rebellious element.
Zhakata said the influence was not only on the local front as it also crossed the borders, resulting in him considering quitting music.
“My foreign engagements were grossly affected. I was unfairly denied the slightest chance to explain myself, very few stood by me,” he said.
Zhakata’s long break, which had started in 2006 after the release of Tine Vimbo, ended in 2011 when he released a dazzling album, Gotwe.
The album (Gotwe) was touted by music analysts as a major rebound for Zhakata. Its impact — judging by how the songs from the album were missing from the playlists of the day — was limited compared to the standards Zhakata had set earlier in his career.
Urged on by a clique of his loyal fans, and with apparent inspiration from his new-found religious sanctuary, the United Families International Church under the leadership of Emmanuel Makandiwa, Zhakata released yet another album, Zvangu Zvaita in 2013.
The album — a sharp deviation from Zhakata’s usual fast-paced Zora music — got a lukewarm reception, with some music followers arguing that the new style — which included some gospel lyrics — was not consistent with the musical identity he had assumed over the years.
Though most of the songs on the album were not well-received, one track, Dhonza Makomborero took the top spot on Radio Zimbabwe Coca-Cola year-end top 50 charts.
However, the victory went largely unnoticed, especially in the face of a surge in the popularity of local dancehall and the rise of high-flying Jah Prayzah and dendera exponent Sulumani Chimbetu, who were on top of their game dominating the showbiz scene.
So, after releasing the album Mutungadzose early last year, Zhakata remained in the background with only Madam Boss, the song he did with often underrated musical star, Progress Chipfumo and Sulu getting the most attention.
In a big surprise, however, on New Year’s Eve Zhakata’s fame came back after three of his songs Madam Boss, Zvine Mwaka and Moyo Wekutenda off the album Mutungadzose won the first three spots on the annual Radio Zimbabwe Coca-Cola 2016 Top 50 competition by a wide margin, getting a record 255 981 votes.
This was despite the year’s playlists in beer halls, public spaces, cars, homes and local radio stations having been dominated by other musicians like Jah Prayzah’s Mudhara Vachauya, Alick Macheso’s Tsoka Dzerwendo and several songs from dancehall artistes.
While the win might have been received with mixed feelings, Zhakata said the victory was a result of his loyal fans who voted in their numbers.
“In any case, this result must be as a lesson to people across the divide; if you want your preferred candidate to win in a vote, make sure you vote for them. People may like the songs and artists, but most of them do not give practical support, yet individual excitement cannot cause one’s favoured artist to win. it takes serious commitment, resources and action,” Zhakata said.
Not bitter anymore, a happy Zhakata attributed his victory to the close interactions he has with fans.
“I always try my best to interact with fans; they are our bosses, they are the consumers of our products, and I cannot do without them. We have time for consultations, we respect their opinions,” he said.
Zhakata believes it is his time of redemption and said he was not going to rest.
“We are going to up our musical activities. [We will] go on a countrywide ‘Thank You’ tour soon, as well as exploiting all forms of marketing,” he said.
Buoyed by the success of collaborating with other musicians across genres, Zhakata said he would be doing more collaborations.
With some of his fans divided over his new style of music and calling on him to revert to the old style of fast-paced Zora music, Zhakata said he was open to revisiting the rhythm that made him popular, saying he would be bringing in more new musical ideas until they are embraced.
Zhakata, who confirmed that he launched his career in the analogue era, said he was still adjusting to the new digital recording systems, and would do more projects to improve the quality of his productions, which have been a subject of criticism.
“Every artist who worked more with analogue studios will obviously experience a shift in sound quality, change of sound space, equipment and the technical know-how in recording engineering, as well as the producers’ taste. This will affect sound until the ear gets acquainted to all the technicalities, so we will continue to perfect our hearing, mixing and mastering,” he said.
For a musician who has gone through a rough patch, and learned a lesson or two, perhaps the sun is finally shining on Zhakata’s career.