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Tobias Areketa: One friend in a lifetime

There are some people who leave a mark on you after you have met them and then there are some people whose words you hang on to and whose advice you cherish. Tobias Areketa was one such person, not only to me but also to many people around the world. He came up with words of wisdom after he realised he had made a few mistakes in his life, and 32 years later, I find these words still inspiring to me. They should also inspire all the young musicians who have lately been embroiled in scandals which they are not able to defend. His wise words to me were: “If you make a mistake in life, don’t regret it, but learn from it and move on”.

in the groove with Fred Zindi

The late Tobias Areketa
The late Tobias Areketa

That aside, Areketa’s song Mugara Ndega which he did with Thomas Mapfumo left an indelible mark on my music career to this day.

I first met Areketa in November 1984 during Mapfumo’s European tour. The Blacks Unlimited were recording Mugara Ndega at Addis Ababa Recording Studios situated in Harrow Road, London, under People Unite Productions. Poko and Duxie of Misty In Roots Band were at the mixing desk monitoring the production. I had been told that Mapfumo was in town, so I boarded the Number 21 bus from King’s Cross Station near where I lived to Harrow Road. As I walked into the recording studio, I was confronted by billows of smoke before I saw anyone. There was a crowd of musicians sounding happy together in that room. When Mapfumo eventually saw me, he was excited and he greeted me warmly.

“I hope you have come to help us. We are trying to record an album which we will call Chimurenga For Justice,” he said.

Areketa was waiting to sing a part on the song Mugara Ndega. The band was not used to multi-track recording. They preferred to record all instruments live at once. Together with the Misty In Roots, we advised Mapfumo to lay down the tracks one-by-one, starting with the drums and bass until all instruments were recorded. This would bring perfection to the sound as you monitor it track-by-track. Then the vocals would come last. Areketa, who was waiting to sing his part was in disagreement. “Does that mean I have to wait until tomorrow to do my vocals? In Zimbabwe, we all record together at once!” I explained to him that Gramma Records did it that way because they wanted to record as many bands as possible in the shortest time in order to save money, but in London we had the luxury of working without time pressure in a modern studio. He seemed nervous about that, but I managed to convince him that this was the proper way of doing things. He was poised to chant the lyrics to Mugara Ndega in Jamaican patois in front of people who knew the language better than him, but he did it. After Mapfumo sang a few lines on the song, Areketa came in with the patois lines, toasting just like the Jamaican musicians did.

I congratulated him on his effort and we became good friends thereafter.

The song became massive and back home in Zimbabwe, it also became Mapfumo’s biggest maxi-single hit as it sold hundreds of thousands of copies.

Areketa, together with Priscilla Masarira and Terry Mhuriro, were part of the team that supplied the backing vocals for the Blacks Unlimited, Thomas Mapfumo’s band in 1984.The rest of the band on the European tour consisted of Everson Chibamu on trumpet, Charles Makokowa on bass, Sebastian Mbata on drums,, Jonah Sithole on lead guitar, Leonard “Picket” Chiyangwa on rhythm guitar and Chartwell Dutiro on mbira.

The band played their first London gig at the 100 Club, so called because it was situated at Number 100 Oxford Street. It was a small venue which could only accommodate around 500 people. On that Friday night, the venue was so crowded that it was difficult for people to move about. Thomas opened the show with Gwindingwi Rine Shumba, then Pidigori before going into three other tunes after which he sang the crowd’s favourite, Ndanzwa Ngoma Kurira. It was now time for introducing his new song Mugara Ndega to the audience. “We have just finished recording this song this afternoon and it is a reggae tune. You are the first crowd to hear it live tonight. I want to see how you feel about it”. When Areketa came in with the Jamaican chant in Mugara Ndega, the whole auditorium went ecstatic.

The following week, the band played at a larger venue, the Forum Ballroom in London’s Kentish Town. The audience’s reaction to Mugara Ndega was even more ecstatic as he sang his part which went something like this:

This song is dedicated to Thomas Mapfumo;
The only man who sang freedom songs during the struggle for Zimbabwe
Our motherland you know;
So me say, He is a true man African
I say the man is a Thomas
Dem a put him in jail
He was singing culture
One day the police came during the Smith regime. Dem a took Thomas and put him away
Just because him a singing culture
Let’s love one another.

Many groups in Zimbabwe, including the late Chiwoniso Maraire, emulated and re-recorded this song because their crowds just loved it.

My friendship with Areketa only lasted six years as he died on September 11 1990.

In 1990, I attended Areketa’s funeral service in Mufakose. There were several musicians present who included Andy Brown, John Chibadura, Biggie Tembo, Joshua Areketa, Jonah Sithole, Ephat Mujuru, Tendai Mupfurutsa and many others. Also present were two white ladies, both believed to be Tobias’s partners.

One was local and the other one had just come from England. The local white lady known as Lynde Francis later on became an Aids activist after Tobias’s death. She, however, died 19 years later in 2009.

I am told that when Tobias was on his sick bed in hospital, Lynde tried to persuade him to write a song about Aids awareness. However, although he wrote something, Tobias no longer had the strength to go into the recording studio to lay down the tracks. So this song died with him.

Tobias is still one friend in a lifetime. In this month of March where we remember the deaths of Sam Mtukudzi and Andy Brown, Tobias has not been forgotten. Farewell to thee my good friend, Tobias.


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