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Spare a thought for destitute musicians

Because of their big egos, most musicians do not like negative stories written about them. In this article, I will try as hard as I can not to mention the names of the penniless musicians who are down and out (except those who are now buried and gone with their egos) but still pretend to the public that they are doing well.

By Fred Zindi

Last year, Zimbabwean musician Derek Mpofu released the song, Mari Unonaka Iwe, which went ballistic throughout the country. This tune triggered something in me on how important money is to everyone.

Mari, Finance, Money, Cash, Chibhanzi, Bag, Zhunde, Moolah, Dosh, Tong or Wonga, call it what you will, but all too often when it comes to art, we like to ignore this unpalatable necessity.

Like it or not, money is the most important thing in this world. It represents health, strength, respect, honour, generosity and beauty.

With that in mind, I went into the streets of Harare to confirm my thoughts about the importance of money. I asked people whether they thought money was a necessity in their lives. Below are a few of their responses:

Johnny B: “To me money is everything. It makes the world go round.”

Farai Dozwah: “If women didn’t exist, all the money in the world would have no meaning to me.”

Tapiwa Janimbo: “Money is good for bribing your way through the inconveniences of life.”

Phillip C: “Without cash, nobody wants to look at you and nobody respects you. Money gives one a semblance of respectability.”

Donald Mutematsaka: “Money is the root of all problems. This is why we have thieves, beggars, looters and corruption in this country. However, I would say, money is a necessary evil which we can’t do without.”

Ever since Beethoven came out with classical music in the 18th century, a lot of musicians have harboured the romantic idea that they can simply live for their art alone, unfettered by everyday trivialities such as paying rent, medical care, paying for electricity and water, paying school fees for the children or buying food.

History, however, has shown that money — or a lack of it — has often been more than a bit of a worry to many musicians. Bands have split up due to money problems. Some musicians had to battle with the uphill task of making money from their music, while others wrote smash hits but due to piracy of their music, could not channel the profit back into their pockets. Some lived wildly beyond their means, while yet others had unhappy experiences trying to invest the money they did have.

With the Zimbabwe economy currently on its knees, many musicians are struggling to make a living. Some have even become destitute.

Only last week, Alick Macheso came up with the noble idea of assisting those musicians who are destitute. This idea should be supported, not only by well-off musicians, but also by the government as well as corporate institutions.

It would be a great idea if these institutions came together to assist the artistes who have fallen into financial despair. In the past we would revel and show concern about the musicians who have passed on such as Simon Chimbetu, Paul Matavire, John Chibadura, Leonard Dembo and Andy Brown, but now it is time to start thinking about the ones who are still with us. Their welfare is important to us if their creative abilities are to be sustained. I could list a hundred such musicians, but I dare not as they do not wish to be labelled as destitute.

Some of the destitute musicians might have a level of education, skills, cultural experience and talent that clearly distinguishes them from others at the same economic level, but abysmally fail to combine these strong elements together in order to produce worthwhile income.

I met the wife of one destitute musician who had vacillated from one band to another trying to make ends meet and asked her how the family was. “ I have left him”, she said. On asking her why, this is what she said: “He would come home with less than $10 and sometimes nothing at all after each gig, but he would be reeking of booze. If he found enough money to drink but never enough to pay the bills and send his children to school, what kind of husband is that?”

Of course, it is such financial pressures on the musician that fractured their marriage.

It seems there is need to help the thousands of destitute musicians with medical care, housing and providing a safety net to those who spent their lives on the road without a retirement plan. All their joys and sorrows are ours as well.

It’s a tragedy in our country that whilst people like Oliver Mtukudzi, Jah Prayzah, Winky D and a few others are relatively wealthy after uphill struggles to make it, they are the exception. The vast majority live in abject poverty.

Most music practitioners are economically marginalised and we tend to celebrate them after their passing-on. For instance, we talk glowingly about the late August Musarurwa, Paul Matavire, Biggie Tembo, Chimbetu and Chibadura. It appears that these musicians’ fame and fortune faded away with their deaths. These were great musicians, but they died poor.

Not all success stories have happy endings.

Sometimes the rich and famous have inspiring rags-to-riches stories. Other times, these fallen stars lose their way and end up lost, desperate, or homeless.

Blame it on drug abuse, women, alcoholism, chronic illness, poor financial planning, or just bad luck.

Here are the heartbreaking stories of stars who died in poverty:

Biggie Tembo

The Bhundu Boys’ frontman, who stayed in the United Kingdom and at one time shared the stage with Madonna at the majestic Wembley Stadium, had almost made it, but when he died, he left his family in abject poverty.

After a stint in the UK, Tembo returned home before a bank repossessed their house due to mortgage arrears.

After his death, Tembo’s wife, Ratidzai, went to stay with her mother in Mbare briefly before she moved her children to their rural home in Zvimba because she could not afford to pay rentals, school fees and buy food. Ratidzai became a vendor.

James Chimombe

James Chimombe’s family is living in a more or less similar grim predicament.

Chimombe, a reputable lyricist and a gifted guitarist, had a distinct and varied musical style.

The success of Chimombe in music quarters was predictable given the intensity of his creative lyrical talents, naturally earning him fame and fortune
Sadly, he passed on, leaving a wife and several children.

What is baffling is that Chimombe’s children are living from hand to mouth.

Kenneth Chigodora

Kenneth Chigodora of Musango Ndodzungaira fame, which became Hosiah “Hitman” Singende’s theme tune on radio, was a member of Robson Banda’s Black Eagles Band. After the band split up, he came to his wits’ end and decided to go to his rural Wedza home to become a peasant farmer until his death.

Paul Matavire

Although he led a relatively flashy life at the peak of his career with the Jairos Jiri Band, Matavire died a pauper in 2005 and left his heartbroken mother in abject poverty.

The list is endless, but these musicians need help. Is it a matter of mismanaged fortune on the part of the artistes — the thousands they raked in from show proceeds were swept away probably through merrymaking and unprecedented carousing in the company of sweet ladies — or was this a result of fate?

Who will assist?

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