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The Zexie Manatsa story

in the groove:with Fred Zindi

Accompanied by his wife, Stella, and son, Freedom, five days ago, Zexie Manatsa paid me a visit. As soon as he sat down, he declared: “Ndinoda Tii Hobvu (“I want a cup of tea with plenty of milk”). I explained to him that the price of both milk and sugar have gone skyrocketing high in 2020 and these things are no longer affordable, let alone Chingwa Chine Margarine Kuna Baba (the cost of bread and margarine.)

Indeed that was possible in the 1970s when one could buy a loaf of bread for less than a dollar. Not now, I told him. He understood.

If Josh Hozheri, or Partson “Chipaz” Chimbodza, Zimbabwe’s premier music promoters, were grown-up men in 1979, they would have certainly jumped on the theme: Zimbabwe’s Big Five and ended up filling Rufaro Stadium to its full capacity with music fans. The musicians of the time making up the big five would have been Thomas Mapfumo, Manatsa, Oliver Mtukudzi, Tinei Chikupo and Lovemore Majaivana. Tuku and Chikupo, as we know, are now late. Majaivana and Mapfumo are exhiled in the United States. Out of the top five music stars of the late 1970s and early 1980s, we are only left with Manatsa living in Zimbabwe. He is a legend and one of Africa’s most amazing musicians and he is still fit and going strong.

In 1979, Manatsa made history when he decided to get married to his long-time partner, Stella. His music promoter, Jack Sadza, had a brilliant idea. He exploited Manatsa’s popularity and decided to make capital out of it. He called it the “Wedding of the Year” where he chose Rufaro Stadium as the venue for the wedding, and fans would pay $1 each to witness the ceremony. On August 25, 1979, Rufaro Stadium was full to the brim with excited fans who had come to witness this amazing event.

One witness who attended the event recalls: “It was one of the most memorable events ever to take place in then Salisbury. The festivities were at Rufaro Stadium where a huge concert took place, with some of the most important bands in the country performing in honour of one of the legends of Zimbabwean music. A crowd of people, about 60 000 (!!?) packed the stadium. As soon as Stella and Zexie made their entrance, Thomas Mapfumo started performing one of his most popular tunes Africa. Later that afternoon, things started to get out of hand when Chikupo and the Mother Band started playing the song Sirivia ….a monster hit in Zimbabwe at the time. The crowd became really wild and started tearing fences apart to get closer to the stage. Two people were hospitalised as a result.”

It seems Manatsa’s wedding became a major music event on that day to the extent that everything else came to a standstill.

Bishop Abel Muzorewa, who was at that time prime minister of the short-lived Zimbabwe/Rhodesia, and who was campaigning for the forthcoming elections, had made the mistake of organising a political rally on the same day. Muzorewa later blamed Manatsa for the poor attendance at his rally. The Daily Mail had a screaming headline on their front page the following day: “Zexie’s Wedding Spoils Muzorewa’s Rally”.

Manatsa, born in 1942, is a founder member of the Green Arrows Band, originally known as the Mambo Band. At the age of 15, he began his musical career which started in Mhangura. In 1974, the Green Arrows began writing their own songs to mass appeal. South African saxophonist West Nkosi who was also a consultant for Gallo Records, discovered the band and became their producer in 1977. The resulting album, Chipo Chiroorwa, sold so well that the band became known all over Zimbabwe. Their success continued in the 1970s and 80s, as they continued to go on well-received tours and produce hit records. Some of their most memorable songs include their protest tunes Nyoka Yendara and Tsuro. Their 1981 album Mudzimu Ndiringe was also produced by Nkosi. Manatsa also introduced Mtukudzi and several other bands of the time to Nkosi.

Manatsa’s low, raspy lead vocals and bass playing defined the group’s sound, while his brother Stanley played the lead guitar. (Alick Macheso claims that he learned most of his bass-playing styles from Manatsa). The Green Arrows are best known for their hits Chipo Chiroorwa and Dzvinyu. Their track Musango Mune Hangaiwa stayed at number one in Zimbabwe’s pop charts for a staggering 17 weeks. At the peak of his career, Manatsa inspired and was
hero-worshipped by many known musicians at the time who included Mtukudzi, James Chimombe, Majaivana, Chikupo, Leonard Dembo, Mapfumo and Simon Chimbetu.
In the 1970s and 1980s, Manatsa released many tracks which have proved to be all-time hits such as Chipo Chiroorwa, Bambo Mwakwatila, Vaparidzi Vawanda, Mwana Waenda, Chechule Anavala Bottom and Chimwamuna Chamimba. (I guess the use of Malawian language in some of their compositions was to please the Malawians who in those days filled up the migrant labour force in Mhangura).

Manatsa remained popular in the post-independence era, producing hits such as Chivaraidze and the swooning Tii Hobvu. The band’s popularity only declined in the early 1990s when Manatsa was involved in a nasty car accident. He temporarily suffered loss of memory during his hospitalisation. Up to this day he attributes his survival to the workings of God. For this reason, he decided to pursue religious work. He then joined the Zaoga Church where he used his musical skills and knowledge of interaction with crowds to preach to worshippers.

Manatsa has made significant contributions to the development of the arts in Zimbabwe. He directly or indirectly nurtured the likes of Mtukudzi, Chimombe, Chikupo, The Four Brothers, Susan Mapfumo, Jordan Chataika, Martin Ndlovu, Devera Ngwena Jazz Band, The Bhundu Boys, Macheso, Dembo, Leonard Leonard Zhakata, System Tazvida, Chimbetu, Khiama Boys, John Chibadura and many other artistes to become the stars they ended up being. In short, he is the father of pre and post-independence Zimbabwean music as he was instrumental in playing traditional music as evidenced by his hits such as Musango Mune Hangaiwa, Madzangara Dzimu, Nyoka Yendara, Mudzimu Ndiringe and Tsuro — songs which had pro-liberation innuendos. Many guerillas had used his house as a base and he had become a marked man by the Smith regime for singing pro-liberation songs.

As Manatsa himself proclaims: “If Zanu PF had lost elections at independence, I would have relocated to Mozambique as I was a marked man.”

While in Bulawayo, he encouraged the inclusion of musical skills at Jairos Jiri Centre and hence through his efforts, the first Jairos Jiri Band known as the Sunrise Kwela Kings was formed. He was also involved at giving performances at most Zanu PF star rallies.

Manatsa has always been a strict, religious and disciplined parent. Most of his children are musicians with Tendai, married to Mtukudzi’s daughter, Selmor, playing the lead guitar, Green playing keyboards and Freedom Manatsa playing drums.

The Makepekepe Shaisa Mufaro singer at first was reluctant to have his children becoming musicians. He encouraged his children to study hard in order to achieve what he considered better professions, but as we know it, the apple does not fall far from the tree.

l Fred Zindi is a professor at the University of Zimbabwe. He is also a musician and an author of several books on music. He can be contacted via e-mail on: frezindi@gmail.com

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