When Charles Banda, aka Mahlaba took the reins at Sunduza Dance Theatre, he was merely acting on the influence of those who thought he mirrored the voice of his legendary father, Simon.
the style interview:with Kennedy Nyavaya
Almost a decade later, the 32-year-old, who left professional football in 2010 to try a hand in music, dance and theatre, is certain the decision could have been the best as he has started reaping the rewards of once hidden talents.
Earlier this year, the Ndebe Zami singer was nominated for a Zimbabwe Music Awards gong for solo efforts.
A few months later, the dance theatre he leads, founded in 1985 under the name Sunduza Boys, is marking 35 years of existence in style following a nomination at the upcoming Bulawayo Arts Awards, their first ever local recognition.
Standard Style reporter Kennedy Nyavaya (KN) recently caught up with Banda (CB), who detailed his past efforts and future plans.
Below are excerpts from the interview.
KN: Please briefly tell us about yourself and how your arts career took off.
CB: Mahlaba is Charles Banda, the son of the late Simon Banda. the name Mahlaba is my stage name. I took it from my father who used to be called Doctor Mahlaba. He was the founder of Sunduza Dance Theatre and long back they used to call themselves Sunduza Boys before developing their skills to come up with a theatre group that involved women.
After his passing, that is when I started to pitch into the music industry to work with them (surviving members) because initially I was a full-time footballer. I used to play for Njube Sundowns juniors, then I played for Chicken Inn, Quelaton and Railstars FC before I left when Chicken Inn was promoted into the top-flight league. At the time, there were challenges because after getting a team promoted one would expect to go forward, but they demote you and take people with bigger names, so I had to leave competitive football.
KN: Before making the decision to take over from your father, were you an arts person, and also how did you know you could manage in the sector?
CB: Arts is inherent in our family starting from my father and brothers. all of us have been artistes so I realised that if all fails in football I had told myself that I would pitch in the arts industry. Back in the day my father would not allow me because he saw more potential in my football career, but when my brother passed away, I composed something and sang it at his funeral where many people said I sounded like my father.
I was convinced then that I had something in me such that when my father later died, I did something at his funeral and people he used to work with like English songwriter and composer Janet Wood as well as her producer Phillip Weiss really encouraged me to become a full-time artiste.
KN: So, you have been in the arts scene for close to a decade now, how has been the experience for you?
CB: It has been and still is tough, the challenges are all over, but sometimes they uplift us to keep on going because if things are smooth it could mean there is no meaningful future ahead. As they say that no pain no gain, so I am still on the pain side but I am happy for all I have gotten so far. I get support around me from my father’s friends and the people I am with in Sunduza who made me discover myself and see that I have something I can pursue on a solo level.
KN: What are some of the milestones during your eight years as an arts professional pursuing solo work?
CB: I started doing my solo projects in 2017 when I released a track titled Ndebe Zami. I saw people appreciating my style, most of them were saying I did not sound like a Zimbabwean or Bulawayo guy so I thought I had challenges beyond our borders and I started to push more to have an album. I then released my first album in 2018 with the same title, then later did a video for Ngikhethe Wena from the same album.
I am currently working on my second album titled Imizwa — The Feelings, which is almost ready and carries my latest release titled uThando lukaMama. When it comes to Sunduza, I have toured Grahamstown National Arts Festival in South Africa for the past two years. This year we could have gone again if it was not for the Covid-19 pandemic. Online I am also working with a group based in Sheffield (United Kingdom), which was left behind by my father and my brother, called Sosa-Xa, and they sing in southern African languages. So, I teach them my compositions now.
KN: What are some of the recent achievements you have been recognised for?
CB: As Sunduza Dance Theatre we released a track titled UBuhle Bakho and that track got us nominated in this year’s Bulawayo Arts Awards (BAAs) and this is a first since even 35 years back. We are happy to have been recognised in Bulawayo and personally I got a nomination at the Zimbabwe Music Awards (Zima) in January this year, although I did not win the gong I am happy that I was recognised nationally.
KN: To what extent did the pandemic affect the work that you do?
CB: To us, the pandemic has been somewhat a blessing in disguise because we managed to do some of the things under the prevailing situation especially through streaming live shows. We currently have managed to record our 35th anniversary of participation in the arts as Sunduza, we have also shot a video in addition to my work as a solo artiste.
KN: So, how do you manage to handle the group and your personal career at once? Is it an easy balance?
CB: I usually do my solo projects during my spare time because in the morning I do the group work and later when we knock off everyone is free to do their own separate work. That gives me a chance to push my work and I am happy because there are senior people in the group who have given me the role to be their director after seeing my potential so I work to satisfy both ends so as not to disappoint and keep everyone happy.
KN: In future, what are you aiming for?
CB: I wish for my music to spread the message across the world and be heard everywhere, both internationally and locally. I just want my music to get recognition. I want to tour because most people say my music is unique and I have to utilise that and make sure that I get to go to international stages.
KN: Here at home, have you been able to break into all markets, for example, the northern parts of the country like Harare?
CB: I have been trying to send my music there to different radio stations, but most times we do not get feedback after sending. Sometimes I get responses that they are not yet taking new music, and I feel let down, but I try to keep pushing until a door opens.
KN: Thank you so much for you time and all the best in your work.
CB: Thanks to you.