Arts, Culture and Sport
The Njerama Files – Interview with Paradzai Mesi (Part 1)
Paradzai Mesi holds his floor among the great Zimbabwean artists. Perennial underdog in a 2000s sungura school headlined by Alick Macheso and Tongai Moyo, his unique and individual songwriting has been clouded by unfavorable comparisons and bohemian controversies that follow his name to this day.
Paradzai Mesi’s band, Njerama Boys, went from playing tin guitars in Muzarabani schools to writing unforgettable harmonies for the great Zimbabwean songbook. But his songs never came from a place of harmony, at war with industry saboteurs (“Upenyu Madzoro”, “Zvipo NdezvaMwari”, “Shaisano”), at war with brother bandmates (“Ndourawa neHama”, “Rave Botso”, “Wamhanya Makarimwa”) and finally at war with himself (“Wasara Musoro”, “Swerakuenda”).
Performing from village bases throughout his heyday, Mesi was terribly underpromoted and a beast of burnout where commercial commitments were concerned. Swerakuenda is, after all, the moral equivalent of the Shona bohemian figure, swerengoma. Swerengoma lives by the primal rhythm of night and day, rain and shine, griot beer and community ridicule, a forest spirit in touch with the elements.
Mesi’s songs are dark and intense. Their narcissistic pleasure accumulate from picking his wounds. Too much of a dark thing perhaps, the sungura Bartleby’s songs become a self-fulfilling prophecy about a life and career whose blessings have yet to arrive.
Njerama Boys recorded 11 albums between 2000 and 2019. Their legacy rests on a prolific peak decade, boasting no less than five pure classics between 2002 and 2008. Onai Mushava (OM) recently rang the king of bohemians, Paradzai Mesi (PM) for his side of one of the truly complex stories of second-generation sungura.
OM: Eh, Mukanya! I want us to talk about your music from the first album in 2000 to the most recent one in 2019.
PM: I may not analyse these things in full over the phone. Can you come to Glendale instead?
OM: I am in Bulawayo at the moment. I will let you know when I can come to Glendale. For now, let’s work with what you can share over the phone.
PM: Go ahead! But you are sticking to music, right?
OM: Just music.
PM: Because people say they want to interview me but they are just dying to ask me, “We heard you beat your mother? We heard you had five wives?” Those stories have no part in music.
OM: I hear you well. I guess that’s what you tell people on your song, “Tambai Ngoma”: “Dance to the music; don’t look for misfortunes.”
PM: “Tambai Ngoma”, yes. The album was Chitaurirwa.
OM: Actually, it’s on your 2014 album, Harisi Dambe.
PM: Yes, the one that came after Chitaurirwa. So which song do you want me to analyse for you?
OM: I want to follow your progress through the years. I heard you connected paths in Muzarabani forests during cyclone to meet Gramma Records producer Bothwell Nyamhondera and audition for your first album in 2000?
PM: First, you have to know that my bandmates did not believe we could end up on radio or become something. I was looking for money myself but it was not enough for us to take a bus to Harare and see what options were available for us to recording. So I had to send an application letter to Bothwell Nyamhondera. Mdara Bothy (Elder Bothwell) said, “On 2 June 2000, I will travel to your area. Let me find you prepared.’ I walked about 70 km (Nyamhondera says 35 km) to Muzarabani Growth Point with my bandmates to meet him. We were carrying our homemade guitars. Mdara Bothy brought Wallace Mparutsa with him to audition us.
OM: You composed your first songs, recorded your demo tape and auditioned on these homemade guitars?
PM: Yes; I didn’t have money for electric guitars at the time.
OM: Bothwell told me he could not travel to the school you had agreed to meet with him. He said it was during the time of Cyclone Eline and people at Muzarabani Centre warned him that if he risked the journey he would not make it back. People were being rescued by helicopters and buses had not come back. Was this a challenge during your journey to meet him?
PM: Was it Cyclone Eline or Japhet? I don’t remember. But I do remember having to write a letter to Gramma. Back then you would take your demo tape to the studios in Harare and be charged say for one hour but I didn’t have that kind of money. We had managed to record with a Walkman. I had taken that demo to Gramma (in Harare) in person earlier and received a response after two weeks with a “Poor Sound” sticker. When Mdara Bothy came to meet us in Muzarabani, I had now written Gramma a letter asking them to consider our music.
OM: Where were you coming from when you met Bothwell at Muzarabani Centre.
PM: From Hoya, my home area. The whole band was from the same village. We had to meet Mdara Bothy in Muzarabani because that’s where the highway was. My home area would have been harder to navigate as it’s dust road.
OM:So you then auditioned under the baobab tree…
PM: Exactly. With those homemade guitars. I was told to play one song. Soon after intro, I was told to switch to the next. Mdara Bothy similarly interrupted me for the next three songs. The big man is experienced enough to immediately pick it up when you are good. We nailed the audition and I had to follow the guys to town where they highlighted a date on the calendar for us to come back and record.
OM: I want to say the leap in quality from your first album to your second album is hard to believe.
PM: On my first album, I was heavily influenced by Khiama Boys.
OM: You bring your individual stamp to the second album.
PM: Yes. But I am still singing back to my early influences. You will hear John Chibadura’s influence on “Hapana Chisingaperi”, for example, which is on my third album.
OM: I would even say there is a touch of System Tazvida on the the rough and raw vocals of the sixth album, Zvave Muropa, and, of course, you have been compared to Alick Macheso a lot.
PM: We grew up listening to many people. You have to understand that no one originated music out of nothing. You become yourself as you go because we don’t think alike. If you listen to Tongai Moyo’s “Zakeyo”, the rhumba switch there was taken from my song.
OM: Yes, your song, “Njerama”, came out 2002 and Dhewa’s “Zakeyo” came out later in 2004. The lattermost verses on your 2008 song, “Marwadzo” are at least vaguely similar to Mark Ngwazi’s “Mudzimu Wabudira paMbeveve” in 2019.
PM: When you are an underdog people view these things in one direction.
OM: Who were your original band members on the 2000 album, Zaru?
PM: My bassist was Elliwance Makina, he is late now. The rhythm guitarist, trained by Elliwance and myself, was Norman Makina. The drummer was Akim Makina; he failed when he were going into our recording session at Gramma Records. I played lead and sang, while Richard Zandiya gave me backing vocals. Mdara Bothy then provided us with a session drummer, Clemence Chigarira, who has since passed away.
OM: Before all of this, how did you first make a connection with the musician inside you.
PM: I didn’t come up through other bands as some people like to say. I just loved music, growing up. So there was this namesake of mine called Paradzai Kajecha; he also passed away. He had his banjo. So as we were herding cattle in Madziwa, he would lend me his guitar. One day he said, if you want to learn, make your own guitar so that you imitate what I would be doing in real time.
Paradzai is the one who initiated me into music but I was already a great admirer of artists like James Chimombe, John Chibadura, Khiama Boys. At that time, Macheso had not formed his band, Orchestra Mberikwazvo.
OM: Which year are we talking about?
PM: I was born in 1972.
OM: When did you learn the guitar.
PM: Around 14 years. I had shown a strength for music remember that we would play on Parents’ Day – I think that’s what they called it – in primary school. I was around nine years-old then.
OM: Oh really?
OM: So you were learning your first lines to cassettes?
PM: There were turntables then. On holidays, people working in Harare came back to the village. They would buy batteries, PM10s, PM9s and so on. So they would bring their record players and we knew that we would be passing time at their homes during holidays.
OM: You took your home-made guitar on those visits?
PM: I wasn’t even playing yet on the early visits but those tunes stayed with me till I could play the guitar.
Stand by for Part 2
Njerama Boys Discography
Zviri Pachena (2002)
Pane Chariuraya (2003)
Masimba Towedzera (2005)
Zvave Muropa (2006)
Harisi Dambe (2014)
Chenjera Kukangira Pakatsvira Dzimwe (2019)
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