While Paradzai Mesi’s singing and playing has been variously compared to Alick Macheso, John Chibadura and Nicholas Zakaria, his attitude is evocative of Leonard Dembo at his darkest and loneliest. His first recording follows sungura’s family highway but he immediately folds back into his ego, faced with industry sabotage, betrayal and paranoia.
This second part of an ongoing interview series focuses on Njerama Boys’ Goneso era. Goneso (2004) is the peak of Mesi’s powers, with the possible exception of Zviri Pachena (2002) and Masimba Towedzera (2005). The album disapprovingly addresses Mesi’s rival artists, his brothers and his own bandmates! Onai Mushava (OM) follows Paradzai Mesi (PM) behind the scenes for the messages and motivations of this sungura masterpiece.
OM: How is Mai Mesi (Paradzai Mesi’s wife, Patricia Kapadza) involved in your work?
PM: This is what I said earlier. Let’s talk about my music not my life. Next question, you will be asking me if I really had five wives. Anyway, let me help you there but this is the last question you are asking about my family. I started my band when I was already married to Mai Mesi. She actually cooked for my band members during rehearsals. She was very accepting of my work because at the time it was rewarding for the family. She was also resourceful on her part. If there was no relish, she knew where to source pumpkin leaves or green vegetables to feed the band till we came as far as we did. To this day I am with her.
OM: Some of the songs on your fourth album, Goneso, address your own band members in negative light. How did they react to these songs?
PM: It happens in music. She would hear the songs when they were already on everyone’s lips and realize that my music meant so much to the people. She would even sing Alick Macheso or System Tazvida’s songs instead of being more familiar with her husband’s songs.
OM: I mean your band members. Did they know that you were singing about them as they played with you and backed you on these songs?
PM: I would write one stanza which would hold the place of four stanzas when we were at the stage of arranging the instruments. It would surprise them in the studio because I would be singing things my band members had never heard before the recording session. I would have hidden the lyrics from them all along. So they would practice and question whether I was fully into it but we would be lining the instruments so everything is good there. In the studio now, they are surprised like, “Where were these lines when we were rehearsing?”
OM: How would they take the message when they finally heard it in the studio?
PM: For “Ndouraiwa neHama”, we only rehearsed the first verse before recording:
Kakomo kenyadzi kane makuva, ndozvireva
Waunodya naye (uyu ndiye)
(Diplomacy hill is a graveyard
The one you sup with kills you)
I merely told them, “Four other stanzas come after this.” I didn’t want to know them to know the words.
After they have played in the studio, they realize, “Ah, we were being made to play lyrics that mock us.”
OM: Hahaha. Too late by then?
PM: They would have done their job and I would have paid them.
OM: Let’s rewind a little. On Zaru…
PM: I gave Zaru as the title of the album but this “zaru” referred to the breaking of a new of day. I am saying I will look ahead, continue the hard way, getting the little I am getting. My breakthrough will find me on the way. That’s the meaning of Zaru.
OM: What a positive album too! This is my feeling: Zaru sits well in the sungura family tradition. There are different family themes addressed from the perspective of different family personae. If feel like after Zaru, though, you slowly stop singing from these different perspectives. You become the main actor throughout your albums. It feels like, in your hands, the sungura album changes from the family album to the individual’s album.
PM: Singing for relatives, singing for lovers. My songs are address different social contexts. For example:
Kana kuroora kwaramba
Tarira wangosara musoro
(When marriage fails
Don’t force love
You are courting your death
Look, you are now a walking head)
– “Wasara Musoro”, Paradzai Mesi, Harisi Dambe (2014)
OM: My view is, going ahead from Zaru, you slowly depart from that approach. By Goneso…
PM: Goneso was a prayer:
Vadzimu vangu, Baba, mundiringe
Nhai Mwariwe hiiwe
Pandinenge ndagona mumwe oti ndepake
Vanofarira nzara iwuye pandiri
(My ancestors, O Father, watch over me
Where I do well give me a reward
O Lord, hear me
When I do well
Someone claims it’s his work
They want hunger stalking my door
What sin did I commit, hear me)
– “Zvipo ndezvaMwari”, Paradzai Mesi, Goneso (2004).
At that time, some musicians were saying this man wants to overtake us from the left.
Later, I did another song saying, “I am waiting for the answer; but the answer takes too long.” I was saying, “Sometimes you should intervene and not just stay quiet.” My observation is, some people will watch as you are being played dirty but they would rather stay quiet.
OM: There is a heaviness of spirit running through these albums. A love theme is undermined from within by insecurity. Lyrics about happiness sung are sung in a mournful style. In “Ngoma yeRufaro”, for example, you repeat the word “happiness” countless times and yet your singing sounds like it’s soaked in pain.
PM: We call that kugurudzira (yodelling). Well, maybe that’s just the way I am.
OM: The 2000s were Paradzai Mesi years. Things were happening for you. You had risen in the shortest possible time from recording your first album to being a household name. On wax, though, you sound like you got so little to celebrate. Everything is just so negative.
PM: It’s possible. As an artist, it doesn’t mean if I sing a song crying, I am the only one in that situation. Sometimes you sing to reach out to those people. Sometimes you sing a love song like, “Iva netsika Emelia, ndovimba newe” (“Be good, Emelia; I trust in you”) and people go on to create memories to these songs on wedding day.
OM: One of my favorite, for sure! I will spin it on mine too. Back to Goneso. I want to know your motivations for these songs. What got you into the place where you had to write this way?
PM: Goneso is the name of the album. Give me individual tracks.
OM: The whole album. Most of the album, at least. On “Ndouraiwa neHama”, you are saying the close ones are the ones who kill you. “Shaisano” you use equally strong language, and you also ask this question:
Unokombira Para atsikiriwe
Pane kukumbira kusimudzirwa machete
(What kind of corruption is it
When you ask for Para to be suppressed
Instead of asking for your own lifting up)
PM: You have said it.
PM: On “Ndouraiwa NeHama”, I had seen that my bandmates were plotting against me. I ask them to come for practice. They take my instruments to practice their own songs. And it’s my brother they were putting on the forefront. He wanted to turn the band on its head and take over as frontman. So I said, “The one you sup with is the one who kills you.” That’s one song. Which other song did you mention?
PM: What kind of corruption is it? Para plays; someone panics that I am being overtaken and pays DJs not to play Para. What kind of corruption is it? Instead of paying to say play me, you find money to kill off the next person?
OM: This was your experience?
PM: Yes; I faced this.
OM: Is it true that the recording of the same album, Goneso, delayed because a fellow artist influenced Gramma to cancel your session.
OM: How did you handle these challenges?
PM: I continued moving at my own pace, the same pace I am moving at today.
Former Njerama Boys backing vocalist Richard Zandiya says an artist brought thugs to the studio to block Njerama’s recording session, while a Gramma executive says it was only a question of a bigger-selling artist having diplomatic leverage with the record label, no violence involved. In any case, the recording schedule of Mesi’s fourth album, Goneso, was indefinitely pitg over the phone while the band was in Mt Darwin, on their way to record in Harare. By the time Mesi was called back by Gramma, two weeks later, he had significantly rewritten the album.
Stand by for Part 3