Home » Arts & Culture » Jonah Sithole Deserves Honour

Last week, we gathered at the Book Cafe to pay our tributes to mbira virtuoso, Chiwoniso Maraire, who died on July 24, 2013. This sign of respect and honour for late musicians must be continued by artistes and their fans.As we get closer to the month of August it is time to remember Jonah Sithole who died in August 1997. He was a music icon whose work we still cherish to this day. He was instrumental in formulating the mbira style staccato guitar playing in chimurenga music.

Music critics often argue that Thomas Mapfumo would not have been what he is today without Jonah Sithole’s staccato guitar prowess. They say that it is that guitar which imitated the mbira sound that made Mapfumo’s music unique. Guitarists such as Leonard “Picket” Chiyangwa who came after Sithole were only imitating the sound he originally created.

Sithole was born in Masvingo and grew up in the mining town of Zvishavane. He first picked up the guitar as a 12-year-old. When his brother, who was a miner at Zvishavane Mine, was at work, Sithole would pick up his brother’s guitar and imitated the sounds that his brother practised around the house.

Jonah eventually moved to Bulawayo, where he attended Mpopoma High School until he was expelled in 1969, when he was a Form Two student. By then he was a decent guitar and bass player, so he followed his brother to Kwekwe and convinced him to admit him to his band, the Jairosi Jiri Kwela Kings, as a bass player.

A few months later, in 1970, the band got a bar contract in Mbare and became known as the Delphans. Jonah became the band’s rhythm guitarist.

When the Delphans got a contract to play in Gweru, Jonah decided to remain in Harare with the purpose of starting his own band. In 1971, just three months into his first stint as a band leader, he was approached by Jackson Phiri, leader of the Limpopo Jazz Band, a rhumba outfit, to be their guitarist.

The Limpopo Jazz Band was anxious to break into the increasingly competitive bar music scene by having band members who could sing in the local languages. While with the Limpopo Jazz Band, Jonah learned to play Congolese rumba guitar styles.

He was particularly enthralled by the guitar styles of rumba but he also began developing the more traditional mbira inspired guitar sound for the Shona songs. In 1974, the Limpopo Jazz Band recorded the song “Ndozvireva”, which was an adaptation of the mbira song “Taisireva”.

Together with the Hallelujah Chicken Run Band’s “Ngoma Yarira” (based on the traditional “Karigamombe” and the M.D. Success’s “Kumatongo” (based on the mbira song “Kuzanga”), the song was one of the first to transcribe mbira progressions onto guitar.

This is how Sithole got the idea of imitating sounds from mbira onto the guitar. Soon after that, the foreign members of the Limpopo Jazz Band were deported, and Jonah found himself playing with a slew of hotel bands with no names.

He played a short stint with the Great Sounds, another outfit that specialised in Congolese rumba, before moving to Mutare in 1974 to play with the Pepsi Combo. They played at the Zimunya Hotel, just outside Mutare for about a year before the band moved to Harare determined to land a performing contract.

He approached the owner of the Jamaica Inn, located just outside Harare, but a vocalist without a band, Thomas Mapfumo, recently fired from the Hallelujah Chicken Run Band, had talked his way into a contract and use of the hotel musical kit.

Since Sithole had a band but no contract or equipment, the two decided to join forces.

They performed together at the Jamaica Inn for about two months until they were approached by a Harare businessman, Solomon Tawengwa, to perform at the Mushandirapamwe Nightclub in Highfield, Harare.

At this time, Sithole and Mapfumo were playing an “Afro-rock” rather than the mbira-based style for which they were to become famous. After about three months, Jonah was muscled out of the group, but a few months later he used his influence with a new nightclub owner to rejoin Mapfumo and form the Blacks Unlimited in 1975.

Later that year, after disputes about money, Sithole parted ways with the Blacks Unlimited. According to Jonah, Thomas had become greedy.

They were getting 200 pounds per week, but Thomas kept half of it for himself while asking the rest of the band to share the remaining 100 pounds.

They left and formed The Storm. Thomas meanwhile, formed his own band, The Acid Band, which “marriage” did not last because

The Storm was given a contract to play at another Highfield night club and some of Mapfumo’s members left him.

The Acid Band then split up and Thomas was left with no option but to beg Jonah to return to the fold and form the Blacks Unlimited.

It was the very same musicians in Jonah’s Storm that became the backbone of Mapfumo’s music as we know it today.

In 1984, Jonah went back to Mutare with his new band, The Deep Horizon, who in their own right had churned out hits such as “Baba vaBigi” and “Sabhuku”.

It was also in 1984, that Mapfumo was invited for his debut overseas tour. Jambo, the white South African promoter based in London, insisted on the original Chimurenga sound as part of the deal, but Mapfumo could not reproduce this without Sithole who had left the Blacks Unlimited and was enjoying massive nationwide popularity with his hit single, “Sabhuku”.

Mapfumo approached Sithole once again and asked him to split half his group in exchange for the same by Thomas so that they could form a much ger group to do the overseas tour. Jonah agreed after insisting on being paid in aance since they had previously parted company due to money problems.

Thomas paid Jonah before the trip.

The new group, Blacks Unlimited, now consisted of Charles on bass, Manda on rhythm guitar, Marshall on drums, Everson on trumpet and Jonah on lead.

Together they toured Europe starting at the Markthalle Theatre in Hamburg, Germany where they performed in front of over 5,000 people.

They also performed at the Pavillion in Hannover before proceeding to Amsterdam, Holland and then London where Zimbabwean audiences at the 100 Club and The Forum sang along to songs such as “Madhebhura”, “Gwindingwi Rine Shumba”, “Corruption”, “Mabasa”, “Pidigori Waenda” “Congress” and “Yarira Nehosho”.

In all these songs, Sithole’s mbira-inspired guitar licks did the talking, much to the amusement of the audiences and the satisfaction of the promoters.

Jonah stayed with the Blacks Unlimited until 1989, and this period saw him evolving his mbira-guitar sound to unreached heights. This was in part necessitated by the use, for the first time, of real mbiras in the Blacks Unlimited sound.

Some of the highlights of this period include the classic albums “Zimbabwe-Mozambique” (1987) and “Varombo Kuvarombo” in 1989, also known as “Corruption”. Many consider these two albums to be the Blacks Unlimited’s best, and Jonah’s now mature guitar style plays a big role. Jonah’s signature sound is also reflected in massive singles such as “Kariba”, “Ngoma Yekwedu”, “‘Nyamutamba neMombe” and “Tongosienda”.

In 1989, Sithole left the Blacks Unlimited once more, and played as a session musician, notably with the Pied Pipers as well as with Dorothy Masuka, who had recently returned to Zimbabwe. In 1992, Jonah formed a new band and called it,once again, the Deep Horizon. “Sabhuku”, a compilation album highlighting the signature tracks from their 1992 and 1993 releases was released internationally in 1996.

In 1995, Sithole rejoined the Blacks Unlimited and performed on three albums the Afro-rock venture “Afro Chimurenga”, “Roots Chimurenga” and the live-in-studio album “Chimurenga: African Spirit Music” which was recorded during a UK tour. Jonah’s health started rapidly failing him soon after. He appeared on only one song, “Tipeiwo Mari”, on the 1997 album “Chimurenga Movement”. He died in August of that year.

As we approach the month of August, we should all remember the great Sithole with the uplifting guitar styles that he left behind for us. He is irreplaceable but we need to find a way of resuscitating his chimurenga vibe.

Source : The Herald