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Remembering the great Leonard Dembo

By Garikai Mazara

It was one of those rare occasions in the Dembos’ Ridgeville home that we sat down on Wednesday afternoon to go through the life and times of Leonard Dembo, considered by many to be one of the finest songwriters and guitarists to ever emerge from Zimbabwe. 

Leonard Dembo kisses his bride Eunice Munatsi in August 1994 during the solemnisation of their marriage
Leonard Dembo kisses his bride Eunice Munatsi in August 1994 during the solemnisation of their marriage

Rare in the sense that Eunice Munatsi, or Mai Morgie or Mai Lee, whichever you fancy, or simply Dembo’s widow, rarely grants interviews, let alone invite journalists into her home.

Not that there are any secrets to be hidden in the household nor could the home be described as extravagant, outlandish or lavish — rather it would fit into the description of your average middle-class family: two or three cars in the yard, a sofa that has been host to quite a number of backsides, as well as playing host to one or two relatives from the extended family.

Understandably, Mai Morgie says she has not entertained the media because journalists have not sought to find out the truth from her from the word “go”.

“Soon after I lost Leonard, many things have been written, true or false, and no one has bothered to check with my family first. So that has been my attitude ever since, that you guys can continue writing whatever you like and I am not bothered,” she defended herself.

And the rumours that the infrequent, rather non-existent, visits to her home by journalists might have something to do with her short fuse as she, at times, takes the law into her hands? “If you cross my path, I will beat you up, not with a pot like what your wife will do but with my hands.

Leonard Dembo
Leonard Dembo

Why would I beat you with a pot? I am not your wife, so I will hit you as hard as I can and if you beat me, that’s fine, but I would have made my point. Ask your former colleague, I came to his office and told him in plain language that if he messes up with me again, I will beat him.”

That is Mai Morgie, never short of words. But we were not there to discuss her personality, but the moments she treasures the most of the time she shared with the immensely talented Leonard Dembo, who broke many of the records on the local charts, especially with Chitekete.

She does remember that it was in 1985 that she was walking the streets of Masvingo with a friend, then 18 years old, that Leonard stopped them and, like all street-wise guys do, said a lot of niceties, mostly sweet-nothings.

That meeting was not only to inspire a relationship and marriage but in later years the song “Zuva Rimwe Pagore”, a love song, which his sons, Tendai and Morgan, say is so touching and relevant to their own lives today that they would not stage a show and not do the song.

A common background, of having been raised in a broken family, characterised by endless suffering, tied the newly-met couple and they were soon an item. By that time Leonard was working for a bottling company, based in Harare, and he would be sent on company assignments to Masvingo from time to time, whereupon he met his bride-to-be.

Leonard’s mother, who is still alive and well in Chivi, had one child, a son, before she met Leonard’s father. Then she went on to have Leonard, his sister Ratidzo and Gift and then the father died, when Leonard was only five years old. She went on to re-marry and had three other children.

When she re-married she had to leave Leonard and his siblings behind in the Dembo household, which meant that the young ones were to grow up without a mother and a father.

That period of suffering, compounded by that he never saw much of his father, nor remember much, inspired him to pen the song “Ndibatsirei Ndanzwa”, off the album “Paw-paw”, in which he asks his father to just visit him in a dream, so that he can see his face, if only for once.

Though by 1985 Leonard had done a number of chart-topping hits, including the timeless “Venenziya”, and thus could have been a household name by then, he never used his lyrical talent to court his girl, or even mention that he was a musician.

“We discovered by accident, he never told me or my aunt that I was staying with, that he was a musician. I knew him as working for a bottling company and at times of his monthly allocation of three crates of soft drinks, he used to give me one crate, which was like manna from heaven. I remember I used to brag to my friends that I was now bathing in soft drinks, and not water.”

It was after he had released “Mai Nevana Vavo” that a neighbour noticed that the picture on the album sleeve resembled the usual visitor to Eunice’s Masvingo residence. So when he came next time around, he was cornered — and admitted it was him.

The admission was, to an extent, devastating to Eunice, who had sworn, in her dreams, not to marry a policeman, teacher or musician. “But as someone that I had already warmed up to, I grudgingly moved on with the affair.”

But if Leonard was to get any inclination that his choice of a wife might have been ill-advised, it was to come hardly a year after moving in with Eunice, with the couple now renting a room in Harare’s Glen View 1 suburb. Probably for a young man his age it was most likely that Leonard was seeing other girls.

So one of the girls must have been heart-broken when she learnt that some wife from Masvingo had moved in. She vented her anger through a hand-delivered letter — and she made the mistake of including her name and address in that letter.

Upon which the short-fused Eunice took it upon herself to locate the girl and trick her into believing that her, Eunice, was Leonard’s sister. The mission was simple and straightforward, since “we as Leonard’s sisters and family were not happy with the wife that had moved in and if she could dress up and quickly we could take her into Leonard’s lodgings, with our blessings, since we had chased the other wife away”.

Very few girls would fail to fall for such a trick and soon the two — assumedly aunt and sister-in-law—– were trudging to Leonard’s lodgings, where a melee was to erupt. That was to be the incident that was to teach Leonard what kind of wife he had gotten himself — and in all future dealings with his girlfriends (“for he had a number of them because of his status in society”) he knew quite well when his wife had reached cut-off point.

As much as she was short-tempered, he equally was and she remembers, rather vividly (who wouldn’t remember a clap in their face from a loved one?) a rare occasion she was clapped for failing to change gears, when she was learning to drive. It must have been a blinding clap, for she could talk about it to no end.

Then there is the plethora of names that Leonard was known as: Kwangwari, Gwandapi, Musorowenyoka, Dembo, Tazvivinga, which was which? “Leonard’s father was called Morgan Kwangwari Musorowenyoka. Morgan and Kwangwari were his given names.

That should explain why his first-born son was named Morgan. Then Tazvivinga was Morgan’s father. Gwandapi was just a nickname.”

The girl, Fenistia, who was not at home as she is currently on attachment in Victoria Falls for a tourism and hospitality course, was so-named after her aunt, as in Morgan’s sister. Only Tendai’s name was not borrowed from the family. That Leonard was short-circuited was to manifest itself again some years later.

It was after Chitekete had done so well on the charts and husband and wife decided to go to Gramma to collect their royalties.

“He was handed a cheque for $9 000, the old Zim dollars. Glancing at the cheque, he tore it to pieces and we drove off. We came home and an hour or so later the white guy who was heading Gramma Records drove home with a $25 000 cheque. Leonard asked where, in the space of an hour, the difference could have emerged from. The answer was not convincing and he refused the cheque all together. It was later collected by his friend later that day.”

To put into the context the above figures, when they cashed the cheque, they thought of buying another house, to move from the Ridgeview one. So they went to see a house in Shawasha Hills, which was selling for $12 000, which would have left them with $13 000 change.

“We couldn’t take that house because the yard was poorly drained, as the owners were parking their cars outside the yard and walking through some swamps to get to the doors. For that reason we decided against it. We went to a farm in Mazowe, to buy the commercial farm that we had seen in the papers and, at the last minute, he changed his mind.”

To reinforce that he was an eccentric character, it is true that he did not want any videos to his songs.

“He told everyone, his friends and those who pestered him to shoot, that his understanding was that a video was for marketing a song, and he felt his songs were good enough to market themselves. So he did only two videos, must have been Eric Knight who shot those two, otherwise he didn’t want any videos.”

Though there have been suggestions that because of his disadvantaged upbringing, Leonard did not climb much up the school ladder, Eunice was quick to defend her husband and said he could count up to 10 and beyond, as well as recite the alphabet, even backwards. She produced a diary where he kept some of his “secrets”.

But for someone who could read and write, of all the songs that went on to be hits, locally, regionally and internationally, not even one song was written down.

“All his songs he would do them by heart. He could wake up in the middle of the night and start singing and recording on his Walkman, saying that he was dreaming a song and its tunes and fearful that he might forget them if he waited for the following morning.”

Then sometime early in 1995 disaster struck. After a performance at Makoni shopping centre, Leonard went home and started bleeding through the nose. He is said to have lost so much blood in that nose-bleeding, such that when he stopped bleeding he started having a splitting headache, a headache which was so severe that at times he could not see, and at times not hear.

The headache was to persist through to the beginning of 1996, such that in April he was admitted to the Avenues Clinic. And on the Sunday before the Tuesday he died, he asked for his children to be brought into hospital to visit him. That was to be the last time that the kids, Morgan (then 10), Tendai (then 9) and Fenistia (then 6), were to see their father alive.

“And then he asked me, in one of our last conversations, that since I was still so young and could possibly re-marry, that I should consider taking my children with me into my new marriage, for the sake of our children. But then when I looked at what I had at my disposal, what Leonard had left me, I decided not to marry again, for the sake of my children. I vowed that I was going to be their mother and father and today I am proud of them.”

Leonard Dembo passed on, on Tuesday April 9 1996, and this coming Tuesday marks the second time in the 17 years that he has been dead, that his anniversary falls on the same day he died. The last time that happened was in 2002. The Sunday Mail

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