By Bruce Ndlovu
The Bhundu Boys, the jit music pioneers that became Zimbabwe’s first breakout international act after independence, broke up because of a house.
Comprised of founder Rise Kagona, singer and guitarist Biggie Tembo, bass player David Mankaba, drummer Kenny Chitsvatsva and keyboard player Shakespeare Kangwena, the Bhundu Boys had managed to infiltrate the British pop scene, even sharing the stage with the queen of pop herself Madonna at Wembley on one unforgettable occasion.
Having landed at Gatwick Airport in May 1986 with barely anything but the skin off their backs, the Bhundu Boys had in a few years miraculously transformed from a rag tag group of Zimbabwean musicians stalking British clubs into an outfit so good that it had attracted the of entertainment industry global titan, Warner Brothers.
It was this deal with Warner Brothers that was to be their undoing. In an interview with Sunday Life from his UK base this week Rise Kagona, a man who has been reluctant to speak to the media about how the one time darlings of both the Zimbabwean and British music scenes were reduced to dust a few years after their meteoric rise, revealed the details of that fateful deal.
“Gordon Muir, our manager, got 20% of everything that we made. So when the deal with Warner came along, he realised that he wanted a house. But the 20% that he would be getting from the deal would not be enough to buy a house so he tried to convince the group that buying a house was a smart idea. This was something that I was resistant to from the start,” said Kagona.
According to Kagona, Warner had dangled a tantalising £180 000 in front of them, a sum that had got both the Simbimbino hit-makers and their manager drooling. It also set Muir and Kagona on an inevitable collision course.
“I wanted us to invest back home. When we left Zimbabwe all of us were living with our parents. I was living in Mufakose; David was from Bulawayo and so rented one room in Harare while Shaky was also from Karoi and didn’t have a home in Harare. Biggie was from Chinoyi as well.
“So I told them that it wouldn’t make sense for us to buy a house in the United Kingdom because we were there on work permits and Margaret Thatcher could suddenly change her mind and stop foreigners from coming in. Who would carry the house to Harare?” said Kagona.
Muir however, was unhappy with Kagona’s reasoning and started working on changing the other group members’ minds. Dazzled by the bright lights in first world Britain, one by one they began to succumb to his charms.
“I told them that this was our first major deal and we shouldn’t miss the chance to invest back home. They agreed. But one by one Gordon started working on the guys that drink. I myself don’t drink or smoke so I’m always focused. He started taking the other guys to bars at night and telling them how the house would be beneficial to them.
“He told them how they would never have trouble bringing in groupies to sleep with after gigs because they would be no landlords as we had grown accustomed,” said Kagona.
Mankaba and Kangwena were easily swayed but Kagona, Tembo and Chitsvatsva were steadfast, rejecting all of Muir’s advances. When push came to shove, the decision would be decided by a vote, with Kagona’s camp holding all the aces.
However, a day before that crucial vote, Muir got hold of Tembo and over a cold beer in a pub, the fate of the Bhundu Boys was sealed.
“The night before we were to have the vote the manager took Biggie out. At the time we didn’t know what was being discussed there but I was satisfied that my brother would stick by me. On the day that we were supposed to sign the agreement, Gordon all of a sudden called for a meeting.
“I was convinced that the meeting was all about clearing the air. I thought we would go on as agreed but instead called for a vote. That’s when Judas Iscariot (Biggie Tembo) sold us out,” said a still bitter Kagona.
Unknown to the group members at the time, Tembo had struck a deal with Muir that would see him pursue a solo path, abandoning a group that had helped bring fame to his name as the undoubted front-man.
“They had agreed that Biggie would go solo with Gordon as his manager and they would thus split the profits between themselves. Biggie had these songs that he didn’t want to record with the rest of the group and they would bring in another band to play with him,” said Kagona.
Before the ink had dried on the agreement to buy the group a house and Tembo went solo, the Bhundu Boys had already started to turn on each other.
“There wasn’t any trust anymore. We only met for rehearsals and performances. Our relationship didn’t go beyond the stage because whenever we would discuss something Biggie would go and tell the white man (Muir),” said Kagona.
Details of this agreement only came to light when things turned sour between Muir and Tembo, as the gifted vocalist’s solo career suffered a still-birth.
“The years were going past and Biggie kept on asking when he would break out as a solo star. Muir had seen Biggie would not make it alone without the Bhundu Boys. We both needed each other. But he couldn’t tell him that because he had promised to make him a star.”
Things came to a head back home in Zimbabwe when the two were sharing a cottage owned by Oliver Mtukudzi’s then publicist, Debbie Metcalfe. Fists were flung and harsh word exchanged as allegedly Biggie set on the violent course that would see him commit suicide in an asylum in 1995.
“That’s when the details of their deal came to light. We didn’t know that was what they had agreed all those years back. That’s when we found out that he had sold us out,” said Kagona.
After the fallout with Muir, Tembo had tried to go back to his old group, but was given the cold shoulder by Kagona.
“He wrote a letter apologising to the manager and that showed me he cared little about how we felt because his quarrel had never been with the manager but the band. That’s why we rejected him,” Kagona.
Ultimately, the Bhundu Boys’ misadventures in a foreign country are a cautionary tale to any young artiste with international ambitions. Separated from their roots, the Bhundu Boys had been mesmerised by the bright lights of life as globe trotting stars and forgot who they truly were.
Before Biggie took his own life, Mankaba, the original bassist, his replacement, Shepherd Munyama, and Kangwena all died as a fairytale turned into a nightmare.
“Biggie should have known better. He used to tell us how he had been mistreated by a white man as a young man while he was working as his gardener.
He then came to the UK and had a chance to make a new start with all his talent but again decided to trust a white man when he knew how they were like,” Kagona said. The Sunday News