Leonard Dembo’s early life in Bulawayo
That was the only question that came to Bulawayo jazz musician Hudson Simbarashe’s mind when he first saw Leonard Dembo on television after the release of one of his early hits, Venezia.
Simbarashe could not believe how the young man who used to live just three houses from him in the high density suburb of Sizinda, had suddenly managed to get on national TV, which at the time was a near impossible task for young musicians.
“I remember one of the first songs that he did was a song called Venezia. There I was, sitting at home and all of a sudden I saw Lenny on TV. Those were the early 80s and being on TV was a big deal. It was unlike today where anyone with a camera can suddenly be on TV,” Simbarashe told Sunday Life last week, a week that marked the 23rd anniversary of Dembo’s passing.
Over two decades since the sungura ace passed away, Dembo is fondly remembered and rightfully regarded as music royalty in Zimbabwe. His compositions have comfortably outlived the man who made them. His superior writing, complemented by the craftsmanship of his Barura Express, made him a genre defining artiste. Practice makes perfect, the adage goes, and Dembo’s mastery of both the pen and instrumentals must have required hours of tireless practice and refinement. This is where Simbarashe comes in. It all began in Sizinda when Simbarashe was a 15-year-old musician taking baby steps in a career that, in a short while, would eventually lead him to the doorstep of Dembo, then living with his grandmother and two brothers.
“I think when I was first playing the guitar it was back in 1975 and this was after we had gone to see a South African group called The Flames at a local bar. Later on Marks Mankwane and the Mahotella Queens would also come. Due to the fact that we were young, we were not allowed to see them at the bars where they were playing.
“During those times bars were very strict with their policies and wouldn’t allow minors anywhere their doors. If you were under 18 you just could not get in. Fortunately they came to Sizinda, the platform that they were using was a bit higher up and we could see them tuning their guitars. I don’t know but he managed to come and greet us. That was Marks Mankwane yet at the time I didn’t know who he was. When he greeted us I felt something and from that moment I was just inspired,” he said.
Simbarashe would then team up with fellow young musicians to form Montana Ray, a group that played the blues, jazz and rock. The band comprised of Simbarashe, George Phahlane, Davidson Chipembere and two other musicians he recalls only as Silver and Joseph.
“I wouldn’t say the group was successful because we weren’t getting paid but I remember we would play in places like Bambi Lodge when I was just 15 and this sparked a lot of debate at home because my father didn’t want to hear about music. I had started as a vocalist but I learnt to play the guitar with time so we started playing at Hlanganani Cocktail Bar in Tshabalala.
“Because I was never satisfied with what we could have been doing as Montana Ray, I would go back to Hlanganani to listen to other musicians. That’s when I found out that some people who went there craved an African sound. As Montana Ray we were mainly playing the blues, jazz, rock and other American styles. So I was wondering how I could cater to those people that didn’t want those American sounds. That is when I met Leonard Dembo,” he said.
In Dembo, Simbarashe had met a man who was in search of his own identity in music and together they would try to find a sound that could blend Montana Ray’s staple of jazz, blues and rock with local languages that seemed initially at odds with those alien genres.
“He was also, like me, still a teenager back then. He was already a very good writer of Shona lyrics at that age. So what we would do was that we would go and connect our instruments and we would play blues, jazz and rock songs. As we were playing, Leonard would sit down and come up with a Shona version of whatever we had been playing and people would love that.
“Then at the same venue we discovered a guy called Legion and he would play music that sounded like mbaqanga. So we would end up playing a Shona, English and Ndebele song all at once. So we formed one group. Later on we were joined by Jonah Mutuma. He was from Mpopoma but he would come all the way to Sizinda and he took over the vocals because he was a rock singer. It was a full band made of many different genres. There was no pay and we did it for the passion,” he said.
For Simbarashe and Dembo, teenagers in culturally vibrant Sizinda, music became a way of life and living three houses apart, both knew that it took only a shout to bring their partner in song running.
“With Leonard Dembo music was an everyday thing. When someone lives three houses from you, it means I could even shout his name from my house and he would respond. I would just shout Lenny! Lenny! Because that’s what we called him and he would say, let’s go. We would then just go and play music because at the time it was all purely about music. This happened until he got to Harare,” he said.
Eventually, Simbarashe’s father, who had been against his son’s chosen career path, was to get his way and he managed to pry his son away from the stage and onto the warehouses of Bulawayo’s then thriving industries. He subsequently retired, thereby making his son the family’s sole breadwinner. The coup de grace was complete and Simbarashe’s desire to follow his friend was from then on out of the question. Although he had little love for work, he would later spend 23 years a locomotive driver at the National Railways of Zimbabwe. Dembo’s own career, and life, would take a different path.
“He got work (in Harare). So that’s how he left Bulawayo for the capital. He didn’t go there because of music initially. He went there because he had found work like me. The greatest thing I remember about him was how he was sincere. Even after he had made it in Harare, he still came back this side and try to beg me to come with him. But what stopped me from going with him was that I now had responsibilities at home. If it wasn’t for that I would’ve followed him to Harare,” he said.
Now regarded as one of Zimbabwe’s finest on the guitar, Simbarashe remembers those days in Sizinda with Dembo with fondness. Another day that also still stands out in his mind is 9 April, 1996.
“I remember the day he passed away. I was going to work so I took my bag and I walked towards the gate and my son came running to me. He said there’s something about Leonard Dembo on the news. When I got to the house that’s when I found out he was dead. I had a hard time at work that day.” — Sunday News