Hope and optimism howled at full volume
A people’s history of Zimbabwe’s first mbira punk band, Chikwata 263, who wanted a soundtrack for the country’s post-post colonial blues.
This is a love song, set to three chords and the truth. It is the story of a guitar, standing in front of a mbira, asking it to love punk. It is the story of Chikwata 263, Zimbabwe’s first mbira punk band.
This story echoes across generations, reverberating through the metallic buzz of the mbira, this analogue telephone to the ancestors, raising the frequency of meeting points and miscegenation at the junction of the sacred and the secular. It is the sound of music returning home, swimming upstream with a shimmering melodicism to the headwaters. The song of the deeptime hum of mystery in this place, Zimbabwe. Strange vibrations.
Unrepeatable, ungovernable, virtually unheard of outside of the only country where such an artistic experiment might ever have taken place, at a certain time, at a certain place, Chikwata 263 is Zimbabwean hope and optimism transmogrified through mukwa and metal, and howled at full volume.
In its original line-up—Tomás Lutuli Brickhill, “Hectic” Hector Rufaro Mugani, Blessing “Bled” Chimanga and Ray “Ray” Mupfumira—Chikwata 263 bristled with punk bravado. Brazen guttersnipes who were cheeky enough to try this shit,daring to hold up a cracked mirror refraction of a beautiful, broken place, and sincere enough to pull it off.
“From the beginning, Chikwata never played by the book, because we were breaking all the laws,” Ray tells me. “Mixing mbira and punk. We broke all the laws.”
We’re sitting on the lawn behind a suburban restaurant in Harare, just before Christmas in 2021, and the Chikwata boys are taking a breather during a long day spent driving around in Ray’s battered pick-up truck, volunteering to hand out food parcels to the homeless and the hungry of the city in the midst of a pandemic that has made the hard times even harder.
“So you’re punks, have you heard of The Ramones?” one of the other volunteers asks him.
“Have they heard of us?” Ray shoots back, not missing a beat.
One night in Harare, in November 2010, something new happened. November is the time of year for new things in Zimbabwe, when the rain arrives, finally, and the sunburnt beige browns of a desiccant winter give forth to a riot of green in every conceivable shade, from electric chartreuse to dark cyan, and everywhere there is new life, everywhere something sprouts and grows.
Storm clouds skate and swerve across a sky that is never still, pyretic winds whipping down from the equator as the earth tilts towards the southern summer solstice. As the sun sets, cloudbanks wax and break and scatter themselves across the evening amid sudden sticks of lightning, whitehot against raincloud gray, and skycrack thunder rolling out of vast anvil thunderheads that rear like startled beasts at the horizon’s edge.
You could see just such a summer sky from almost any table at the Book Café, an art space not far from the city center, because the place was two floors up, and had wide wraparound windows on three sides giving way to the electric sky, the hazy bustle of the city outside. This slightly seedy but really quite friendly part of inner-city Harare is known as The Avenues. If it happens in Harare, it’s happening in The Avenues. It is residential, commercial, libational and, dare I say, conjugal.
The Book Café was as multifunctional as the suburb around it, containing multitudes, something much more than the sum of its parts. It was the beating heart of culture in the capital. Here, there was live music, poetry, comedy, discussion, debate, workshops and book launches, six nights a week. Book Café spoke directly to the city, a conversation conducted face to face, broadcasting its energy out wide, letting the sky and the city in through those wraparound windows, that tented central courtyard.
And on this November night, Hector, youth community arts organizer, mbira player and infamous rabble-rouser, was running the Book Café’s weekly open mic session, as he did every week, when he he saw something he didn’t like: Tomás, the son of Book Café founder and paterfamilias Paul Brickhill, hanging around his event.
“I remember the reason why Tomás came through,” Hector remembers, breaking off into his characteristic, gravelly laugh. “I didn’t want the boss’s son at my open mic. So without him knowing, I just put his name on the open mic performance list. But it was actually out of spite that I told him to get on stage, and I wanted to keep on doing that until he gets fed up. It was also about checking out his character I guess. Like who is this guy? And when he got on stage, I was like ‘OK damn let me go and throw something into this.’”
“He was the first person at the open mic who was playing punk chords,” Hector continues. “And he had a bluesy voice, so you’re now checking like ok he plays punk chords, but he somehow has a blues influence. That’s kind of interesting. What if I put the mbira on that? It wasn’t about creating a genre or anything, it was just thinking of infusing the two.
“On that very first night, not knowing what was happening, Shi’loh [Binyamin Shimon, Chikwata’s first bass player] just jumped onto stage to play with us. And then the next week, Bled jumped onto the stage on drums, and it was an instant, full music.”
Hector has what Zimbabweans call a “strong rural background.” Born in the mountain hamlet of Chimanimani in Zimbabwe’s Eastern Highlands as middle son to parents Tendai and Rachel Mugani in 1983, he was a natural athlete and student of the sciences as a youth. Nevertheless, he discovered Everest Menthol (a cigarette so strong, it is technically illegal in some countries), a need for adventure, and an abiding love and respect for the mbira, and came down from the mountains to head for the Big Smoke: Harare.
The mbira is an instrument steeped in history and traditions stretching back several thousand years, and while different versions of it exist all over the continent, it has been uniquely embraced into the cultures of the Shona peoples of Zimbabwe. It consists of a gwariva (hardwood soundboard), traditionally made from the wood of the mubvamaropa or mukwa tree, upon which are mounted 22 or more metal tines or keys, which are played by hand. Metal beads, bottle tops, or shells attached to the lower portion of the instrument produce a characteristic buzz, contrasting with and deepening the clear metallic tones of the keys: an essential part of the overall sound and spiritual effect sought by serious mbira players. The mbira is a central component at traditional religious ceremonies and social gatherings.
“Because it’s a traditional instrument, you bump into it here and there in the rural areas, in town and everything, learn one or two songs from this one, forget the songs, learn them again, and it continues like that,” Hector explains. “I had an uncle who kind of played as well, and looking at the history of the family my father’s grandfather was actually nicknamed Maridza Mbira Mukayesango (indicating his prowess both as a mbira player and as a hunter). So the one who ends up having the name Mugani and it being the surname, used to be a great mbira player. But that’s family history, I never got to meet him. I’ve just heard stories about him.”
By 2001, Hector was at boarding school, in Shangani hostel at Allan Wilson High School in Harare. He shared both a dorm room and a keen interest in ancient Zimbabwe architecture, oral history and spiritual systems with a friend he made there, Ignatius Kamanga. Through a chance meeting with esteemed mbira player, Kevin Muchena, Ignatius started receiving lessons and obtained a mbira of his own, which he then used to teach Hector how to play. Hector thinks the first song he learned was “Nhemamusasa.”
As a teenager, Hector also struck up a deep friendship with Chiwoniso Maraire, the daughter of legendary mbira master and teacher Dumisani Maraire, and a groundbreaking mbira performer in her own right, who toured the world both as a member of The Storm, Andy Brown’s band, and as a band leader in her own group, Vibe Culture.
After what he calls “an alcohol misunderstanding with the school authorities,” Hector left the boarding hostel and moved in with his cousin, who also lived in Harare. “My cousin Masimba Biriwasha was also really deep into mbira music and all, and he still is,” he says. “He actually got me my first mbira. Then it got stolen.”
“But I would hang out, play mbira, go to different places, hear mbira. Funnily enough, at that time I would skip school to go to Book Café to listen to mbira (the Book Café was the first major arts venue in the city to include a dedicated weekly mbira program). And then after that, it just keeps on leading you to different spaces whereby you start wondering, and thinking deeply about this thing.”
Hector’s mbira journey led him back to Chimanimani and the Eastern Highlands, where he helped to run a festival, studied Ethnomusicology at Mutare Polytechnic, and started forming bands, such as Mutare Poly Band and The Black Imani, with friends. Later, he toured Algeria as the mbira player in Rute Mbangwa’s band, Jazz Sensation. He has become deeply rooted in various aspects of the mbira as a student, sound engineer, performer and fan. He makes mbiras, having developed his own electric mbira prototype, and is working on his first book, based on his experiences creating music for Chikwata 263’s 2014 album, “Chauya.”
Though Chikwata 263 was named Mbira Band of the Year by Zimbabwe’s Mbira Society in 2012, there have been some in the mbira community who aren’t comfortable with the sort of change and evolution to such a sacred instrument that Hector advocates for. Speaking over the phone one afternoon in late 2021, I hear him light up an Everest Menthol, exhale deeply, and lay out an impassioned progressive mbira manifesto. He narrates the development of stonework architecture in the region, from Mapungubwe, Great Zimbabwe and Danangombe to Khami Ruins, describing the “constant development” in their design. “It is the same with the mbira,” he insists, displaying his intimate knowledge of the instrument’s evolution from an ancient reed instrument to the multiplicity of designs in wood and metal found today.
“So my thinking is that when colonization came, there was an issue where the African culture was set and defined and left in a space where it cannot evolve,” he says. “A culture that does not evolve is a dead culture. Colonization made people think that traditions and things do not evolve to become something new. Something modern. It has slowed down what could have been. We are in this era now, and there is electricity, there are machines, so there is no reason why the mbira should stop being played and made in a different way. The piano started off as a clavichord, it changed over a period of time and now there is even an electric keyboard. Why not the mbira? Why should it stay stagnant?”
These are the beliefs that have guided Hector’s music career. “What I always wanted to do was to look for something that is unique and cuts across a new vibe in music,” he says. And so it was that when Tomás walked into his open mic and laid down some simple afro-inflected punk chords, Hector was primed to pick up all the ways he was coloring outside the lines of genre, and trying something new. Tomás was the guitarist Hector had been waiting for, and a life-changing friendship was born.
“Hector was very interested in what I was doing,” Tomás says. “Very quickly I learned that apart from being the guy who organized and ran the open mic, Hector was also a mbira player, but a mbira player who was specifically interested in doing something more experimental with the mbira.”
“I’m still discovering it,” Hector says of the instrument that has shaped and enriched his musical journey. “It’s something that you constantly discover new things, even in the first song that I ever played. I constantly discover new things in those mbira songs, and mbira the instrument.”
One rainy November night, punk found the mbira at an open mic night in downtown Harare, and Hector found Tomás, and something new happened.
Tomás didn’t just happen to be there that night. He worked next door, managing The Mannenberg, The Book Café’s broodier, jazzier sister venue, enclosed by walls of dark maroon, lit from within, with plush drapes and a mahogany bar top and smoky, shadowed corners.
Weeks earlier, Tom had returned home after 13 years overseas—a film degree and the formation of a punk band called Dhindindi with his sister Amy on drums are among the highlights of that time—to a Zimbabwe still buoyed by the optimism of the Government of National Unity and the lingering potential of something different, naive as that now sounds, after the political violence of 2008.
His father, the creative force behind both The Book Café and The Mannenberg, had called him home. The Mannenberg needed a manager and Tomas, who had been throwing events in London featuring diaspora Zimbabwean acts in an impromptu extension of Book Café’s platform, was an ideal candidate. “That was the job I went into, that took me home,” he says.
Home has a long history, and the Book Café’s archaeology was sculpted by the ongoing search for cultural emancipation and liberation in Zimbabwe. The roots of the place dig deep, to a time before Tomás had even been born.
By the age of 19, in the late 70s, Tomás’ father Paul had fled a call-up to the Rhodesian army, joined his elder brother Jeremy in the struggle as a member of Joshua Nkomo’s ZAPU, and became a lifelong and committed communist. While working as a metal picker, and a part-time driver for Central Books, the Communist Party bookshop in London, he also produced and distributed The Zimbabwe Democrat, a free protest zine, and undertook dangerous and lonely undercover work as a member of ZIPRA’s (Zimbabwe People’s Revolutionary Army) military intelligence unit.
With the end of the war and the coming of independence, he returned to Zimbabwe. “The proudest moment of my entire life was receiving a brand new citizen of Zimbabwe passport in 1980 after the struggle,” he told me. “I carried that passport in the top pocket of my shirt for weeks. The first few months were feverish. We leapt towards freedom and embraced every sensation in the new Zimbabwe.”
He had married Pat Bolton, the daughter of prominent South African trade unionists James and Harriet Bolton, and Tomás was born in 1978. Returning from exile, Paul started playing the saxophone in a band, Solidarity Band, alongside Washington Kavhai, Charles Viyazhi, Shakespeare Kangwena and Jackie Cahi. Washy and Shaky would go on to form the world famous Bhundu Boys—but they started out as Solidarity Band.
“Paul met the Bhundu Boys in Highfield at Club Hideout like many bands,” Cahi, the keyboardist in Solidarity Band, said in an interview with journalist Larry Kwirirayi in 2015. “We wanted a band that said something, hence the name Solidarity Band. But of course it was about the music, it was about playing to different audiences. And we played everywhere, all over the country from nightclubs in small towns, to backstreet hotels, to farm and mining compounds. We had a car—the Commer—and we would drive on weekends loaded up with gear on top to gigs in Mutare, Bulawayo, Kariba. It was also about getting to know each other. We were just youngsters with big dreams, about music, togetherness, but Paul always had a bigger vision and another agenda. He was always a big dreamer, and that never changed.”
The band lived together in a sprawling, dilapidated double storey house on Harrow Avenue, in suburban Harare. Enlivened by the revolutionary spirit of those early years in the new Zimbabwe, they ran both the band and the house as a co-operative. They were desperately poor, but they were young, free, and happy. Tomás, as a toddler, accompanied the band on several road trips around the country.
“The band used to practice at the house, and the police would often come and visit, because the neighbors complained,” Pat remembers. “But they were very friendly to us, the police. I guess there was a certain novelty of having a multiracial band all living together in their neighborhood. They often just sat around to be entertained by the band practicing, sometimes smoking a little dagga with us.”
“Maybe we were a bit naive, but it was a very genuine attempt at building what we hoped was going to be a new society,” she says of their lives at the time. “All there was in the room we were living in was a reed matt, a mattress, and very little else. I just hung up pieces of material for curtains. Though we had no lounge furniture at all, we did have a black-and-white TV which we hired from Radio Limited for $1.50 a month.” Watching the television show “Mukadota Family” on the shared telly, and days spent playing with Chiratidzo, the son of one of the other band members, helped Tom to quickly learn to speak chiShona.
A few years later, after Solidarity Band had dissolved, Paul and Pat founded Grassroots Books, a progressive bookshop. “In June 1982 a senior comrade, Albert Ndindah, handed me a brown envelope,” Paul told me. “Inside was $4000 cash. For a jocular, delightful man Ndindah could be grave when the situation warranted. In a very serious tone he told me that this money was collected by the comrades. They all gave a few dollars. ‘It is your starting capital for the bookshop. Don’t waste it,’ he said. We were tasked to organize a progressive bookshop that would challenge the old order of censorship and propaganda, and instill a revolutionary philosophy of ‘freedom of expression’ that had been denied by the colonial authorities.”
The bookshop also maintained strong and active links to South Africa’s liberation movement, and became renowned in the region for stocking anti-apartheid literature. Many South Africans made the trip across the border to obtain banned books from Grassroots, smuggling them back into South Africa.
In the late 1980s, South Africa’s war against the frontline states arrived at this little bookshop. At 8.30am on the morning of October 13 1987, a huge explosion shattered the peaceful bustle of a Harare morning. It was a car-bomb, and the target was Jeremy Brickhill, Paul’s elder brother and a veteran of Zimbabwe’s liberation struggle, having served under Dumiso Dabengwa in ZIPRA, who had continued his work as an anti-apartheid activist after independence. A Vehicle fitted with explosives had been parked next to Jeremy’s car while he stopped for coffee with his wife Joan at a bakery in the Avondale Shopping Centre. It was detonated as they returned to the car.
Kilometres away at the bookshop, Pat heard the concussive thud of the bomb minutes after arriving for work. Jean, Paul and Jeremy’s mother, also heard the blast from her home in Avondale. Intuitively she knew, as only a mother can, that Jeremy had been attacked, and immediately telephoned Pat. Paul drove straight to the hospital. Miraculously, Jeremy survived despite horrific injuries. His wife Joan was also injured, and both bear the physical scars of this incident to this day.
It later emerged that the men responsible for the attack—a motley collection of double agents and rogues recruited by the South African regime’s shady Civil Cooperation Bureau—had also surveilled and planned to attack the bookshop, partly as a result of their incompetence in being able to tell the two brothers—Jeremy and Paul—apart.
Alas, Grassroots Books’ commitment to freedom of expression and adherence to progressive principles would also lead to incidents of harassment from Zimbabwean authorities over the years.
Fifteen years after its founding, Grassroots Books became the Book Café. In Paul’s words: “Book Café was inspired by a simple idea. We began to realize that, in terms of cultural emancipation and the African-centered viewpoint, a great wealth of the cultural narratives of the people were contained in music, live poetry, theater, storytelling, comedy, in public discussion and other transient, performance arts; published books were in reality only one part of the national literature.”
This was the childhood that would ground the rest of Tomás’ life, and these the ideals that would guide him towards the idea that became Chikwata 263, a musical project that reverberated with curious echoes of Solidarity Band, with their blending of styles, their thoroughly working class, collective effort, and their often chaotic tours to far flung corners of the country.
In the mid 1990s, Paul and celebrated jazz guitarist David Ndoro established Luck Street Blues, a soul and blues band. Over the next ten years the band played more than one thousand live performances all around the country. Tomás joined Luck Street Blues as a vocalist while still in high school, singing covers of songs by James Brown, Wilson Pickett and Louis Armstrong (whose 1960 tour of Southern Rhodesia had been managed by Tomás’ grandfather, Roger Brickhill. Family legend has it that Satchmo bobbed a two-year-old Paul on his knee while visiting with Roger’s family during the tour).
“Luck Street Blues was, by any standards, a ridiculously successful working band,” Tomás says. “It was very much almost like a full time job. It was often that we played four nights a week, and then would have a rehearsal on a Monday night, so that’s five nights a week, alongside schooling.”
Somewhat remarkably, Tomás actually passed a couple of his A Level exams and, like many of his peers, he left Zimbabwe to go to university in the late 1990s. The Book Café, meanwhile, was soon presenting more than 600 cultural events and performances a year. In 2000, The Book Café opened The Mannenberg Jazz Club, right next door, with three famous performances by distinguished South African pianist Abdullah Ibrahim.
The two venues were a platform for freedom of expression in its broadest sense, encompassing both art and ideas, and this inevitably led to friction with increasingly repressive Zimbabwean authorities. There was a running joke among Book Café’s artist community, that in Zimbabwe there is freedom of expression, but not freedom after expression. Nevertheless, by 2011, the year Chikwata 263 hit their stride, the two venues were staging over 900 events and workshops a year.
That same year, Hector and Tomás moved in together into a somewhat off-kilter, tumbledown house in the modest suburb of Avondale that was about one spilled ashtray away from qualifying as a squat, and one smashed windowpane away from being condemned by the city council. As Tomás recalls: “we were robbed on the very first night we moved in.” Staying with them, around this time, I remember there being no key for the front door, so that when we got home, we would have to break into the house all over again to get inside. The place was quickly dubbed “Chikwata House” by their social circle.
“We were working together and living together,” says Hector. “So we now had a better understanding of the other person. With music and a band, it’s about understanding the other person.”
“We had so many conversations about music and mbira in those days,” says Tomás. “We lived a happy existence. Me and Hector had this immediate connection, both in terms of the music that we were listening to and interested in, and interested in playing, but also a shared interest in music theory and history. For us, taking the punk back and joining it with the original mbira sound seemed like closing the loop. Coming full circle.”
Chikwata 263 started gigging regularly, and though they proved an immediate hit at the Book Café, with its patrons primed by the eclectic, thought-provoking program, their reception elsewhere was a little more mixed. Even so, they often found that their sound could win over nonplussed audiences, despite the initial reaction to them being one of confusion.
At one show, deep within the warren-like backstreets of Chitungwiza, a township of more than half-a-million people, Tomás remembers that during the band’s soundcheck, “people were almost hostile. Some people did move their chairs to come and look at us, but they were just looking at us. They were like, what the hell is this? We’ve never seen anything like this in our bar ever, this is crazy. We can’t go home, this might never happen again. What the fuck are these kids doing?”
At another gig in Mbare, the crowd heckled the band during their first few songs, and even threw cans of beer at them. Yet, during the course of both performances, Chikwata 263 were able to get the initially unfriendly crowds thoroughly on side. In Chitungwiza, it was their punk reimagining of traditional songs that broke the ice. In Mbare, the band found that they were only heckled between songs, so they just played through their entire set without any breaks or pauses between songs.
“Then they didn’t stop dancing, they were enjoying and everything,” Hector remembers. “After the set they wanted more! We were changing the mindset of the people from the beginning to the end of the show.”
The raw originality of their sound soon brought Chikwata 263 to the attention of a revered member of the Zimbabwean music scene. Guitarist Andy Brown, as well as playing with the band on a few occasions before his death in 2012, dispensed some vital advice to the young punks:
“He was a big fan of Chikwata, Andy Brown, before he briefly joined the band,” Tomás tells me. “I wish we could have made more of that, but it was not to be. I remember in the very early days, we played a gig, and he was there. It was one of those hard gigs because sometimes the crowd is not your crowd. But Andy was like ‘great gig!’ We didn’t think we were that good. And he was like, ‘no you guys don’t understand. Playing for ten thousand people is easy. Playing for ten people, that’s the hard part. Because then their energy isn’t there, you’ve got to bring it all from your side’. I never forgot that.”
“Chikwata is driven by the audience,” confirms Ray. “If there is a tough crowd, that’s where Chikwata is now super active, you know.”
Chikwata 263 quickly honed their sound and stage presence, it wasn’t long before they were ready to play on bigger stages. Hector lays out the genesis of the band in three simple steps: “The birth of the band was the Book Café open mic. Then there was the naming ceremony. We had to come up with a name that was quite inclusive. We thought of Chikwata 263, which means “band Zimbabwe” or “team Zimbabwe.” Everything was just entrenched in the sound. Mbira, punk, rock, reggae. Then there was the initiation of the band, and that was now in Chimanimani.”
The Chimanimani Arts Festival was a massive, free outdoor cultural festival that took place in Hector’s home town, with many people from surrounding mountain villages making the trek—sometimes taking several days—to get to the event. Thousands of people attend, turning the village square into a boisterous, dusty mass of dancing limbs and food stalls and cigarette smoke and spilled scud (traditional beer). Thanks to Hector’s hometown connections, and the reputation they were quickly gaining in Harare, Chikwata 263 were booked to play the main stage in August 2011.
A somewhat unpredictable presence in the band, bass player Shi’loh Binyamin Shimon decided upon this moment to walk out on Chikwata 263. “That was our first big gig, and we were stood up,” says Hector. Stuck without a bass player the day before the festival, drummer Blessing Chimanga, in desperation, called an old friend.
“I’ve been homies with Blessing since way back,” Ray explains. “One day Blessing phoned me and he says Shi’loh can’t make the gig, can you come to Chimanimani with us? So next thing I’m in the bus on the way there, and he’s trying to make me listen to stuff. But there was no recorded music of Chikwata, so it was difficult. But I got there, the gig was a vibe and that’s how I joined the band.”
“Shi’loh used to be really the craziest in the band,” says Hector. The remaining bandmates decided among themselves, before going on stage in Chimanimani, that they would need to increase their own energy levels to make up for his absence. “Ray just thought this is the usual mood of the band. And it almost became a competition for craziness on stage. The craziness really kicked in, up in the mountains. That was the birth of the Chikwata 263 act. The sound, the visuals, everything just came to be one. For a lot of people, that was their first time seeing us. It was a defining moment in what the band has become. It was the gig that made us.”
Ray brought a virtuosic, playful energy to the rhythm section. He was also a talented songwriter and composer, who shared backing vocals and even took on a couple of verses himself, and like the other members he was already on a personal pilgrimage in search of the musically idiosyncratic.
With Ray’s arrival, Chikwata 263 took on the form that would define their musical journey, with Tomás’ guitar and Hector’s mbira joined by Blessing’s jazz-trained drumming and Ray’s multi-instrumentalist, multidimensional creative brilliance. “The composition style was now based on free expression,” Hector explains. “And even now, it’s based on expression, rather than a set structure.”
“Chikwata is just about being free and expressing yourself,” agrees Ray. “Every gig is different. We’ve never played the same set twice. We only have the structure of a song in rehearsal, but the feeling comes on stage and it’s very spontaneous. We draw energy from each other and whatever happens, happens in the moment. It’s not planned.”
Chikwata 263’s slippery, anarchic live energy would not be caught or restrained, could not be held, like shaped ether or bottled lightning, as Zimbabweans say: it can’t. They have played unstable gigs that descended into total disarray, and incendiary gigs that seared themselves into the psyches of all who witnessed them, including one legendary performance that is still spoken about by many.
This was a launch gig for another edition of the Chimanimani Arts Festival, and it was played at Londoner’s, a slightly shady but very popular suburban tavern in Harare. Chikwata 263 was to play, as Tomás remembers, “on the little side stage where the strippers also used to be on Thursday nights. This was not a Thursday night.”
The band was meant to play at midnight, but the show was running late, so they only went on a couple of hours later, by which time two bottles of Viceroy brandy (one bought, one gifted by an apologetic event manager) had found their way into the Tomas and Hector’s hands.
“Suffice to say by the time we went onto stage we were very much in the mood,” Tomás says. “Possibly a little too much in the mood to play the show, but play the show we did, and we went onto stage. It was a chaotic, crazy affair.”
“I vividly remember Colin’s (Ratisai, noted Zimbabwean fashion designer and a good friend of the band’s) high-pitched screaming as he was thrown up and down in the air, crowd surfing. Hector stage-dived backwards into the crowd, while playing his mbira. Ray was the only one who was stone cold sober, but he climbed on top of a speaker stack, wanting to play his bass solo there, and hadn’t noticed where the ceiling fan was, and then the ceiling fan caught the top of his bass guitar, and he almost came crashing down off the speaker stack, so now everyone thought Ray was drunk as well. It turned into one of those legendary shows that Chikwata fans have reminded us about much over the years.”
It has become traditional for Hector and Tomás to take a bottle of Viceroy on stage with them, and many times they have been found, after a gig, curled up together like two shongololos somewhere. Blessing and Ray, meanwhile, are both committed Christians and teetotallers—straight edge, in punk parlance—which was perhaps a necessary counterbalance for Tomás and Hector’s rather more bacchanalian instincts, though they were no less extroverted on stage.
Together, theirs was a contagious energy, and many of their audiences have willingly gone along for the ride, dancing hand in hand into the funhouse of the carnivalesque. At a beer festival in Harare in the early years of the band, Chikwata 263 took the stage dressed as workmen, in blue overalls, hard hats, and high-vis reflective bibs. As they laid on the working class swagger and swept onto the stage, their presence fomented a miniature revolution outside the festival gates, with hundreds of unticketed youths bursting through the fence and flooding the arena.
“I started playing the intro to “Chikwata Chauya,” and when the other guys came in, people just felt the energy and everything,” Hector says. “People broke down the barricades and just ran into the event.”
“That’s our festival claim-to-fame,” beams Tomás. “Like 300 people immediately made it to the stage, and suddenly the crowd we were playing to doubled in size instantly as this crowd who’d broken down the fence and then ran to the gig joined in to boogie away to some Chikwata 263 nonsense.”
Though they’d shoot you quizzical looks and possibly swear at you if you told them this, it’s clear that there are sensibilities you might call Dadaist inherent in this band—an umbilical connection to the thing that makes a punk ethos anywhere in the world so subversive. Many Chikwata shows have ended with Tomás tearing out the strings of his guitar in a cacophony of feedback and noise, and with Hector smashing his mbiras into splintered wood and metal. Chikwata 263 are the sons of Marechera’s Barstool Edible Worm, wriggling into your ear with a streetpunk’s snarl to declare that they are “against whatever diminishes / Th’individual’s blind impulse.”
Chikwata 263’s live performances have showcased an artistry based on a rejection of reason and logic, and the embrace of nonsense as another doorway to the house of truth. A refusal to compromise on freedom of expression. A lawless force from the deviant margins of Zimbabwean society, challenging a culture to reimagine itself. Embracing contradictions and madness, they also found humor in the absurd, and never took themselves too seriously. They gave life to the dissident idea of punk arriving as, at the same time, something imported, and something locally framed and defined. A new archetype of the trickster in the creative Zimbabwean imagination, daring to ask: what counts as Zimbabwean music? Zimbabwean art? Mbira music? Punk music? Tradition? What counts? What are the rules, and how can we break them?
While they were busy making a name and a somewhat wild reputation for themselves, Chikwata 263 members also got busy writing music. They threw in a couple of covers of songs by The Bhundu Boys, Bill Withers, Wilson Pickett, Bob Marley and Britney Spears, but their sets began to fly on their own originals. They took the city and life around them as inspiration, and one of the first songs Ray wrote was called “Bhutsu,” a song that speaks of a shoe that has lost its heel: a potent symbol of poverty, and one that is ubiquitous to the Zimbabwean experience outside of the tiny enclaves of the elite. The song was an immediate hit with both inner city and township crowds.
A couple of months after their breakout show in Chimanimani, Chikwata 263 played another big event, the Zimbabwe Youth Festival. “Immediately from the first song when we went on stage at that youth festival, this crowd of kids went wild at the front of the stage,” Tomás remembers. “We were playing ‘Bhutsu,’ rocking out and jumping around, and there was this kid literally a meter away from me, right at the front of the stage. Even now I can literally still see him there in front of me. He was showing me his shoe.”
“He was jumping up and down and he’d taken off his shoe to show me like ‘look dude, this is the shoe you’re singing about,’ and he was happy and joyful that some band had written a song about his life and was singing it now. It was like raw passion and excitement and I really felt like fuck, we are the band that’s telling the story. The story of what is real life.”
The quotidian loves, hopes, and worries of regular Zimbabweans provided inspiration for many more songs, such as the polemical “Bata Mwana,” which expresses a howl of disappointment at the leadership failures of the elder generation, or the proletarian anthem, “Zuva Radoka.” Then there is “Chenjerai,” which uses the image of a submerged crocodile, clearly dripping with symbolic meaning in the Zimbabwean context, to brilliant, prescient effect, the unifying rallying cry of “Hope and Optimism,” and “Sokwanele,” a lullaby at the deathbed of the post-colonial dream. “Mhondoro” is in many ways the band’s spiritual anthem, a punk refraction of a traditional mbira song, with a chorus that is a direct echo of the song sung by Paul in Solidarity Band at the very beginning of this country’s independence, back in 1980, when we were all at the cusp of nirvana, giving life to the dream: hama ngatibatanei!
Hector and Tomás are at the heart of the band’s songwriting. “Everything is centered around Tomás and Hector because those two, the guitar and the mbira, are the driving force,” says Ray, who has made no small contribution to the band’s oeuvre himself. “I knew Hector was playing traditional songs, and Tom was playing power chords, but the combination of the way they chose to marry both things, it blew my mind.”
“That’s why you see Chikwata can play with any drummer, but we can’t get another Tom, we can’t get another Hector, because they are the ones that are holding the band and the sound. If Blessing and I were not available, the gig would still sound like a Chikwata gig. If Hector is not available, we don’t gig. If Tomás is not available, we don’t gig. Because without them there’s no Chikwata, you check?”
The comradeship, brotherhood and love between Tomás and Hector has made Chikwata 263 what it is. As an idea, Chikwata 263 has been an emblem of openness. They welcomed a huge array of artists onto the stage with them. Asmund Prytz, the guitarist of Norwegian punk band Nullskattesnylterne, played with Chikwata 263 for a year, and the list of musicians to have shared stage time with them includes the likes of Andy Brown, Chiwoniso Maraire, Hope Masike, Paul Brickhill, Sylent Nqo, Othnell Mangoma, Amy Brickhill, the Mukarati brothers, Tafadzwa Marova, Dudu Manhenga, Freedom Manatsa, Naphtali Chivandikwa, Leo Bescotti, Max Covini, and many more.
Humpfrey ‘Mboks’ Domboka, musical polymath and multi talented producer, became a vital component of the band as he helped to produce their debut album, Chauya. Humpfrey was more than just the producer, he was part of the band and a close friend, and played at several extraordinary shows, on bass, guitar, and drums, including one particularly memorable evening, when the band performed inside an artwork created by Angolan artist Yonamine. Humpfrey, playing an electronic percussion pad, drove the band’s sound beyond mere mbira-punk into what might better be called mbira-industrial, or mbira-noise music, with a boldly experimental, glitching style.
Even as the band stretched its sound into new corners, and continued to make new friends, Chikwata 263 embodied the best of what the Book Café represented for all those years: a vessel for emancipation and expression, and a meeting point of cultures. At the end of 2011, the Book Café overcame eviction from its iconic Fife Avenue premises (finding a home, fittingly, nearby on Samora Machel Avenue). We were all walking together into a brave future, it seemed, at the brink of the dream. But life is not a dream.
Chiwoniso Maraire died on July 24 2013, aged just 37. A few weeks later, Chikwata 263 played an emotional show at Chimanimani Arts Festival, which is not far from Chiwoniso’s kumusha, or rural home, beyond the dry, leeward slopes of the great mountain range that stretches along Zimbabwe’s eastern border. On the way back from the festival, we stopped at her grave, and as we stood in silent introspection Colin sang one of her songs, “Usacheme,” cool springwater tones in his voice, amid all that heat and all that dust. We were all just standing there when suddenly, very loudly and very insistently, a go-away bird called from the tree above us.
Exactly one year later, in mid-2014, Paul Brickhill was diagnosed with an extremely rare, very aggressive form of cancer. In the hospital, he told us about a dream he had. He said Chiwoniso had visited him in his dream, and told him: “don’t be afraid. There’s something I want to show you.” Months later, I was with him in his final moments. The window was opened onto the treacly heat of an October day. Just then, I heard a go-away bird call, loud and insistent, from the tree outside.
“It is perhaps strange to say, but true, I feel myself utterly blessed, in many ways,” Paul wrote just before he died. “This extraordinary, rich life, an African life, so many wonderful, loved people and happenings, my life brim-full with goodness, love, beauty, music, books, people—all manner of wonders—and majestic Africa. Aluta continua! African struggles, emancipation! I find myself so fortunate to have been in situations where I could do something. ‘Either everything is a miracle or nothing is’, to paraphrase Albert Einstein. The choice is ours. For me, everything that has taken place in my life appears to me as some kind of miracle, none more so than the beloved Book Café, its artists and life!”
Book Café was a miracle, and Chikwata 263 was in many ways its apogee, its shining light. Hearing the band in full flow was like stumbling upon a Flame Lily growing in a mealie patch (while drunk). They were a band of a time, of a place, singular, human, connected. Hector says it best: “At a certain point now people make a certain type of mbira, and the music is played with certain histories and spiritual energies stored in that music. The songs have got history entrenched into them for a given people at a given point in time.” And so it is with Chikwata 263.
The Book Café, as it was, died with Paul, swallowed up in the maelstrom of Zimbabwe’s slow-motion collapse. And Chikwata 263 has also changed, as all things do and must. Blessing left the band in 2015 to pursue a successful solo career, reveling in his new role as frontman. In 2016 Ray moved to Namibia to further his music studies, and continues to build his reputation as a formidable creative talent. As the pandemic hit, in early 2020, he was doing a residency at the Battersea Arts Centre in London. Hector got married, had a beautiful baby daughter, and moved back to Chimanimani during the lockdown. In mid 2021, he was featured in an Al Jazeera documentary that explored his twin passions: farming and music. Tomás overcame power cuts, a micro budget, riots and the ragged end of the Mugabe era to film his debut feature, Cook Off, in 2017. It was the first Zimbabwean film ever to be streamed on Netflix.
Chikwata 263 returned with a series of reunion shows in Harare in December 2021, and January 2022. Ray is back from Namibia. They have an extraordinarily talented new drummer, Prince Madhiwali Dzuwa, and he fits right in. The Book Café’s legacy lives on in this little mbira punk band from Zimbabwe. The dream is not over. Nor is the struggle.
The story of Chikwata 263 has not ended. Whatever it becomes, it will not be what it was. It will be something new. There is always something new to find in the mbira.
Like the summer sky in Harare, life never stops changing, and everything is always moving. We are left with fragments and memories, trying to work out what it all meant. What to do with all these moments, all this sorrow, all this love?
It is New Year’s Eve, 2011, and I am sitting at a side table in The Mannenberg drinking cold Zambezi beer and smoking Newbury Extra Milds. Just a few hours left until midnight. Just a few hours left in the decade-long lifetime of this venue, eviction notice served, and so we are throwing one last gig, and Chikwata 263 is opening for Victor Kunonga.
Kunonga’s sets are an exercise in slow-burning intensity, the gentle currents of his opening salvos rising to a crescendoed torrent by the time his band reaches their epiphanic closing track. On this night, to mark the occasion, he calls the Chikwata boys up onto the stage for his closer, and there is a final dissolution of all distance between the stage and the floor, between musician and audience, as all become one, and all sing together here one last time, here, in this place: “Zuva radoka! Zuva radoka!” (the sun is setting!)
The Mannenberg holds space for just such ceremonial night magic, an energy enclosed and amplified, a place to speak inwardly to ancient voices, like the deep caves wherein antediluvian ancestors hand painted sacred life on the walls by the lambent shimmerlight of tallow candles. We are here to say goodbye, to pay our respects.
This sense of an ending lingers long after the music has stopped. People drift slowly out, carrying bright yellow laughter into an indigo midnight, but a small group stays inside the venue, foundering through the invisible hours of the deep night with beer and cigarettes and outlandish conversation.
By dawn, there are just three left, and I follow Hector and Tom, finally, down the corridor and out of the front door, and we stumble out of the windowless dark of The Mannenberg and straight into the jarring light of dawn, and Tomás turns and locks the front door, one last time, and that is that. That is the end of The Mannenberg.
Or, not quite.
Outside, corralled alone on the rooftop parking lot outside the venue, is Tom’s red Mazda 323, a skorokoro old thing that smells of wet dog and amplifies every pothole with its busted suspension. But on this cool, clear morning it shines revolutionary red against the new risen sun, and its engine growls like a ground hornbill, and Hector says no, he will not get into the car, but he will ride it like a bucking stallion, straddling the passenger door, with one hand gripping the inside of the car and the other holding his mbira up into the sun-cracked morning light as Tomás lets slip the clutch and spins three wheelies around the empty parking lot, a farewell sprayed in dust and gravel and a burnt rubber ouroboros to mark this point in an unending cycle, a fever dream rendering of the Bathing of a Red Horse, blasting “Bad Brains” and saturated in Viceroy brandy as we light out into the day, acolytes of the undying spirit of togetherness. That is how you meet an ending. That is how you say goodbye. With courage. With hope. With optimism. Chikwata 263 always knew how to close a show.
Hama ngatibatanei, forever, forever.