The Sunday Mail
Mtandazo Dube Leisure Editor
OBSTINATE! That’s the word that best describes Suluman “Sulu” Chimbetu. In the face of a resurgent Alick Macheso, an on-fire Jah Prayzah, and an unpredictable Zim dancehall movement, Sulu remains stubbornly optimistic. But wait a minute, why are we talking about Sulu when Jah Prayzah released his seventh album only two days ago?
Because today is the day that Simon “Chopper” Chimbetu died 11 years ago, dumping tonnes of responsibilitieson the shoulders of a 23-year-old airman and part-time musician who never wanted to quit his Air Force of Zimbabwe job after his father’s death.
In fact, Sulu loved his job so much he juggled guitar and riffle for five months before taking to the stage and recording studio full-time.
In a no-holds barred interview with the charismatic performer at his new studio, Cockpit Studios, at Number 2–30th Avenue in Haig Park, Harare last week, Sulu rang a defiant chord. The studio was built at his late father’s house, the place where the iconic Chopper breathed his last.
It is at Cockpit Studios that Sulu intends to make his sixth album with his new state-of-the-art equipment and adept producers. The album, the first at the studio, is expected on October 28 and Sulu says his fans have proposed “Havasikutiziva” as the title.
“We have changed the music a bit, made it more modern, but we have not touched the signature beat, the unique sound of the dendera bird, that booming explosion of the bass guitar.
“Of course, we want to release something appealing to our fans and music lovers in general, something interesting and with superb sound quality but we remain true to ourselves, to dendera music, to the sound that makes it unique,” said Sulu.
While some musicians grudgingly accept that younger, newer acts are the big deal in town, Sulu’s words carry a tone and message of tenacious unwillingness to yield.
And this is not a man of words only, he acts on what he says. His forthcoming effort has tracks that are already popular at live shows, and the dendera crooner believes that come Christmas, people will be mostly dancing to just his music.
However, on a day like this, where the nation and the music world remember Chopper, one wonders how Sulu is coping.
“Things began to fall apart (after his father died). Uncle Briam, who had saved the situation in the ‘90s when our father was incarcerated, was on his deathbed. The dendera train began to go off the rails. Too many requests for off days at work began to strain relations between me and my workmates,” narrated Sulu.
The youngest of Simon Chimbetu’s children, Kudzi, then only in Grade Four, faced a bleak future as far as education was concerned. The umbrella, the shield that had kept this family safe from unfriendly elements, had gone. Simon “Chopper” Chimbetu was dead.
Everything Simon had worked for his entire life – his family, his music, his beloved band, his legacy – was in jeopardy.
With Chopper gone, his remains interred at the Chinhoyi Provincial Heroes Acre, where Sulu, for the first time in 11 years performed to honour his father and other heroes at that shrine last Monday, things did not look good.
It was that performance at the provincial heroes acre that brought back the memories – both good and ugly – of the transition from being a regular young man, to being the head of a vast family and leader of an iconic band.
“This day, August 14, it shocked me. Our protector, the man we all looked up to was gone. It brought tears to my eyes, my heart and my soul. I can never forget the day my father passed on.
“I was worried about the family. My youngest brother was in Grade Four and my sisters were at different levels of school. Who was going to take care of them?” asked Sulu rhetorically as he opened up to us how and why he took over Orchestra Dendera Kings.
“Although I was crying, as a soldier I had to be strong, we had to move on without him. It was a huge task filling the shoes of that man, but I was groomed differently. I was taught to unite the family from a very young age. I would run errands at the farm and pick up my sisters from school – I literally took care of them.
“I had been thrust into a different life early. From high school I was sent straight to the National Youth Service and after that I joined the Air Force of Zimbabwe. I was groomed to take the initiative, to be strong, to lead and not to crack under pressure. I learnt many skills from that time,” narrated Sulu.
After 11 years, does Sulu have a vision for his band and music away from what his father accomplished? No doubt he has secured his father’s legacy, but what about his own?
“This studio is just the first of it. I want to turn this house into a museum. People should come here for dendera archival material, to read, for the pictures and drawings, for the music.
“We will not stop there, we want to put up a radio station, a community one or national one we will see how it goes. The fact that he (Simon) owned this property, that he died here in a neighbourhood that was previously white … makes it all the more important for me to fulfil this dream.”
Sulu says he wants to encourage originality and Zimbabweaness among artistes and his kids, should they decide to take up music.
“Most genres in Zimbabwe are borrowed and unAfrican. Dendera is our identity, it is Zimbabwean and I would like to preserve it and pass it on to future generations not just from the Chimbetu family but from elsewhere.
“I also want to kill the notion that every Chimbetu has to be a musician. We want doctors, I wanted to be a doctor. We want lawyers and scribes. I want our children to go to school and chase their dreams elsewhere.
“Should they decide to pursue music it should not be out of necessity but love for it. Hatidi vanhu vanoti vafoira maths nechirungu voti now we want to be musicians. No. Ndovanhu vanozoti netsa ivavo,” he said.
Sulu hopes to retire from music one day because for him music was a way out, a way to preserve his father’s legacy, to unite and take care of his family. In this month of August, a month he says is hard for him, Sulu takes solace from his father’s compositions like “Mwana Wedangwe” and “Mudzimu Ndiringe”; while he dedicates “Ndomusiya Nani” and “Kure” for his departed father.
This afternoon he shares the stage with sungura maestro Alick Macheso, family members and a plethora of surprise artistes in remembrance of Chopper at Extra Mile Leisure Spot in Harare.