By Felix Chiroro
THE artiste with the most played song on any Zimbabwean radio station, Tendai Masunda, has spent the last several years in far-away lands picking up one degree after amother in Information Technology and Fibre Optics, but music remains her passion and patriotism is as involuntary to her as breathing.
Nonsikelelo, or Cde Nonsi as she is affectionately known, admits that even though she has taken a career path completely removed from the music which gave her fame as a young girl, she cannot take music out of herself.
Her hit song “Sisonke” at one time was played on all four ZBC-owned radio stations every thirty minutes, making it one of the most played tracks in Zimbabwe’s history. All that fame did nothing to convince Nonsi to stick to music, and she vanished from the musical scene for years only to resurface last week with two renditions meant for Heroes Day commemorations.
Nonsi last week released two songs both titled “Ndarangarira Gamba”, which are renditions of songs done by the late Simon Chimbetu and the late Cephas Mashakada which went by the same names.
In this era of intolerant and cyber bullying, it iw refreshing to find that Nonsi is bold enough to proudly sing for her country. This level of unhidden patriotism is not unexpected from Nonsi, who is well-known on social media for giving bullies a good taste of their own medicine. But what brought Nonsi back into music after such a long time, and is she back into music for good?
To get information about that, I sat down with Nonsi and realized that these questions are best answered by first considering a bit of her history.
A bit of Nonsi’s history
“My name is Cde Nonsi, originally known as Nonsikelelo,” she emphasized when we kicked off this interview. “However, my birth name is Tendai Masunda.”
The introduction was as chilling as it was revealing, because not a moment passes without the patriotism in Nonsi showing out. Her claim to the title “Comrade” is legendary and leaves Joseph Chimotimba green with envy, especially considering that she could easily call herself “Dr.”, a title she earned recently after years of dedicated study.
Growing up in Bulawayo, Nonsi was an average suburban girl. Her singing would start and end in the bathroom, just like any other girl with hidden talent.
“Sisonke” catapulted Nonsi to fame at a young age for Nonsi, the kind of overnight fame that can crush youngsters and lead them astray. Nonsi admits the temptations to go haywire were ever present, but she had to maintain her cool, thanks in part to her no-nonsense parents who raised her in Bulawayo.
Nearly 20 years after “Sisonke”, Nonsi a few days ago found herself facing the microphone again, churning our renditions of old school Chimurenga songs in a commemoration of the Heroes Day and Defence Forces Day. It was Zanu-PF Deputy Secretary in the Youth League, Tendai Chirau, who dragged Nonsi back into the studio.
Maybe “dragged” is an unfair term, considering that Nonsi herself admits she was did not go back to the studio kicking and screaming, for two reasons. First, Nonsi confesses that patriotism is in her blood and she will do anything for party and country without any second thoughts.
Secondly, music remains embedded in her and remains one of the many ways she can play her role in uniting the nation towards Vision 2030 as she used music to rally the nation during the delicate, emotive fast track land reform programme of the early 2000s.
How Makhalima unearthed Nonsi
“Growing up, I was very much into music,” Nonsi disclosed. “I’d sing along to music playing on radio and TV; I’d participate in talent searches and I’d sing while in the bath. But the big break came one day while I was listening to a radio programme by James Maridadi.”
Honourable Maridadi is now Zimbabwe’s Ambassador to Senegal.
As Nonsi recalls, she was in Bulawayo when she heard Maridadi, then a radio DJ, announcing during one of his shows that all youths interested in music were invited to attend a talent search in Harare by Delani Makhalima.
Makhalima had been approached by the Ministry of Information and and Publicity in a project that then Minister Professor Jonathan Moyo was using to promote Zimbabwe’s fast track land reform programme.
Nonsi easily convinced her mother to find her bus fare to Harare, and she soon found herself in a room in Harare full of youngsters who would rise to become household names in Zimbabwe.
“There was Roki, ExQ, Plaxedes Wenyika, Decibel, Extra Large, and many others,” Nonsi recalls, adding that Delani as the pioneer of what was to be called Urban Grooves music in Zimbabwe.
Branding Tendai into Nonsi
She impressed Makhalima who chose her among those who were singing in isiNdebele. It’s easy to state in one sentence that Nonsi impressed Makhalima, but there was a grueling contest as many youths were vying to be selected for recording. But there was a new problem: Tendai’s singing was good but her name wouldn’t cut it for an isiNdebele singer.
Makhalima decided to brand her into a musician of Ndebele origin. The name Tendai wouldn’t appeal to the Ndebele community, so a new name had to be found to match her new role.
“Several names were thrown at me, including Nomcebo, Nonsikelelo, Nomalanga, etc., but I chose Nonsi which means ‘mother of all talents’. The rest is history,” Nonsi says with a chuckle.
In no time, Nonsi was already a musician working on several songs, among them “Sisonke”. That track and others would later on play on national radio and TV more than any other track ever did, or ever will.
“Sisonke was played on radio and TV every 30 minutes. It was an out-of-body experience for me, hearing myself on radio twice every hour!” Nonsi explained.
She adds that thanks to her strict upbringing, the fame never turned her wayward.
RBZ, Fibre Optics and more Fibre Optics
Despite the overnight fame she received, Nonsi says she still had to make sure that “life happens”. She landed a job at the Reserve Bank of Zimbabwe (RBZ) and worked there for a while as a junior staffer, but it wasn’t the career choice she wanted to pursue.
Nonsi later on left the country to pursue a degree in Information Technology in Networking. She followed that with a Masters Degree in Fibre Optics. Still desiring to push further, Nonsi went for a PhD which she earned in December 2020, also specializing in Fibre Optics.
Chirau ignites Nonsi
Music, as Nonsi said earlier on, remained embedded in her blood. All it needed was some spark to ignite it.
The ignition came when Zanu-PF youth leader Tendai Chirau had a chat with his namesake Nonsi weeks ago and enquired if she could do something for the Heroes Day.
“Honestly, Cde Chirau caught me off-guard and I wasn’t prepared,” Nonsi admits. She adds: “But music is in me. Plus ndiri mwana we musangano (I’m Zanu-PF through and through), so I had to face the microphone, ” Nonsi chuckles.
Chirau, a workhorse in his own right who has revamped the Youth League by bringing an interactive brand of politics, asked that Nonsi do a rendition of some old ZANLA songs as a prelude to more musical projects lined up.
“He asked that I resurrect the ZANLA songs and give them some fresh, youthful feel,” Nonsi explained. She adds that Chirau went as far as suggesting renditions for some Second Chimurenga songs she had never even heard, despite that she has a richer musical background than Chirau!
“It was an honour being approached and considered for this project by someone of Cde Chirau’s stature to do something for Heroes Day. I cannot say it was something outside my comfort zone, but it came as something I did not expect,” Nonsi admits.
What followed was more interaction between her and the Zanu-PF youth leader, until they settled for “Ndarangarira Gamba” by Simon Chimbetu and a song of the same name by Cephas Mashakada.
According to Nonsi, a rendition might look like a simple upholstery of an existing old song but, far from it, it is not an easy thing to do.
“If it’s a rendition, you need to respect what has been done before by the original artist, so you really have to do it right,” Nonsi said. “Plus nyaya dzemagamba are very serious issues because people died for a cause; people left their families to fight for our country, so when one is to do the songs, one has to respect that,” Nonsi said.
“It’s been long since I was in a studio and I was a bit nervous getting back infront of the microphone, but the work had to be done. I really want to thank Cde Chirau for affording me an opportunity to sing for our heroes who fought for us to enjoy the freedoms we enjoy today.”
The project immediately kicked off, with Chirau as the executive producer and Tapiwa Jera as the producer the renditions. Nonsi describes the two as vital cogs in the project saying they did lots of background work to ensure a solid product came about.
Jera, a talented producer who is comfortable with numerous instruments, has worked on projects for Bazooka, Baba Harare, Andy Muridzo, Mathias Mhere, among others. An American music promotion company, Timeless, recently awarded Jera for his efforts in producing and marketing African traditional music.
When one listens to Nonsi’s flawless performance in the two renditions, it becomes clear that Nonsi, Maselo and Chirau delivered a perfectly polished act. She flows effortlessly from one verse to another.
The song by Chimbetu, an old school gem that called for unity under the leadership of then President Robert Mugabe, is re-done by Nonsi to a call for unity under President Emmerson Mnangagwa.
In so doing, Nonsi resurrects the song and brings it in tune with the present circumstances but retaining the key message calling for all Zimbabweans to unite and work for development. This is further testament to the timelessness of the two songs by Chimbetu and Mashakada in particular, and of music in general.
While the country’s leadership has changed, the overarching call for unity towards development transcends generations as the nation will still face varying challenges which invariably require unity and peace to be overcome.
The creative Nonsi smuggles the iconic “Pasi nemhandu” chant by President Mnangagwa into her rendition so effortlessly that one can be forgiven for thinking the chant is in the original Chimbetu song.
Homecoming and the future
Going forward, Nonsi could become a big asset as the ruling party fires up its cylinders in readiness for the 2023 elections. Music has always been pivotal to Zimbabwe’s politics and revolutions, going all the way back to the pre-colonial settler era.
Nonsi the brand is a product of the land revolution where her songs got etched in stone as pivotal to rallying a nation to unite against detractors of the land reform programme. And Nonsi the person has absolutely no hesitation in stating that she’s a daughter of the soil and is always available to offer her talents and skills for a patriotic cause.
Indeed, the nation can expect more from Cde Nonsi, as she calls herself. She already was into writing Zanu-PF campaign songs for the 2023 elections when Chirau knocked on her door asking her to drop the Heroes Day renditions.
Artistes like Nonsi who don’t fear social media bullies and sing from the depth of their hearts are an asset going forward, and deserve all the support.
Nonsi confirmed that now armed with a PhD in Fibre Optics, she intends to come back to Zimbabwe and work in the public or private sector to impart her knowledge for he country’s benefit.
“The knowledge I learnt here is very valuable, and I’d like to come back home and impart that knowledge. The Fibre Optics field is male dominated and we need more girl children to pursue Information Technology. We also need to make internet more affordable and more accessible in Zimbabwe,” Nonsi said.
But will she drop any songs anytime soon? Maybe, maybe not. It probably depends on how much time the world of Fibre Optics will demand from her, but her passion and patriotism are full to the brim. As ever. ■