Mark Ngwazi inherited a Sungura songbook which depended a little too much on folk wisdom and flat moralising. Humour, wordplay and counterintuitive observation could be Ngwazi’s strongest points but his charisma provides the binding virtue to the songs he is building from memes, jokes and wisecracks. Six albums in, his outdoor church is only growing.
A security guard wanted to hang his helmet at Bhadella Wholesalers and chase his music dreams. A job in a known band would be a safer landing so “Officer” Ngwazi passed his demo tape around, looking to be hired for his string swank. Nothing came of it.
His aggressive run at Chibuku Road to Fame, rehearsed between night shifts at the downtown family of tuckshops, peaked at number one at the Harare provincials. But he still finished short of the national shortlist sponsored by the talent hunt. A Sungura master had faced this dilemma before Mark Ngwazi. Leonard Dembo’s “Manager” was a self-probing song that looked back to the time Musorowenyoka burnt his fingers mixing work and music.
Fired from a bottling company before his music career had quite taken off, Dembo sided with dirty bosses over conflicted bohemians, and emphasised the sacredness of the day job, in one of his best remembered early songs. Ngwazi would later revisit his days of menial necessity on the song, “Gudo Muriwo”, his equivalent of Dembo’s “Manager”. “Kana zvinhu zvoremera kumusoro setsvimbo/ usasarudze basa/ wototamba iri kurira” (When things are heavier in the head like a knobkerry/ don’t be choosy with jobs/ do what you have to do) he sang, nodding to vendors who play cat and mouse with council police just to eat for the day.
In Harare, commuter omnibuses were ghetto radio. But they played nothing if not Zimdancehall
“Officer” Ngwazi followed his luck into the streets anyway. But any new musicians had business decisions to make in 2015. Around this time, gospel legends were denying that they had ever been gospel musicians, growing out their hair and learning the lingo just to claim their own piece of Zimdancehall money.
Zimdancehall was killing off everything like that. Things were particularly bad for Sungura, up until then Zimbabwe’s biggest music genre. The Harare scene had very few, perhaps only three, spots left for Sungura performers. Sungura guitarists, grand masters included, could barely squeeze into the many more section of the poster at this point.
They had to go out to the provinces and get their rent money from gold panners, the chaotic inheritors of a rundown mining sector that had sustained music groups and soccer teams from as far back as 1972. In Harare, commuter omnibuses were ghetto radio. But they played nothing if not Zimdancehall. You only caught sad glimpses of Sungura on the bus to the countryside.
Sungura masters were past their best years. The new school was truthfully dismissed as Alick Macheso copycats. It was widely accepted that Sungura was dead. At 27, Ngwazi, the newly retired security guard, could have easily grown dreadlocks, coughed up some explicit rhymes in-between ganja spliffs, and jumped onto the Zimdancehall wave.
Dropping bars where angels fear to tread
Instead, Ngwazi’s idea was broadening Sungura so more people could see themselves in it. “I don’t want the listener to say I prefer this genre,” Mark Ngwazi explains in an interview with This Is Africa. “I work with all genres, make them one thing and translate them to Sungura. So the one who loves gospel must find the things of God, biblical messages, there. That way, I am reaching out to gospel types with my Sungura. For Zimdancehall, I also do rhymes, and for traditional music, we capture some of that in the arrangement.”
In the 2010s, megachurches were the swing factor for Radio Zimbabwe and National FM charts, Sungura’s turf away from urban radio. More than half of the decade’s songs of the year came from pastors and megachurch stars. To throw criticism without putting off a huge demographic, Ngwazi had to be playing with words from his very first album single, “Zvindigumbura” in 2015. “Hameno vanoda kuendako tangai magaya/ Mungazoguma makandiwa musango” – low-key shots fired at Harare’s two popular pastors, Prophet Walter Magaya and Prophet Emmanuel Makandiwa. Other church namedrops were more benign, picking gospel artists, Blessing Shumba, Mathias Mhere, Charles Charamba, Rumbidzai Zvirikuzhe and Mercy Mutsvene, and secular brothers Kapfupi and Stunner:
Unenge uchiti iblessing apa iri Shumba;
Mhai, ndapinda papfumvu
Kapfupi kanguva kekufara ukastunner naye
Mhere unogara ka uchiridza.
Unototya kumutuma, uchiti zvimwe acharamba;
Rumbidzai zvirikuzhe asi chakafukidza dzimba matenga;
Tipeiwo mercy, Mutsvene wedenga;
With admirable arrogance, Ngwazi announced the arrival of his new band, Njanja Express, with the chant, “Njanja ichurch yepanze haizari” (Njanja is an outdoor church which leaves no one out) in 2015. He had “message”; he could sing; and he had taught himself to play every guitar format as a kid, but Sungura now needed more than that to go forward.
“Nicholas Zakaria, let’s just say Khiama Boys. Then add Alick Macheso there. Charles Charamba as well, Paradzai Mesi, among those still living. But the person who inspired me the most is Paul Matavire. Marko Sibanda as well. I liked their compositions a lot,” Mark Ngwazi said, sharing his foundational influences with This Is Africa. Sonically, the Macheso influence is more obvious. People like to talk of a golden age where each musician sounded like himself. Electric Macheso put a hex on this primitive innocence. “Third-generation” Sungura artists have worked under the great one’s shadow, with some going so far as to imitate his chirimi (lisp), a speech impediment, as Mono Mukundu observes.
Njanja Express is a dream team blending experience and youthful aggression
Two of Ngwazi’s pillars, Donald Gogo (lead guitar) and Obert Gomba (drums) are Orchestra Mberikwazvo alumni. Obert Mangani (lead), Wits Katogo (rhythm), Kelvin Chaitwa (bass) and Barnabas Mandipota (drums) complete Njanja Express. It’s a dream team blending experience and youthful aggression.
Njanja players jam together at Ngwazi’s house. “When we are recording, each band member comes up with his own lines. We then bring everything together. That’s when we have an opportunity to judge what everyone is playing, and pass ideas on what may needs to be switched up,” Ngwazi told This Is Africa. The 34-year old who taught himself every instrument by imitating classic lines changes guitars as he likes on live shows but sticks to the rhythm guitar during recording.
Ngwazi easily bodies Macheso for momentum and current form. Ngwazi’s latest album has the cleaner sound, lyrical range and conceptual ambition
Ngwazi could easily be the most aggressive of Macheso disciples. The main narrative from his latest album, Nharo neZvine Nharo, has been who is the reigning king of Sungura between the two men. There are few ways to break down the comparison. Macheso has a longer great album run, 1999, 2000, 2001, 2003, 2005, 2007 and 2010, while younger Ngwazi only recorded his second great album after 2020’s Chamugwegwedu Chamatindike. Beginning work in 2015, his four mid-level albums before 2020 are more decent than Macheso’s offerings in the same period. Ngwazi easily bodies Macheso for momentum and current form. His latest albums have the cleaner sound, lyrical range and conceptual ambition. Ultimately, the question is not who is ringing now but what kind of legacy each artist is building. This is where Macheso is secure and Ngwazi, a hungry underdog.
The outpouring of think-pieces reminding Ngwazi to keep his head under his skull misses the point. Harold Bloom spelt the question that keeps any serious artist up at night: “How to kill the Master?” As Harold puts it, a new poet only feels worth his office when he is convinced that he is working within his own original vision. But there will always be, to lean heavily against his sense of individuality, the Father, in whose lap he first learnt language. Soon enough, the new poet worries that every cool thing he got to say was already said by the Master. Our poor rookie becomes an anathema to himself. “He cannot be Adam on creation morning.” To know himself for a man, he must turn against the Master. He convinces himself that the Master went wrong. He browbeats the Big Other. He misreads him just so he can correct him.
The private languages of the greats are born in parricide. Ngwazi may not be consciously about this but the 2022’s biggest song, “Nyaradzo yaBaba ngaiitwe katatu” (Father’s memorial service must be held thrice), has a Freudian layer to it. He has already thrown two oedipal jabs with Chamugwegwedu Chamatindike (2020) and Nharo nezvineNharo (2022). A third album on this level would be enough to earn him the Sungura throne.
Before the gospel of Mark: “God is able to enable the unable to be able in Mebo/ makomborero hobho,” one Paul had already sent an epistle to heaven in the same borrowed grammar: “For how many years have I been in this orchard as a bachelor in this orchard, question mark nga? What sin did I commit before this woman was created? Check my record!” Paul Matavire was the one who brought English to Sungura. Of Ngwazi’s named influences, he places particular emphasis on two men: “The person who inspired me the most is Paul Matavire. Marko Sibanda as well. I liked their compositions a lot.” It’s not hard to tell. Both legends were humorists, just like the exceltional Ngwazi.
Zimbabwean music has always been a rich site of orature. For Lovemore Majaivana, Zexie Manatsa and Thomas Mapfumo, the return to orature was tied to political necessity. The language was fixed, forced back to time-worn romances for mysticism and metaphor. Their nostalgia is a form of activism that feeds the spiritually displaced. Less fixed is Dzemagitare, the genre of Ngwaru Mapundu, John White, Steve Makoni and other forgotten greats. Here urban life and civilisational shock meets Shona folklore, resulting in new idioms. Related to maskandi and folk music, the acoustic genre evokes the image of the wandering guitarist playing for change on trains and other cityscapes. Within this train trope, he is a rootless griot, a rombe (Unoka/ Jazi Manikiniki type) confessing his condition with bluesy resignation but, more importantly, laughing at himself and his audiences.
Mark Ngwazi is chatting up younger listeners with a new style that gives and takes from the internet, and touches up the wisdom of the ancients with intertextual twists
Dzemagitare players work with handed-down stories, traditional, biblical or beer-garden yarns. Performing on the go, the solo guitarist must be able to improvise and command the charisma needed to hide his footprints. He must hold floor before audiences who would have already heard his stories. Marko Sibanda and Paul Matavire’s brand of Sungura is electric Dzemagitare, oratorical and visually moving. They are also contrarian composers. Matavire’s mind is wired to twist everything he hears to reveal its opposite, to find wisdom in unexpected places. Ngwazi’s compositions, likewise, thrive on turning common-sense on its head to come up with new sayings and new songs.
A favourite in the age of TikTokand Meta platforms, Ngwazi is also a kleptomaniac. His rhymes about Dhuterere, Gwekerere and Mahendere on “Hwahwa” or the monya character in “Upenyu” are not new but and cannot be attributed to any source either outside the collective wisdom of the internet.
“Orature means that you are embracing the life we live everyday” explains scholar-poet Tanaka Chidora. “Our cultural rituals, our folk tales, our traditional and urban legends, our songs, our proverbs… that’s orature! But orature gets even more interesting when it goes cyber!” defines elder Ngugi waThiongo’s “cyberture” coinage. Cyberture then is “orature whose circulation is facilitated by communication technologies.”
Ngwazi is claiming for Sungura, a special place as the art form that grew the Shona lexicon the most in the past decade
Ngwazi is a new king in this realm, not just lifting but giving back trendy witticisms in gems like “Taurai Madzoka”, “Gokwe” and “Nyaradzo yaBaba.” In this way he is also claiming for Sungura, Zimdancehall’s special place as the art form that grew the Shona lexicon the most in the past decade.
Message has always been central to Sungura but the language is usually formal and conservative. Ngwazi’s compositions, with the jokes, memes and code-switching, moves away from the pure Shona register characteristic of Sungura. Like Matavire, he has no problem challenging received wisdom and dabbling in theodicy.
Wordplay and rhyme, elements more common in urban grooves, Zimdancehall and hip hop are among Ngwazi’s preferred devices. Wordplay is where words go when rhyme forces them out of their logical progression. The result could be nonsensical, comical or uncanny associations. Rap great Maskiri follows this path down to the unconscious. Ngwazi follows it to where he can free Sungura’s hand. — This is Africa