Albert Nyathi

Albert Nyathi. Photo by Mai Palmberg

"Singing the war cry"

Albert Nyathi calls himself an "imbongi" (praise singer in Ndebele) and dub-poet and runs the Imbongi Arts, a professional music performance company. He was born near Kezi in Matabeleland South, and learnt poetry, performance and music from the traditions in a cattle-herding community.

As a poet he is performing his own and adapted traditional poetry, and also composing music for his own band. The songs are both in Shona and Ndebele, but the dances are reminiscent of Ndebele traditions. His first album was Senzeni Na. In 2003 he entered into a collaboration with South African music producer Dan Tshanda that will market Imbongi works in South Africa.

In 2003 Albert Nyathi launched an annual festival called the Great Family Indaba Festival with the aim of showcasing young musical talents who have not been able to make it in the shadows of the few Zimbabwean musicians who have succeded to reach fame.

Let us first actually establish what kind of artist you are. What are you doing?
I am a composer of music, and of poetry, so I perform the two genres, the poetry and the music. I started actually by performing poetry on its own without fusing it with anything, it was just poetry, and I still do it sometimes alone on stage, one hour alone on stage doing poetry.

In what language are you then reading?
I mix quite a lot. Mainly English but I use Ndebele as well, which is Zulu. When I was in Rotterdam , Holland in 1996 for something called Poetry International Festival, people said that they liked my stuff in my own language more than English. I think it had to do with rhythm. You are more at home with your language in terms of rhythm.

How did it all start?
I started out in the countryside performing poetry, as I was a herd boy herding cattle. I was not writing poetry then, I was taking poetry, traditional poetry, what is called praise poetry.

Where was this?
In the rural part of Gwanda, Gwanda South, near the border of Botswana , in Matabeleland . So I used to herd cattle and in fact I never liked school then, I ran away from school because there was no role model in that area and my brothers used to go out to Botswana and South Africa to work. It still tends to be the trend there today because the border is near; people are a lot more closer to Botswana and to South Africa than to Zimbabwe . Even the local broadcasting corporation, ZBC, Zimbabwe Broadcasting Corporation, is not quite clear there when you listen.

So this is where I grew up. My parents are still alive, my father and mother, and they used to beat me up quite a lot.

When I did not concentrate on looking after cattle. If the cattle ran away and got into people's fields and started eating the maize. We used to have big fights as small boys. Someone is called inqwele , "The Boss" and inqwele would send you to fetch some water or to do other things other than looking after the cattle, and then the cattle would go away and get into other people's fields and then you would get a beating for it. Then I would also do my performance stuff; I would perform until I sleep.

Who were you reading your poetry to then? Was it to the cattle?
I was reciting to myself and sometimes to friends. But basically I grew up like every other normal herd boy, herding cattle.

When you were reading praise poetry was it something that you learnt and then reproduced it word by word, or do you also add and modify?
Yes, traditional praise poetry was passed from generation to generation by the poets of the old school, those who were performing for people like King Shaka Zulu, King Mzilikazi, the King of the Ndebele. Initially some time back, before I could write much, I used to take it word for word, but now I modify quite a lot. I come in, tear the stuff apart, make it more interesting, taking the most interesting phrases and possibly try and bastardise it, if you want to call it that, to make it more interesting. In fact, I love those poems that are rhythmic, that is what I do.

However, for now I write quite a lot new things. That is what I do. And perform my own stuff. But I still enjoy fusing some stuff from the old tradition; it is beautiful.

Do you also perform on the radio?
Radio? Oh, quite a lot. I am invited to many radio stations for performance. But besides they play my music and poetry on radio quite a lot and on television.

So in this age of silent censorship have any of your music or poetry been censored as far as you know?
Well, it is indirect. It is not direct. One may choose not to play your work on air and it becomes an agreed position and you don't know about it and you will not know, they will continue playing other tracks. That is what would normally happen. However, I have not had any direct censorship as it were. I am not sure about the forthcoming CD.

Can you describe it?
The forthcoming CD is called Nozindaba. Nozindaba means the kind of person who loves to talk badly about others, who gets sick if they don't tell lies. However, there are many tracks. One of them is about Mzilikazi of, the kind of the Ndebele. That's where I pick from the traditions. And one of them is called "Eulogy to a Political Martyr". It was also published in a small book. I wrote, called "Echoes from the Kraal". I self-published it but some publishers want it now.

The CD is published by a company in South Africa , then they license a company here and one in Botswana to also release them there. And it will also be released in the UK , where I am going on a tour.

One thing that I am curious about in the relationship between Matabeleland and South Africa , Sindebele language and Zulu in this respect because you said Ndebele was a Zulu, some people might not quite agree there, but anyway, related they are. But what I am curious about is when you sing or read in Sindebele is that accepted by people who are not Ndebele? In Johannesburg , in Harare?
As I have said Ndebele is a dialect of Zulu, it is more or less the same; there is very little difference. In Johannesburg , it is the same, so there is no difference whatsoever.

However, in Harare the very fact that I personally got accepted from a minority Ndebele, if you want to call it that way, got accepted nationally and internationally using that same language is itself testimony to the fact that it is acceptable also here, it is working. Sure.

But at the Book Cafe I heard you complaining that Matabeleland was disfavoured on the radio.
I was basically talking about the music on air, that there is very little. And the issue really is that music from South Africa is mainly in the language of Matabeleland , which is Ndebele but almost the same as Zulu.

They play Shona, here and then a DJ would say, "Ah, no, let me think of people in Matabeleland" then they start playing music from South Africa . That is crazy. I am not saying music from South Africa shouldn't be played, it should be played, but proportionally you should think of music from Matabeleland itself.

I have had a talk with the management of ZBC, I have told them, I have been very clear, I am not being tribalistic, it is not my nature, I have never been, but I have said "Look, we should actually have an equal kind of situation when it comes to music played. The ground should be level for everyone". And I still insist because we are one country, the same people, but with two major cultural - culturally we are different. We have two major cultures and each one of them needs to be catered for.

You have given one example where you use traditional themes and make your own poetry on the basis of that, now what other themes do you have?
It is varied really. Love being part of it, that of course love is not a bed of roses, because people fight, even when they really love each other they fight, and it is healthy actually.

Then I have social commentary on issues happening. Socio-economic, even political. You actually have to, as an artist, be brave enough to say "No, I believe in this and I will actually articulate it in this manner".

Can you mention some pieces of poetry that you have been writing, say within the past one or two years, which you would put under the heading social or political commentary?
There is quite a lot. While I have published this book called "Echoes of the Kraal" my work is more known on radio, and it is more known to be in the CD shops than bookshops. However, what I could say is social is something like "In Silence we Sing", "Lament of a Town Villager", "University Grounds", "Scars in the Mirror", "Welcome to Zimbabwe, Land of Contradiction".

I understand that you have a group of permanently employed musicians. Now how have you been able to reach that point of success?
Well, it is all about proper management. If I have an office, some musicians in this country do not have offices. But I do have an office, I have a rehearsal studio, people get paid an allowance every show and they get paid monthly and they are happy because I am not just sitting down. We have to tour, we have to tour the world, tour the southern African region, and tour Europe and so on and so forth. So I can assure that my group is well organised. I have twelve people who are permanently there and I have a bookkeeper that is a permanent member of staff and a secretary. So there are fourteen altogether.

But remember also I have been busy training, involved in training and in dance, in singing, as indeed in theatre. However, my theatre side seems to have died down a little bit because you can only concentrate on a specific area, and I tended to like - I mean poetry itself is a part of theatre, however I tended to be more into poetry and music.

My last question is about how the present crisis affects you as an artist. Now I am very impressed and sort of surprised that you have a firmly grounded, successful business group, or performing group. So materially you seem to have coped, but I am sure there must be difficulties even on that score. But on other scores how is the crisis affecting and how it is also affecting the audiences and the way you perform?
Personally, yes, I am quite comfortable in terms of material things, but I am mentally not comfortable, I am spiritually not comfortable. I feel that there is a spiritual wound that needs healing, I feel that there is a void somewhere.

You know the present crisis has affected my performance. I had to stop. I have had a long time now not being on stage. My group is still performing though. But my work does talk quite a lot and things I recorded some ten years, or seven-six ago, seem to have more meaning now. And I discovered that each time I performed, normally the audience is made up of two major political parties, if you like. And -, they would be pointing fingers at each other and saying "He means you" and those ones are saying "He means you". So in the end I said "No, this is not very healthy". I decided to stop and rethink.

But my rethinking did not mean that I moved off from my line of thought, not. Such lines as this one: "My friends, my question stood yesterday, my question still stands today, my question shall still stand tomorrow … we shall stand on his grave not moaning but singing the war cry… Those lines were really meant for Chris Hani of South Africa , this poem. But now such lines are given a lot of other meaning.

[Interview on 4 August 2002 in Bronte Hotel garden, Harare]

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