Albert Nyathi



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He will not utter his poetry, nor sing his song, nor will he speak… That's why you have to hear Albert Nyathi & Imbongi. Yes you have to listen to "the voice of the invisible…the voice of the land/ whose people are without land…" Nyathi welcomes you  to Zimbabwe, the "land of contradictions"…

Imbongi (like Mali or Senegal's Griots, or the Yoruba Gelede cult's Oro Efe) are the custodians of oral tradition, and while sometimes called 'praise poets' because of their tendency to exaggerate the qualities of leaders at important public events, they also use their popularity as well as their status as the 'voice of the ancestors' as a 'mandate' for social criticism. And criticism (and its associate, controversy) is something Nyathi is no stranger to. This is the Zimbabwean who took his National Arts Council and government to task for exploiting him and his band. With Thomas Mapfumo having relocated to the US after decades of criticising the abuse of power by both Smith's Rhodesia and Mugabes's Zimbabwe, the mantle of artist as social critic is now ably worn by Nyathi.

Nyathi's fourth CD, the first released internationally, takes off with "I will not speak", where he adapts Chenjerai Hove's poetry to song. "I will not speak/ when you sleep in parliament/ when your office becomes a bed room/…I will be silent/ I will be dumb/ …I will be dead/…my words have died a painful death/ … I will not speak these words/ and I will not utter this poetry/ and I'll not sing this song/… I own a shy tongue/…I walk down the streets silent/ listening to hard words from dry lips/… towards another death/ another funeral/ …despite poetic licence/… I will not speak/…"

In "Senzeni Na?" Nyathi defiantly responds to treachery and betrayal: "…what honesty is there when you are summoned unto the table to talk peace / when you are disarmed and suddenly four bullets have to greet you…"

At one level Nyathi & Imbongi are a distinctly Zimbabwean phenomenon, and a knowledge of that country's particular struggles will influence your interpretation of who has betrayed whom, or who is silencing whom. However at another level this is as close to dissolving the boundaries between Zimbabwean and South African music as you can get. Musically Imbongi are closer to the mbaqanga of the Soul Brothers than to Mapfumo's chimurenga, and vocally there is more common ground with Mzwakhe Mbuli and the Mahotella Queens than with Oliver Mtukudzi or Stella Chiweshe. 

Among the names of the departed that feature on the new CD many are South African (Steve Biko, Ruth First, Chris Hani, Solomon Mahlangu, Benjamin Moloise, Lilian Ngoyi and Hector Petersen all get a name check, along with Marcus Garvey, Macolm X, Samora Machel, Joshua Nkomo and others) . The songs are in English and Ndebele, making them equally comprehensible in both countries. 

Some of this southern African 'kinship' may stem from the days when Zimbabweans and exiled South Africans fought together, or when the newly independent Zimbabwe harboured South African exiles. It may also be a legacy of pre-colonial Africa's own imperial history- the cultural roots of the Ndebele are in some respects closer to those of the Zulu and Xhosa than to the Shona. Certainly the imbongi is as much a feature of Xhosa and Zulu 'tradition' as it is Ndebele. 

But ultimately this is a universal message that will strike a responsive chord anywhere where the ruling classes live at the expense of an impoverished majority. And even the 'fat cats' should be able to appreciate the luscious arrangements, exuberant trumpets and delicately weaving guitar lines. As it says on the CD cover: "to be enjoyed by everyone, everywhere". 

Albert Nyathi last toured Ireland in 2005 when they performed in Belfast, Limerick, Listowel and Cork


See also:
African Musician Profiles

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Last modified: 02/23/11