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Thursday, March 30, 2006

Dead Sugar

Posted by on March 30 at 11:26 AM

Late last week I purchased Thomas Mapfumo’s Chimurenga Forever (“chimurenga” means revolution) to enjoy two songs that were missing from the “black Africa” playlist in my music machine: one, “Hondo” (Shona’s meaty word for war) and, two, “Nyarara Mukadzi Wangu” (which is an excellent fairy tale about a young woman who is tricked into marrying a giant snake by an old evil woman who adopted the giant snake as her son). After exhausting those songs, I looked around the CD and discovered a third, “Hanzvadzi” (“Sister”), which I immediately recognized as one of Mapfumo’s highest artistic achievementsnot only because of its story, which concerns a woman who is upset with her unloving husband and warns him that “there are other animals in the wild,” but also because of the sheer brilliance of its lead guitar.

Like all of Thomas Mapfumo’s best songs, “Hanzvadzi” is an Afro-pop tune that’s built on the traditional rhythms of the mbira (thumb piano). The actual function of the mbira is to bring into presence the spirits of men and women from a world that has long vanished (mbira dzavadzimu), a world that was not timeless but moved at a much slower pace of time. Old mbira music speaks to this old time that was organized by the seasons (dry and wet), ruled by kings and heroes, and haunted by evil forests and spirit lions (mhondoro). The one thing that Zimbabwe shall remember Thomas Mapfumo for is being the first man to properly fix onto the rhythms of this ancient music the modern pulse of electric guitars.

The lead guitar in this particular song, “Hanzvadzi,” made a captive of my imagination. I listened to it over and over again trying to attain some understanding of its beauty. I finally determined it to be this: Like the structure of the song as a whole, the guitar playing is a combination of the new and old, or, to put it more graphically, one side of its sound looks back at (and draws from) the traditional mbira rhythms while the other side looks at (and is drawn to) the future. The guitarist plays this fusion in units of tightly packed notes that oscillate between being clear and being worried. The mind making this music was the mind of a genius. And the more I listened to his playing, the more I wondered why he wasn’t as famous and celebrated as Mapfumo. How could Zimbabwe leave such an original intelligence unrecognized? And then it hit me: I actual met the guitarist 10 years ago during a Mapfumo show in Ballard. I also remembered that he stole the whole show from Mapfumo. The audience could not get enough of his brilliance. Whenever he launched into a solo, everyone in the hall would stop dancing and watch him with the sort of amazement that certain animals find themselves in when siphoned out of the darkness by the powerful beams of an approaching truck.

I soon learned the guitarist’s name, Ashton “Sugar” Chiweshe, and after the show, my cousin, Farayi, invited him to his place for food and booze. Ashton accepted the offer and we spent a wonderful evening with the geniushe was jovial, modest about his gift, and, like all Zimbabwean men, a heavy drinker. As the sun began to rise, Ashton, now far beyond his 10th beer, told us a little story that established a permanent image in my memory: While performing on a stage next to a popular beach in Northern California, Ashton turned and watched the burning ball of the sun sink into the Pacific Ocean. “Boys, I had reached the end of the world,” he said to us. “I’m telling you: This was as far as I could go. There was nowhere else to put my best foot forward. That ocean just finished me. ”

On the Saturday I rediscovered Ashton in the “Hanzvadzi” song, I called my cousin, Farayi, hoping to learn what became of the great guitarist. (I never saw or heard from him again after that night.)
“It didn’t turn out good for Ashton,” my cousin said.
“What happened to him,” I asked?
“Well, after that show in Ballard he got fired. Mapfumo was tired of being upstaged by [Ashton]. He then ended up drifting around South Africa, looking for work. Once, he even called me begging for money. He was in Cape Town and broke down to the last penny. The guy died in 1999. AIDS got him. Very sad, very sad.”

Like Alexander the Great on the summit of the Hindu Kush Mountains, Ashton “Sugar” Chiweshe made it to the end of the world and never came back.

CommentsRSS icon

Charles and readers, I've posted “Hanzvadzi” on my blog, (you can get to it by clicking my name--Nick--just below). It's a gorgeous piece that deserves to be appreciated along with this considerate and elegantly-worded post.

Youre right Nick, thats a great tune.
Thx man.

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