In this installment of his weekend column ‘Stories from Dangamvura’, Chris Kabwato recalls the time disco fever hit Mutare, the arrival of the famous DJ The Hitman, and the case of a stolen record that fueled a rivalry.
1983 was the year when the disco culture took off in Dangamvura.
In our township, there had been a long tradition of gravitating towards American and British music, whether it was country (Jim Reeves, Dolly Paton, and Don Williams), rhythm and blues (Isaac Hayes, Curtis Mayfield, Marvin Gaye) or rock (Uriah Heep, Slade, Thin Lizzy, Peter Frampton, Black Sabbath, Kiss). Our exposure was as mind boggling as it was rich.
In an environment that encouraged such an eclectic appreciation of music, we took to “disco” like the proverbial duck to water. Where, previously, the bands had ruled our Dangamvura Beit Hall and had played us songs such as Bellamy Brothers’ Let Your Love Flow, it was now time for the reign of the disc jockey armed with two turntables, a PA system, speakers, flashing lights and crates of LPs.
The music bands did not disappear, they simply moved to bigger venues such as Sakubva Stadium or to adult spaces like council bars and hotels.
The arrival of one Greg Maurice
At first, we only had one main disco called Gold Ashes. Then some upstart DJ from Gweru with the fancy name of Greg Maurice arrived with his equally fancy O’Jays Disco. He had the booming speakers with a crisp sound, an arcade-shaped set of lights and his playlist was tight.
He immediately shook the scene, charged a premium and became a crowd favourite. He would play us Evelyn Champagne King’s Love Come Down with that thumping bass by Kashif, and we would soak up a sweat in a new dance craze called “robot”. Our dressing had also changed – in came the imitation Michael Jackson Thriller jacket and the white glove too.
Our pointed shoes were a glittery blue, our trousers were so tight we called them “pombi” and joked that you needed to pour a bottle of cooking oil down your legs to remove them. Our hair had been curled and dyed using some perming gel. We were greasier than Eugene Wilde (Gotta Take You Home With Me Tonight) and Jermaine Jackson combined.
By December 1985, O’Jays Disco had some stiff competition. My brother, who now called himself Crucial Rex or The Boss, had launched Niteshift Disco. An electronics wizard by the name of Claudius Mukona had helped him put together the turntables, speakers, lights, PA system and more. Up the road, Joseph Muyambo aka Ras Joe had established his Dub Chemist Disco. A rather mysterious quiet character who looked more like a teacher started his disco called Road Lamp which specialised in reggae.
With the emergence of these new discos, our music taste was becoming divided between two main genres – Reggae and Funk (think the Whispers’ And the Beat Goes On). The reggae fans went for dub, early dancehall, lovers’ rock and classical reggae (Black Uhuru’s Vampire was a perennial winner and so was I Jah Man Levi’s Jah Heavy Load).
Those on the Funk side loved Surface (Falling In Love), New Edition (A Little Bit of Love), The Whispers, Kool and the Gang (Fresh), Lionel Richie (All Night Long), Gwen Guthrie (Ain’t Nothing Going On but the Rent), Atlantic Starr (Silver Shadow) and even Madonna (Holiday, Get Into the Groove). Outside of these two genres, South African “bubblegum” beats occupied their own slot in the DJ’s playlist – Chicco (We Can Dance), Brenda Fassie (Ag Shame Lovey), Kamazu (Korobela), Freeway (Live It Up), Condry Ziqubu (Skorokoro), Pat Shange (Sweet Mama), Splash (Peacock) and Cheek to Cheek (One More Time).
Enter Lip Sync, breakdance and The Hitman
With the discos proliferating, the competition for audiences and revenue became tight and there was need to be a bit more innovative in the offerings. In 1987 and 1988 the discos brought us the lip sync contests. Young people prepared their elaborate acts, DJs played their song, the crowd roared their approval or disapproval, the judges judged.
The goat was Emmanuel “Manu” Makokowe with his miming of Chicco Twala’s Teacher or moonwalking on MJ’s Thriller. Next up, he would team with Clifford “Kiri” Nemaramba to do Colonel Abrahams’ Trapped – shuffle dance and all.
Manu’s biggest rival was from Sakubva Township. Pension “Payee” Gwinyai was the feared master of impossible breakdance moves. A thickset boy with ripping muscles, he could spin on his head at a dizzying pace, hold onto the floor with one hand, legs straight up.
He would be accompanied by his buddies, Answer and Paul, and bop to Nucleus’ Jam On It and Paul Hardcastle’s 19. The lip sync contests brought back parents into the hall as they witnessed their children putting on a spectacle.
Beyond the lip sync, DJs now brought in guests. For Niteshift Disco, a young man who had just arrived from England to settle back in Zimbabwe proved a great asset. He was Hosea “The Hitman” Singende and, boy, could he “toast”! He would play a 12-inch King Sounds record called They That Hate Us (Wrongfully) and then take over the dub part to do his chanting. His other favourite was Jah Thomas’s Happy Birthday.
Ras Joe of Dub Chemist decided he could toast as well:
Ras Joe toasting in a dis ya aiwah
Christmas around the corner
He sounded lame but he had the charisma to pull it off.
Whose record is it anyway?
As the rivalry intensified, two DJs had a major fallout. Crucial Rex of Niteshift had an imported album by the Aggrovators called Kaya Dub. One day, it disappeared. By coincidence, Ras Joe began to play the music of the same album at his shows. A little bird whispered to Rex that Ras Joe had stolen his LP. The matter turned nasty and ended up with charges and counter charges at the Dangamvura Police Station. Ironically, the two would later become the best of friends.
By the mid-90s the disco craze had run its course. Greg Maurice aka Virishori Chirenje grew into an elder of the city, built his house in Chikanga Surburb and became friends with his erstwhile rivals. Ras Joe joined the Red Cross and later became a global humanitarian expert. Rex moved into sale, repair, and maintenance of office machines as well as graphic design.
Read Chris’ previous columns: