OBITUARY: Biggie Tembo

The death by that most shockingly un-African of causes, suicide, of the singer and composer Biggie Tembo represents yet another tragic chapter in the arduous career of the Zimbabwean pop group the Bhundu Boys.

Even though Tembo left the band five years ago, his name and bouncy straw- boater-topped image will be most closely associated with the band he helped make one of Africa's most internationally famous during the mid-Eighties boom in interest in African music. The Bhundus are currently back slogging around Britain on another of their long hard tours. The shock caused by the news of their old colleague's death was apparently mitigated by a certain grim familiarity: no less than three members of the band have died of presumed Aids-related diseases in the last four years.

Biggie Tembo joined the Bhundu Boys in 1980, shortly after the group changed its name from the Wild Dragons and its repertoire from rock covers to the new traditionally based jit music. Bhundu means "bush" in the Shona language and the name's association is with the liberation fighters who helped transform the renegade white-ruled Rhodesia into Zimbabwe in the same year the new group was born.

The Bhundu Boys' music was not directly political, except in the sense that it took as its main ingredient the traditional melodies of the Shona m'bira (thumb piano), transposed for joyfully ringing guitars. Its purpose, like the equally irresistible guitar-based pop of the nearby Congo basin, was to make punters dance and buy more beer in the open-air dance-halls and gardens like the Bonanza Bar in Harare, where the Bhundus served their apprenticeship playing 12-hour sets six nights a week.

By the time the Bhundus got to Britain, Biggie Tembo had already become the most prominent member, with his energy, charm and catchy song-writing: he was the author of tracks like "Hasitose", which topped the Zimbabwean charts for three months and rapidly became a favourite with their new European audiences.

The Bhundus arrived at Heathrow Airport in 1986 at the behest of Gordon Muir, a young Edinburgh graphic designer turned ad hoc concert promoter. The classic account has it they were disappointed at the humble van their new showbiz patron turned up in in lieu of a Rolls; while Muir was taken aback to find they hadn't brought any instruments. Nevertheless, Tembo's rallying cry of "Burruru! Burruru! Burruru!", the cantering snare drums and the delirious guitar lines were soon getting audiences on their feet, jit-jiving and grinning from ear to ear in, at first, pub backrooms, and gradually larger dance-halls around Britain.

The Bhundus' timing was impeccable; British interest in what shortly afterwards acquired the unfortunate name "World Music" was booming but the British public had not yet been sated by the subsequent influx of artists from around the world. The Radio 1 disc jockeys John Peel and Andy Kershaw became enthusiastic converts to the Bhundus' cause, and within two years the band had signed to a multinational record label, WEA, and played as supporting act to Madonna in front of a 70,000-strong audience at Wembley.

Then things began to go downhill. The WEA album, released in 1987, with its English lyrics flopped, judged anaemic and internationalised by critics and public. Biggie Tembo, whose erratic moods and increasingly extreme opinion of his own importance in the group had been creating tension for some time, decided to leave the Bhundus, a decision he was to try to revoke repeatedly thereafter, only to find the Bhundus didn't want him back. The World Music boom levelled off. The Bhundu Boys soldiered on, reduced in star status but hard-working as ever, while Tembo oscillated between London and Harare trying to revive his career, now releasing an unsuccessful solo album in Britain, now playing with another veteran Harare group, the Ocean City Band, and seeing his mercurial temperament slip into bouts of depression and intermittent psychiatric hospital treatment.

A projected tour of Britain last year was abandoned in chaos and Tembo turned up at Heathrow alone, without a work permit and desperate to find a way back up. He turned increasingly to Christianity but re-admitted himself to hospital in Harare shortly before hanging himself.

As much for bringing Zimbabwean pop to the outside world as for his work at home, Tembo was still famous in Harare - a local paper recently ran a lengthy campaign to encourage him and the Bhundus to team up again. His best songs are lodged deep in the public consciousness. Gordon Muir recalls going into a bank in Harare with Tembo once and all the staff bursting into a mass rendition of "Hasitose".

If Biggie Tembo's dark side triumphed at the end, his shining talent to entertain will continue to illuminate record collections around the world.

Philip Sweeney

Rodwell Marasha (Biggie Tembo), musician: born Chinhoyi, Mashonaland, Zimbabwe 30 September 1958; married (two sons); died Harare, Zimbabwe 30 July 1995.

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