SHAKESPEAR KANGWENA's death is the third to strike the leading Zimbabwean pop group the Bhundu Boys in under three years. After the loss to Aids in 1991 of the bassist David Mankaba and a year later his replacement, Sheperd Muntama, the group came to greet any minor ailments with a degree of gallows humour. Shakie Kangwena preferred not to think about Aids - he was never tested and the immediate cause of his death was pneumonia - but he knew he was seriously ill when he returned to Harare to recuperate after the group's most recent British tour.
Kangwena would have carried on working, but the other members of the group insisted he went home, worried about the recent cold spell, and the Beijing flu epidemic. In November he played his last gig in London at the Half Moon, in Putney, sitting down. Hard work was normal for him, as it is to any musician who has come through the beerhall and dance circuit in Africa, playing up to 12 hours a day, six days a week. Kangwena was one of the founder Bhundu Boys, when they transmuted in the Seventies from the Wild Dragons, a backing group for the singer Son Takura.
The Bhundus played a style of dance music called jit jive, based on a mixture of traditional Shona m'bira - thumb-piano - melodies, Congolese rumba and Western rock and pop. Apart from the cantering rhythm and catchy falsetto guitars, the harmony voice parts were a key element in the music's attraction when the Bhundu Boys eventually broke through to an international audience, and harmony, and arrangement in general, was Kangwena's speciality. Indeed, more than any other group member, he was the musical architect of the Bhundus' sound, which he also contributed to on guitar, keyboards and vocals. One of the group's most requested numbers during their early British success, 'Manhenga', was composed by Kangwena and another of his songs, unusually a slow ballad, 'My Foolish Heart', based on a Hugh MacDiarmid poem discovered on the wall of their Scottish manager's office, is the favourite of their most recent work.
The Bhundu Boys shot to prominence in Britain in 1986, one of the leading instigators, and beneficiaries, of a boom in Western interest in African music. They did this typically by playing night after night in pubs and small clubs until the irresistibly bouncy music and engaging personalities conquered not only dancers but media support from early fans such as John Peel and Andy Kershaw. But their recording contract with the leading label WEA did not bring the success both parties had hoped for, and as the African music boom levelled off so did their international careers. Although assured fame at home, they preferred to play abroad, and had come to Britain most recently after months spent touring the Pacific and Australasia.
A substantial network of relations, friends and associates depended on their earnings, and their tours were accompanied by much wheeling and dealing to augment their fees. One of Kangwena's preoccupations in the weeks before his return to Harare was an effort to locate a second-hand Alfa Romeo engine to send home for an engineless car the group was hoping to sell.
About the demise of David Mankaba, he had commented, 'The Bhundus are not about individuals . . . there'll always be someone else to take over.' This realistic self-assessment as musical artisans was part of the key to the Bhundus' success, but it does not negate the fact that Shakie's career gave pleasure to countless listeners and opened ears around the world to the music of his country and continent.