Godwin Muzari Arts Editor
Hitting a jackpot with a debut album is a miracle that has only been availed to a few chosen ones in music generations. In most cases, musicians have to toil through the testing passage of going up the ladder step-by-step.
In 1997, a group from Mutare called Assegai Crew did not have to go up the ladder to scale great heights. A hit debut album called “Zvese Mari” catapulted them to the top and popular track “Mai Bhoyi” (Kanyama Karipi) rocketed up music charts, introducing the arrival of Assegai Crew on the local music scene in a big way.
The outfit, which had found a base at the then George Hotel in the capital, became the talk of showbiz and the song was an anthem. With unmistakable lead vocals from talented Stobart Chidikano, Assegai Crew popularised a genre they termed Ragga Manyika.
Their second album “Nyarara” also did well. However, as they had just begun gaining more ground with the surprise attack, death robbed Assegai Crew of their hitman.
Chidikano fell ill in 1999 and eventually died in 2001. Wheels went off the rail. It was like a whirlwind, coming unexpectedly with force and swiftly whirling away. Remaining band members could not keep the momentum and more died within a few years.
Founding member of Assegai Crew, Silas Makumbe recently shared the story of Assegai Crew, a band that shook showbiz briefly and rammed into misfortune. “It is a painful story. The way everything seemed so bright and how things easily fell away is pathetic. We went to Harare in 1996 as an unknown band and a year later we were making waves nationally,” Makumbe recalled.
“Indeed the way we made a breakthrough was a miracle. It was in June 1996 and we went to Harare to try our luck. We performed at Pensao Restaurant but we could not get enough to cover our costs. “Busi Ncube saw us performing and she was impressed by our work. She approached us after the show and told us that she was looking for someone to fill her slot at George Hotel since she was going on leave for a month.
“The following day we went to perform at George Hotel for the management to test us. We performed before Busi’s slot and people liked our act. “The venue was packed and the way we did copyright tracks excited people. It was like we were regulars at the venue. People requested for various songs and we played for them.”
Makumbe says the management said they would consider their options and contact them later. They returned to Mutare and told their manager that the trip to Harare had not been successful, but they had been auditioned for a slot at George Hotel. “Our sponsor and manager Raymond Sighn said we would have another attempt in Harare when we came up with a new strategy.”
But the sad trip to Harare had already opened doors and within three days Sighn got a phone call from George Hotel. “We had returned to Mutare on a Sunday and the following Wednesday we were told that we had won the slot at the Harare hotel. We were supposed to go back in a week to start the one-month slot.”
Some of the band members refused to relocate to Harare and new recruitments were made to have replacements. The slot at George Hotel started well and the band seemed to attract more people as they would always have a full house.
They performed from Wednesday to Sunday and news about the new talented guys in the city went around. They grabbed the slot from Busi. “We do not know the arrangement that the management and Busi had when she returned, but we got the slot for more months.
“When we started we were sharing two rooms. We were eight and four occupied each room. Things went well and we were later given four rooms as the contract was extended.”
Some visitors from Malawi that attended one of the slots were impressed and in December 1996 Assegai Crew was invited to a festival in Malawi where they had shows from December 22 to January 2, 1997.
They returned and resumed their George Hotel slot with more confidence as they basked in the glory of a first international tour. “We started introducing our own compositions at the show and we got support from people from Mutare like minister Supa Mandiwanzira (who was a journalist then) and DJ Hosiah “Hitman” Sikende. We were introduced to Tendai Mupfurutsa and he invited us to his Hi-Density Studios to do our first recording.”
Hi-Density recorded the group’s first album “Zvese Mari”, which became an instant hit and Assegai Crew attracted national attention. They got corporate contracts including the popular Softex advert that was adapted from the song “Mai Bhoyi” and stole the hearts of many ZTV viewers.
Other songs on Zvese Mari that were popular are “Jane”, “Nyarara” and “Here Rudo Woye”. However, just after the release of second album “Nyarara” in 1999, Chidikano fell ill and the group did not have another better vocalist.
They brought in Hebert Keyara from Mutare and later Tendai Muparutsa also joined them from Runn Family. “In 2002 after Stobart’s death we recorded ‘Mabororo – Disaster’, but it did not do well. Other band members also died within a short period and things went sour. Alick Macheso tried to keep the band popular by taking us around the country as his supporting act but things were no longer the same.”
The group has been doing shows in Mutare and was resident band at Leopard Rock Hotel in Vumba, but the popularity of Chidikano’s days seems too far from their reach.
In 2014 they recorded an album titled “Tauya He” as a come-back trial. The album got considerable airplay, but still failed to make much impact. They are now working on another album that will be released soon. They have also got some contracts at Harare joints and will be doing shows soon.
Makumbe (46) is now leading a new look youthful Assegai Crew and his passion to keep the group alive drives him on. With assistance from promoters like Mutare-businessman Bonface Nyamanindi of Club Mandisa, the band continues with live shows.