Entertainment

Amayenge comes to the fore

LAST week we started the story on the rise of the Amayenge Cultural Ensemble. The band was initially called the New Cross Bones in the late 70s. The New Cross Bones were actually a rebranding of the Zamrock, pop, soul band the Cross Bones led by Nicky Mwanza, a friend and work mate of Chris Chali at Mwaiseni Stores.
Amayenge had risen to fame on the Kalindula genre which was catching fire in Zambia and were actually the first group to make reference to the music form the song “Ba Helena”.
Last week, we stopped when Amayenge, then still called the New Cross bones, toured Libya. We quoted the book, Zambian Music Legends by Leonard Koloko.
They were in a contingent that included the National Cultural Dance Troupe and Zambia National Service (ZANASE) Theatre Group.
Fred M’ule of Zambia Daily Mail who accompanied the ensemble reported: “Suffering the misfortune of playing at the tail end of the programme, with crowds thinning, The New Crossbones who arrived on the scene in their ‘warrior’ skirts were an instant hit with their introductory song ‘Ukuilondoloa’….(This was their band introduction song inspired by the Witch who in the 70s did ‘Introduction’).”
The Libya Festival opened numerous doors to international exposure as the outfit was to become the most widely travelled group in the history of Zambian music.
At their peak, Amayenge raised the Zambian flag at cultural festivals in North Korea, Russia (Moscow) and at the 1989 WOMAD, London, England among many others. The Moscow tour resulted from winning first prize in Libya and hence they were also representing the continent at the World Youth and Cultural Festival where they were accompanied by South Africa’s Amandla ensemble. On the other hand, the WOMAD festival climaxed in an appearance on the BBC John Peel Show and re-issue of the album ‘Amayenge’.
The LP had earlier on been produced by Teal Zambia in 1985. It went on to see them being re-named Amayenge after a Central Province traditional dance. The band would also later tour the USA.
Amayenge toured continually in all provinces of Zambia and grew from strength to strength. It was for this reason that they further changed name to Amayenge Sounds of Zambia (ASOZA). With Chris and Nicky as their key pillars, the band had other strong members such as Darius Mwelwa and Maliki Mulemi.
My first encounter with the band was around this time when they came to perform in Ndola at the Falcon Hotel. At that time, I was part of the audience.
Later, as I also entered the music industry, I had several interactions including a number of performances where I have jammed together with the Amayenge.
The first version of Amayenge, then the New Cross Bones were committed to Kalindula and Chris Chali would publicly refuse to perform foreign music including rhumba. Of course later he softened his stance and performed a lot of rhumba songs live. The performance at the Falcon in Ndola was a marvel.
The place was packed. The musicians with Darius as the lead guitarist and second frontman were on point, rehearsed and professional but they had one other attraction, the three dancing girls.
The dancing girls in the original line up had two types of acts, a matinee act and an “R” rated version. At the Falcon, I was treated to the latter. The three women took turns gyrating as they clasped their breasts in ways that can only be described as semi pornographic.
And this was before Tshala Muana had visited Zambia with her soft pornographic acts. Chris Chali joked to the audience that these dances could not be done in front of your in laws.
Musically, the original line up set a very high standard for the group.
Amayenge exploded to being one of the greatest bands Zambia has ever produced, comparable in popularity to the Great Witch and Mosi O Tunya before them.
As Leonard Koloko writes in his book Zambian Music Legends: “With Chali at the helm of its leadership, ASOZA was one of the best-run bands in the country and grew into an ensemble with various kinds of performers.
In its rich life span, Chris Chali and Amayenge groomed talented singers and dancers such as Prince Lamba, Loveness Kumwenda, ‘Chanda Beu’ and Brian Chilala. ‘Chanda Beu’ was the midget entertainer who was
recruited during one of their many tours on the Copperbelt. He was discovered in Luanshya at Kasapo Bar.
“A band’s strength and popularity lies in consistency and perseverance and through the years, Amayenge not only put up great shows and toured around the globe but they released a long repertoire of smash hits. The list includes controversial songs like ‘Ten Kwacha’ a song depicting a problem that would later emerge as a menace in the country. ‘Ten Kwacha’ is about defilement and abuse of the girl child.
In the song, a girl is enticed with a ten kwacha into a cabin by an elderly man for sex. The father irresponsibly
agrees to this arrangement because he is interested in the money. In ‘Niakonda A Phiri’ a woman professes her love for another woman’s husband and says she can never fear the wife’s jealousy.
The song ‘Vunukula’ is a traditional song using metaphor in which a child unveils the mother’s secret, which is not revealed in the song. The child startles at what he has just seen.
Another great song was ‘Matenda’ from the album of the same title with a rich HIV/AIDS message. Here a victim cries out in pain over his (or her illness).
Again, beautiful metaphor is used in the song. The human body is likened to a Mukuyu fruit. One of characteristics of this edible wild fruit is that it is easily invaded by tiny worms that later grow in side and destroy it. From the outside one cannot notice that the fruit has been invaded by the worms because it looks smooth and healthy. Similarly, you cannot tell whoever has the virus that causes HIV/AIDS by just looking.
Resilience and hard work always epitomised Chris Chali. Even at a time he lost band members through death
or just departure for ‘greener pastures’ he held the band together and found equally good replacements. He cleverly
set up a reservoir from which he tapped talent. Chris and Amayenge soldiered on into the 21st Century and by 2003 they were recording their 28th album.
Unfortunately, it was after this particular recording that Chris Chali fell ill and passed on.
The album ‘Intambi Shesu’ released posthumously would mark the end of Chris Chali’s musical mission on earth but not that of Amayenge. Soon after the ‘funeral wind had scattered’ the band was back, alive and kicking under the leadership of Chris Chali’s widow Alice and Fraser Chilembo. The band has gone on to record and release other albums such as ‘Dailesi’, ‘Mangoma Kulila’ and ‘Chishango’.”
The Amayenge are still going strong.
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