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Last Updated: Thursday, 4 October 2007, 06:20 GMT 07:20 UK
Rise and demise of the Bhundu Boys
Bhundu Boys perform at Womad 2002
The surviving Boys played festivals into the early 2000s
In May 1986, five young men arrived at London's Gatwick Airport from Zimbabwe. Within a year, they had conquered British music - but within a decade, three of the five would be dead, along with one of their replacements.

Robin Denselow tracked down the surviving members and charts their remarkable story.

In the 1980s the Bhundu Boys - whose name literally meant Boys From The Bush, the name given to the African guerrilla fighters who eventually toppled the white regime of Ian Smith - brought rousing African music to a British audience.

Their story begins under Smith's regime, when, owing to a ban on African music, they began playing covers of Western songs around the country's capital, Harare.

"When we started out, our local bands were playing covers of British and American stuff, because that's what was there," recalls founder member and lead guitarist Rise Kagona.

"For you to make a record, you had to play it in English. The Smith regime didn't want us to make music in our language, in case they didn't know what we were singing about."

Outselling Michael Jackson

After independence in 1980 everything changed, and Rise began playing around the Harare townships, where he met local guitarist Biggie Tembo - who would become the lead singer of the Bhundu Boys.

Soon afterwards he met drummer Kenny Chitsvatsva - the only other surviving member of the group.

Although now allowed to sing in their native tongue, the group decided to line up like a Western rock group, with electric guitars and piano. They called their style of music "jit".

Bhundu Boys performing in the 1980s
Baba Munini Francis
Wenhamo Haaneti

They began to record songs with Steve Roskilly, a producer originally from Manchester in the UK. The first single was released in early 1983.

They soon notched up a string of number one hits at home, even outselling Michael Jackson with the song Hatisitose, which stayed at the top for 12 weeks.

Meanwhile in London, musical maverick Doug Veitch had set up Discafrique, a record label specialising in African music and financed by the Thatcher government's allowance scheme. Together with concert promoter Gordon Muir, who would become the group's manager, Veitch signed the Bhundu Boys and an EP was released.

It did not take long before the EP attracted the attention of BBC radio DJs John Peel and Andy Kershaw, and soon afterwards it was decided the Bhundus would come to Britain for a tour.

"They came over and they played non-stop everywhere," recalls Robert Abbanas, who runs Stern's African Record Shop in London.

"They did the trajectory which an English pop or rock group would do - playing in every backroom of every pub, playing until you break through."

Splits appear

After releasing two albums for Discafrique, they signed to Warners. The new album was produced by Robin Miller, who had previously worked with Sade and The Style Council.

Soon, they were playing increasingly larger venues. They supported Madonna at Wembley Stadium only a year after landing in the country.

"We did not treat that crowd as Madonna's," recalls Kagona.

"We treated it as ours as well. Because we are there - we are musicians. As good as Madonna is, she is a musician, and so are we."

Andy Kershaw and John Peel
Andy Kershaw (left) and John Peel championed the Bhundu Boys
But instead of being a step to build on, the Wembley shows marked the high point. Soon after, splits began to appear as the Boys argued over money and whether they should buy a house in London for their base.

"Some of us, our brains don't function properly when we have a lot of money," says Kagona.

"But that was the time when we needed each other more than ever."

British fans were not impressed by the commercial, Westernised sound of the band now they were signed to a major label, and sales were disappointing.

But far worse was to come.

Biggie left the group and began working on a solo career back in Zimbabwe.

Other members of the band spent their time travelling between Britain and Zimbabwe, where 20% of the population was already HIV positive.

Between 1991 and 1993 three Bhundu Boys - including two of the original members, Shakespeare Kangwena and David Mankaba - would die of Aids.

Then, in 1995, Biggie Tembo committed suicide in a mental hospital in Zimbabwe.

'Tawdry and unpleasant'

The band now had only two of the original members, and were no longer signed to Warners. But they staggered into the 21st Century.

"It felt like I had killed a friend - but death is natural, and I had to move on," said Rise Kagona.

"If we had shut the doors and gone back, there would have been no more Bhundu Boys and the name would have got killed."

Rise remains close to Doug Veitch, the man who met him at Gatwick Airport in 1986, and they still play together in Glasgow. Meanwhile drummer Kenny Chitsvatsva now lives in London.

But former manager Gordon Muir is now estranged from the band. Since the Bhundu Boys' demise, he has received some criticism suggesting he exploited the group for his own gain.

But he says he is hurt by this attack, and it something he denies.

"There is a huge sense that that whole period of my life has been misrepresented and maligned, and something that I was very proud of is now something that is a bit tawdry and unpleasant," he says.

"I made a bit of money from the Bhundu Boys, but no more than anybody else did. It's not fair to say that I exploited them."

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