Benson Simbeye – Zambia’s Fallen Icon

Zambian legend Benson Simbeye cannot be ignored in the upplause of local stars, especially those that traversed the East African music circuit in the 1960s through to the 70s and popularised the Nairobi twist in Kenya.

Just like his close colleagues Nashil Pitchen Kazembe and Peter Tsotsi Juma, Simbeye also criss-crossed the East African region in search of a music fortune that saw him etch his name as one of the best composers of all time.

He is one man who played a major role in all the bands that were formed by Pitchen Kazembe, Tsotsi Juma and a number of Congolese musicians who also saw it fit to invade the East African music arena.

When Pitchen went to East Africa in the early 1960s, he visited the Indian coast town of Mombasa where he ran into Zambian colleagues like Tsotsi Juma and Simbeye who were already established and performing in some of the night clubs there.

It was at this point that Simbeye and Tsotsi Juma were co-opted into the newly formed band then known as The Congo Kids, in 1961.

The following year, the band left for Nairobi and after Pitchen had embraced the Muslim faith to adopt the name Nashil, the group was renamed the Congo River Boys and was part of the Nairobi twist revolution that took the region by storm.

Congo River Boys later became Equator Sounds band after a sponsorship deal with the Nairobi-based Equator Sounds studio around 1963.

Simbeye was part of the release of the many popular songs by the band such as Malaika, Unavyosema, Zailai Zailai (both Swahili) and Taxi Driver.

In 1966, Simbeye then still with the Equator Sounds, undertook a project with another band, Blue Mtweve and released a hit single called Kivilila and You Went Away, which spiced up the Nairobi twist.

He was also part of the band’s tour of the entire East African region and there afterwards, when things seemed to be falling apart, Simbeye, Pitchen and Tsotsi Juma, came together to form the all powerful Eagles Lupopo band which attracted a number of some accomplished Congolese musicians.

Simbeye was instrumental in the release of some of the band’s most famous songs such as Sweet Namusokwe, Mwapoleni Bane (mwe bena Zambia) and Comrade Kaunda among others.

Born in 1941, in Isoka District, Northern Zambia, Simbeye who became an accomplished guitarist after teaching himself the art, quickly looked east for greener pastures starting with Tanzania and Uganda before settling in Mombasa.

It was while in that country that he joined the Nairobi Twist movement which was basically a fusion of Zambian and Kenyan folk jazz and was very popular among revellers of all races who sought pleasure in the coastal town of Mombasa.

After all the music escapades with the Congo River Kids, Equator Sounds and Eagles Lupopo bands, a wind of change started sweeping through the whole region as the new wave of Congolese rumba, swayed people away from following twist music eventually rendering it unpopular.

Things became tougher for the three Zambian musicians who, starting with Pitchen Kazembe, came back home in 1974 to do one of his best releases, A Phiri Anabwera, which announced his presence on the Zambian music scene.

The second to come back home was Tsotsi Juma in 1976, announcing his presence through his hit song, Muka Muchona, which, just as A Phiri Anabwera, was equally popular.

Simbeye finally hit home in July 1979, leaving a big family back in Kenya and immediately embarked on a solo career, recording and performing live in all the country’s major towns.

One of the hit songs that showcased his prowess was, Uwambeyele Ulukusu (Mumpanga nshakamulabe) in which he upheld Zambian tribal traditions.

Other songs include Chiyeyeye, Amapindo, Bana Mayo, Kashi mugodi (kalawamya pa kwingila pa mugodi), Mayo Nalwala, Yesu, Bakapitao (umulomo) and Chisengalumbwe among them.

Simbeye is credited for penning the original song Common Man in the mid 1980s, which was released by Teal Records Company as a 12 inch single.

But the song which was distributed by the Zambia Council for the Handicapped, to which Simbeye was a member as he was semi-blind due to a cataract in one of his eyes, was not well-marketed then.

Years later in 1991, the song was popularised by PK Chishala who gave it a punch by prominently exposing the message at the right time, when the country was undergoing political change.

Towards the end of the 1990s, Simbeye who settled in Ndola’s Nkwazi Township was traced by his daughter Belita, after 30 years of separation.

Belita, who travelled all the way to Zambia from Kenya and used the Times of Zambia Newspaper to trace her father, was in tears of joy as she embraced Simbeye, not believing what she had encountered.

It was a father and child reunion which brought joy to Simbeye who thought he would never ever see his own again.

But at the beginning of 2000, Simbeye was attacked and beaten to death by thugs in Nkwazi (Sinia)Township in Ndola, while he was walking home.

It was a sad and solemn ending to one of Zambia’s national assets who set the stage for the development of Zam-rumba and the Zambian music industry as a whole.

Zambian fans, especially the elderly, greatly miss this fallen music icon that inspired them in social circles.

Source : The Times of Zambia

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