Bruce Ndlovu, Sunday Life Correspondent
ON 15 JUNE in 1963, when his twin daughters were finally breaking free of the womb in which they had taken residence for nine months, Sunday Ncube, was performing in South Africa as part of Ladysmith Black Mambazo legendary ensemble.
Upon hearing the news, Sunday dropped everything, rushing to his wife’s bedside to welcome Siphathisiwe and Sibusisiwe, two girls who would later shorten their names to Busi and Phathi.
Sunday never went back to join Black Mambazo, and when the group won its first Grammy Award in 1988, he was another long forgotten voice lost in the group’s illustrious history.
However, while the imbube legends were winning accolades for music made in then apartheid South Africa in 1988, Sunday’s twin daughters were shaking an eight-year-old Zimbabwe’s music scene.
When Phathi burst on the scene Busi was already established, working alongside stars that would later become legends.
“Busi started singing well before I did. I started in Harare in 1986 when I went to visit her at a time she was already singing with the likes of Fanyana Dube and Lovemore Majaivana as part of Jobs Combination at Job’s Nightspot,” she said in an interview with Sunday Life.
Unknown to even herself, Phathi was a gem hidden by the brilliance of her twin and older sister, Doreen. Her discovery in the back alleys of Harare’s thriving night scene was completely by chance.
“One day when I went to visit I saw this group called the Zimbabwe Heroes, an all-male group, at Saratoga Night Club. When I got there they said this is Busi’s twin and Doreen’s younger sister so obviously she can sing. Back then when Busi was rehearsing I would write lyrics for her so I knew the songs by heart.
“Members of the Zimbabwe Heroes asked me to sing and I gave it a try. I sang a song by Girlie Mafura. At Saratoga the nightclub was just behind the club office so the manager heard me and came to enquire about who I was and later asked me to join the band and Busi approved,” said Phathi.
Phathi quickly began to turn heads, and soon Thomas Mapfumo had recruited her to his band.
“Afterwards I joined Thomas Mapfumo for the first time and when he toured Botswana I was left behind because my papers were not in order. I was then forced to return to the Zimbabwe Heroes,” she said.
However, the story of Phathi, which seems forever destined to be told alongside that of her sister by virtue of their nine months side by side in the womb, does not begin in the bright lights of the Sunshine City.
Long before she found her voice in the capital alongside her twin, she had, like many Zimbabweans, found herself getting fed on a daily diet of song and folklore in the rural areas. This early education was to prove crucial later in her career.
“My grandmother was a traditional dancer and that’s why I have always loved afro jazz with a touch of traditional music. I like that style because I have a strong rural background and my grandmother used to be a traditional dancer. I basically take the songs she used to sing and just put guitars on them,” she said.
While the songbird’s relationship with her grandmother was strong, her relationship with her illustrious twin was just as solid.
“We were in a normal rural set-up so I was staying with my grandmother and Busi was at my uncle’s home just a stone’s throw away. We did most of our primary education in the rural areas before Busi came to town to go to school in 1977 to do her Grade 7.
“She was at Solusi Mission but she had to repeat because she had moved before the year ended. When I got to Bulawayo my brother also asked me to repeat because he felt that I shouldn’t move ahead of my twin sister,” she said.
So strong was their bond that they were virtually inseparable in their earlier years. Even now in their later years, separated by sea and land as Busi makes a living in Norway, the strong link between the two twins has not been broken.
“We were always very close. If one of us slept, we would both sleep. We ganged up on people at school and had each other’s backs. Instinctively, when Busi gets sick in Oslo I can feel it and when I get sick she feels it as well. So we see each other twice a year as I visit once and she also visits. When I go to Oslo we do four or five shows together in front of packed crowds,” she said.
While the two sisters, far away from home, always feel the loving and appreciative embrace of Oslo’s music lovers, the same cannot be said of crowds back home. Only a fortnight ago, as spring began its bloom, they felt Bulawayo’s cold shoulder as Busi Ncube launched her album at the Bluez Café.
With the cold breath of a departing winter still in the air, the twins were impressive, proving that age has only refined their voices, as they poured sweet melody after melody from Busi’s latest offering down the ears of an attentive but modest crowd. Phathi, like other afro jazz artistes, feels like they deserve better.
Things, she recalled, were not always so hard for artistes especially after she joined husband George Phahlane to form the group Ebony Sheikh in 1988.
“There was a single called Celebrate on our first album, Magwegwe via Mpopoma that Vice-President Muzenda used to love and he would play at his birthday celebration every year. We toured all over and there’s no corner of Zimbabwe that I don’t know except Nyanga.
“We toured every mine and community making money and living pretty. The closure of mines and firms hit us hard. I look at the young musicians nowadays and these guys are struggling. We really had nice lives,” she said.
Years after their fame began to wane, Ebony Sheikh are about to release another album, a project that was derailed by the death of Andy Brown. Before he passed away, the legendary musician had given them free use of his studio while he engineered the album on which Zimbabweans will hear him play bass guitar for the very last time. It is a parting gift that the group hopes will bring them the fame and fortune of old.
“The album is called Ntabez’kude. It’s a six track effort. Before he passed away, Andy gave us the masters of the album. He was the engineer on the project and Tshakaza Studios, at his home is where we recorded it. He gave us his free time, we didn’t pay a thing and we’re very grateful. Once we secure a distribution deal, then we can push this album around the country and even beyond,” she said.