the style interview:with Gilbert Munetsi
Arguably, one of the finest gospel musicians ever to emerge from Zimbabwe, Baba Charles Charamba’s reign has been over a very long period until the coming to the fore of many other artistes gracing the same genre. With 10 best-selling albums to his name, the father of the “First Family” of gospel music in a wide-ranging interview with Standard Style’s Gilbert Munetsi (GM) says he is not yet retired, and his fans should expect more from him in the not-so-distant future. Holder of degrees in Theology (Living Waters Bible College) and Jazz (Africa University), Baba Charamba had hibernated from the music scene to seriously pursue pastoral work, but he is back working on a project, which will be released in due course. Meanwhile, he continues to nurture his musically-gifted daughters, Shalom and Eternity.
Below are excerpts from the interview.
GM: Charles Charamba emerged onto the music scene at a time gospel musicians such as Freedom Sengwayo, Jordan Chataika, Brian Sibalo and Baba Machanic Manyeruke, just to mention a few were already household names. What would you say inspired you to be a musician and how do you describe your entry into the business?
CC: My entry into gospel music was inspired by a specific calling and job description. The entry also took place at a time when the Aids pandemic was at its height. I was so much distraught by the loss of relatives and musical heroes who belong to the golden generation of the industry. Had I not committed to Christ after being saved in 1988, I could have become an outright Sungura or Afro-pop artiste. The need of evangelising a society that was deep in idol worship then drove me. This is the reason why I recorded Jehovah NdiMwari Wedu as the first track ever. The need of fighting stigmatisation among those infected and affected by the HIV pandemic was a priority too, hence the release of Mhinduro Iripo and other songs. Of course, I also wanted to share musical space with artistes whom I had heard singing since childhood.
GM: How do you rate yourself when you compare with yesteryear musicians?
CC: I had a tremendous appreciation for the work of my forerunners, mostly those had been despised during early days of their careers. There was no better way of appreciating the efforts of the departed Baba Jordan Chataika and that of our living dad Baba Machanic Manyeruke, the late Freedom Sengwayo and Family Singers among others who had remarkably broken the ice of gospel music. I had a strong urge to push it further into broader public space. I had a serious desire to have gospel music contest for a voice among all the existing styles which included regional and international styles like kwasa kwasa, pansula, mbaqanga, pop and reggae. Among all these, gospel music needed to claim its space in mainstream popular music. Yes, I glorify God that together with fellow artistes the mission got fulfilled. Gospel music is one of the most visible genres to date and I’m convinced it will never be despised like yesteryear again. It will set trends for the industry.
GM: In every journey there are bound to be obstacles and so do people come across a host of challenges as they seek to achieve their goals or fulfil missions. How has been the musical journey for you from the early years when you set off to make your mark in music? And of all the people you met along the way, who would you say you may not have made it without their support?
CC: My understanding is that challenges are not uniform with different generations. During our youth days, studios were not easily accessible. You could not easily convince people that you were a formidable artiste. For that reason, I am convinced that so many good artistes failed to enter the music scene. I struggled to record for years due to a set of marketing bottlenecks pre-set by Gramma and ZMC, which were perceived to be too high for my standard. I was rejected for presenting music they judged as “outside the box”, as such they said it wouldn’t sell. Gladly, in 2001, Julia Howard the affable CEO of the company, invited me to a meeting and gave me a name, “Mr Confidence”, as he recalled and narrated how his marketing personnel had shaped its perceptions of my music prior to my studio breakthrough. Previously, there were demo recordings that one would submit for assessment by a hierarchy of the company and it took me about nine submissions before being accepted to record an album. Gladly, Mr Bothwell “Africa” Nyamhondera then risked and recorded us outside the official schedule. Though we positively convinced the company after Tinashe Akatendeka, the struggle still remained. Studio time was difficult to secure.
You booked to record ahead and the earliest date you could get was three to 10 months away owing to too many artistes who wanted to use the same studio. Besides, replication machines were limited. Though we had outstanding sales, two of our earliest released albums had the potential to break records, but
production was limited to about 5 000 copies a week. They were often out of stock. While today’s generation has its own challenges, they are privileged in that they have some technology that won’t allow them to be silenced by anyone who is critical of their talent. That was not the case yesteryear in terms of marketing. Today the globe has become a free platform for them. The media in general has embraced all artistes regardless of genre and it’s a huge plus.
GM: Stories are told in the music industry of people going separate ways after disagreements, but the story is not the same with you and Fishers of Men. What has been the secret of keeping the group both intact and free from controversy?
CC: Pertaining to fellow band members, we believe and emphasise on professionalism, sobriety and spirituality. Terms of engagement are not prescribed y one side, they are discussed, shared and reviewed by both parties from time to time. Fishers of Men becomes an institution of training, mentorship and counselling for members subject to their consent and potential. We treat each other as co-workers and not employer and employees though we have to do everything in fear of God, respect of one another and embrace mutual understanding. Some members join us for the sake of learning and we rope them in with the full understanding that they will be leaving once they achieve their goal. It’s not normal for a disciplined Fishers of Men girl not to wed. We always seek grace to spiritually groom them such that they build firm and strong marriages. My encouragement to the emerging artistes is mainly to do with identity. Most among gospel musicians are using their producers as the chief or sole instrumentalist. While this can be cost-effective, there seems to be difficulties among the public to distinguish one artiste from another. In as far as the general gospel brand is concerned, I applaud the good efforts being done by all players though I feel that more still needs to be done especially on the part of identity. We are yet to create a robust, authentic Zimbabwean signature that tells the continent of our location musically. It’s my desire to have our Africa or Zimbabwean flavour be noticeable in our quest to sound global. We can become both religious, national and continental ambassadors candidly.
GM: Two Charamba offspring — Shalom and Eternity — have decided to follow in your and Mai Charamba’s footsteps. How does it feel to live to see such a development happen when you are still actively involved in the same art?
CC: It’s only through God’s grace that we are able to witness our children record worship songs while we are still musically active. In Egypt, the Israelites went to sacrifice, both the old and the young. We are pleased that Shalom, Eternity and their siblings are making their own musical preaching statements. “Let every living creature give praise to the Lord,” the Bible demands and each family member is to be supported in whatever manner of praise they deem appropriate. The kids are all
music-conscious and apt. We will continue to guide them in the same manner we have been assisting some of the sons left by our dear departed legends. A musician’s child is our child as long as age allows them to call us parents. I am very far from retiring from music. My followers and fans should brace themselves for restless dosages. It’s not healthy to issue out dates of releases, but it’s to be known that the Holy spirit has loaded so much music in us and the circumstances that used to disturb us are over.