Mambazo Phiri’s rags to richies tale

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Ibumba Festival director Simon Mambazo Phiri

SAIMON Mambazo Phiri is a contemporary of Raisedon Baya (Intwasa Arts Festival director) and William Nyandoro (National Arts Council programme officer).

The three are former high school and theatre group members who have risen in their vocation to lead organizations that are influencing the cultural industries in Zimbabwe and the world.

Last week we gave you part one of arts entrepreneur, choreographer and multi — talented creative Simon Mambazo Phiri’s story — a rags to comfort story wherein a precocious Nguboyenja township lad with a dream of touching the world, battles societal conventions and rises to become a leader of a group of artistes which travels the world and graces coveted showbiz platforms such as the West End and finds himself as a visiting lecturer in some of the world’s greatest universities.

This week we give you the final installment in which Mambazo Phiri shares his experiences and insights concerning his world tours, university lectures and our cultural industries in general with Southern Eye’s AM Kudita

SE: What was the story with your parents ?

SMP: They wanted a lot out of me. My brother in law was connected a lot in industries. They could see something great coming out of there. It has taken my mother years to accept that I am at work. For a long time she was convinced I was wasting time. At one time I was chucked away from home and had to live with friends. They tried to stop me, but it didn’t work and I think they realized that it wasn’t going to work.

SE: Did it have to be an either or proposition as regards the choice between the arts or pursuing academic studies? Were your troubles also because no one understood you enough to nurture you and say that it could run in tandem?

SMP: It was either or for most of us. The ‘either’ was coming with a bias. It was either or but with a bias. If you don’t chose what the parents wanted you had to fend for yourself. At the time when I was chucked out from home, William Nyandoro had a father who was very strict and he went to college. We were not dull. We were bright kids and even our teachers were pretty disappointed in us that instead of pursuing academic or scientific careers we were doing this. But we loved what we were doing and knew that it would take us somewhere one day.

SE: Would it have been different if we had performing arts academies here like they do overseas for example the New York Performing Arts School or the famous Juilliard where the Leona Lewises and the Lady Gagas have been to?

SMP: Last year I taught in five universities in Europe and America including one of the five biggest universities at UCLA and before I started a lecture, I cried because I am visiting lecturer now in universities elsewhere. I mean, I am someone who was thrown and tossed about growing up, but here I am teaching there. I am thinking: in other kids countries go to university to learn from someone like me and if I had that (performing arts university) background, if that foundation had been there, I would be better and well placed doing more amazing stuff now. The people I sit in meetings with, discussing international productions, all have degrees and all have been to universities to study they what they do. I happen to be the only one who doesn’t have a degree but I still teach with them in the same universities and all this comes from my head! To be able to take show to West End and run for three months Zambezi Express had all been to universities all the people I worked with at West End on the !

SE: What criteria do they use overseas to allow people with your background to be part of the formal university structures?

SMP: You have got to be seen at work. It actually makes it more difficult for some of us because they then judge you using your work. There is a lot of talent in Africa, but a lot of the artistes can’t teach what they do. We are very good at being talented but we are not able to then impart what we do.

SE: You mean theoretically?

SMP: Not just theoretically but practically. Half of the casts can’t teach what they do. They learn it for themselves. That’s why our parents keep querying whether this is an industry. You learn and keep it to yourself. But within football you could end up being a coach. Instead of saying go to formal education as a fall back plan we can have arts schools. So if one does not make it in theatre they can make it in music etc. The problem with us is that everything is an event. Where is that boy who was part of Iyasa, Future?
I understand that he went to Austria to study there.
Why has it taken him so many years to study something that he should have studied may be in high school?

SE: What sort of structures do they have over there from which we can learn from?

SMP: One of the biggest ballet schools were one of our members are attached to in Ohio, USA makes money from ticket sales .They create the appreciation that all the talented kids have to go to some school like ballet school for example. Here we may have this policy but at secondary school we drop all that. Come on man, we can’t all be scientists? We have been churning out the same kind of people as they have in the UK and who is going to employ all those people? There needs to be continuity with arts education.

A kid who plays football for example, should not be stopped and have someone say: don’t play football till you are done with your A levels. Is it too late to see a change in the system? Why can’t we formulate our own tertiary institutions that cater to this? I think National University of Science and Technology should pioneer an arts program. It could be music technology. University of Zimbabwe has a theatre program. Can’t there be a system in which people who are in the industry can develop pioneering programs for them? If I come up with a degree and masters, then they can then use me and say these are the people whom we have certified. And the graduates can always come to us and we can employ them. America has done it and so has South Africa.

Mbongeni Ngema and John Kani have honorary degrees and so it can be done. Who can teach Cont Mhlanga anything about theatre here in Zimbabwe? But he can teach students in these universities easily. Other countries are doing it, why can’t we do it? I mean I can teach some of these programs closing my eyes.

It’s hard to controvert Mambazo Phiri’s arguments. Traditional industries are no longer able to meet the economic challenges of our times and more so here in Bulawayo. The knowledge-based economy, of which the cultural industries are an integral part, must be allowed to assume a prominent role. Our cultural industries represent a largely untapped resource from which Western showbiz entrepreneurs come here to mine from.

Tellingly, Bulawayo is outrageously endowed with the talent and the brain trust that is able to create a highly lucrative cultural industries hub. We can export film, plays and musical products in the same manner, if not better than even South Africa and Nigeria. There must however be a realignment of our policies to position the city to play to its strengths. Tertiary institutions need to take up that gauntlet.

More importantly, our media needs to be more collusive in this project. It is now time that we, in the words of award winning author and film maker Tsitsi Dangarembga, begin to “put a premium on our own narratives”.

Multi-million dollar grossing Hollywood film franchises such as the Lion King and Madagascar are all inspired by the African motherland. Just imagine with me.