A BIG stage such as the United Nation World Tourism Organisation (UNWTO) global event held last year in Victoria Falls is rather an intimidating platform for any artiste, let alone a choreographer because then, you are responsible for all the performances on that grand stage before a global audience.
A country’s pride will be hanging on your shoulders.
Questions must surely arise in the minds of the global citizens as to whether this much-maligned country possesses even a modicum of what sport pundits refer to as “big match temperament”.
So you are in charge of a coterie of artistes and in this particular case, dancers and singers handpicked to showcase Zimbabwe’s arts and culture.
Everything in that moment hangs on your ability to frame an evocative, inspiring vision of the event and translate it.
Those who attended the Victoria Falls event were left gasping for breath and old sceptics of the famed much-travelled multi- talented, creative artiste grudgingly conceding the man’s genius in putting an act together.
This writer has been to a couple of events from the National Arts Merit Awards (Namas) 2013 right through to the Jikinya National Dance Festival in November held at City Hall in Bulawayo that are choreographed by the artiste and he has been left with no doubt that Saimon Mambazo-Phiri is a bonafidé national asset.
If you doubt me, ask anyone who is anything in the local arts and culture scene.
Better still; ask the powers that are overseeing the arts in Zimbabwe.
Ask the Arts ministry’s principal director Reverend Paul Bayethe Damasane why the parent ministry hired him to put together the UNWTO act.
Mambazo-Phiri — choreographer, theatre practitioner, entrepreneur and multi-talented artiste — is the founder of Siyaya Arts and Sabela Music Projects. The group’s show Zambezi Express toured Europe extensively and garnered fervent critical acclaim before going into some kind of hibernation.
Members have come and gone from Siyaya Arts as would happen with any group of artistes. Soon enough the money becomes a problem, egos and offers of better prospects elsewhere inadvertently beckon.
For example, just a few years ago members of the group decided to unilaterally “extend” their visit to the UK. The Press had a field day with the incident.
Regardless, Mambazo-Phiri stands unvanquished.
When you speak to him, his obvious intelligence shines through.
He does come across as hard-nosed, but that’s perhaps an occupational necessity.
Look, here is a guy who has made a life out of arts in Bulawayo from the tricky township of Makokoba.
As regards hustling and street smartness, one needs that to survive the concrete jungles.
Moreover, one needs a good head on their shoulder to escape the hood, avoiding prison in the process and someday finding oneself lecturing a class of Ivy League students at the famous UCLA in California, in the United States!
But Mambazo-Phiri (SMP), proud son of Malawian immigrants, was carrying the family’s hopes of making it in a foreign country and the family’s dreams of escaping the drudgery of poverty.
In the first of a two part interview Southern Eye (SE) sat down with the Bulawayo legend as he took a walk down memory lane. The story of this artiste is a cautionary tale for other dreamers in the cultural industries.
It must be told!
SE: You are obviously an important player in the cultural industry here mainly because of the work you have done with the Siyaya Arts. Can we reminisce over your beginnings? What led you to make a career out of this?
SMP: I have been asked several times how I got into the arts mostly theatre, but my answer has always been I never got into theatre, theatre got into me. You know one of those realisations growing up that this is me. I will confess today and say that one of my greatest inspiration was Cont Mhlanga.
He used to live literally five houses away from me Nguboyenja and all of us saw Cont when he was growing with the karate club, formulating Amakhosi and growing up in the township seeing this guy being interviewed on the streets by all these people from Europe.
He became not just a celebrity within Nguboyenja, he became a hero and he became very important.
So without realising it, maybe in a stupid way, but in a noble way we also wanted to be cool like Cont because we were saying: ‘I got a talent, I can also be cool like Cont.’ So without realising it, at a subconscious level in your mind you are starting a little competition with the old man.
So we started the National Association of Singers and Actors abbreviated NASA in 1989.
One of our colleagues was obsessed with the American organisation NASA (National Aeronautics and Space Administration).
When we went to the National Arts Council, we were told we could not register because we were not an association.
So we had to change the name and we called ourselves Nostalgic of Actors and Singers Alliance.
You will ask me why the name nostalgic? But we actually had to look up the word in the dictionary.
We wanted to be unique. We called ourselves Nostalgic because we wanted to bring back the past, but we were more of a theatre company.
Some of the founders were William Nyandoro (currently National Arts Council programme officer) and Raisedon Baya (director of Intwasa Arts Festival).
You can see there was obviously talent in the group. We wanted to touch the world. We all were at Sobukhazi High School.
We were young, naïve and I must admit, everything we did was on the spot. We made a lot of mistakes — you’d fight, get back together. Our first major production was Makinte and I remember our first tour outside Zimbabwe was to Zambia.
My parents are both from Malawi and within our clan I was one of the most learned people. I was gifted academically.
My parents saw much in me so I was obviously a disappointment when I decided to pursue the arts. It has taken my mother years to accept this choice.
Next week Mambazo-Phiri will explain how he has lectured at top universities in Europe and America and, how he turned disappointment into victory amongst many other intriguing tide bits.