WHEN he passed away almost exactly 11 years ago at Mpilo Central Hospital, Edwin Hama was very much the forgotten man of Zimbabwean music, with his whereabouts the subject of much speculation and rumour.
The same music industry that he had shaken and stirred with such hits as Asila mali and Today’s Paper seemed to have moved on from the prophetic song-master of Zimbabwean music, a man who sang so eloquently about struggle and hardship that he was named the Squatter Ambassador.
This was still in the early 1990s and biting social commentary in music was not exactly in fashion. This was in the days before the Economic Structural Adjustment Program (ESAP), the days before those terrible twins HIV and Aids were still largely a mystery to a populace yet fully comprehend their devastating impact.
It was during those times, talked about as a time of plenty nowadays by a country finally starting to wake from its economic slumber, that Hama made his name as a poet who could effortlessly wrap suffering in song. A decade and a half later, Hama seemed very much footnote in the country’s music history, a history he had contributed handsomely to.
In fact, before family friends went to gather and pay their respects at number 1066 in Old Luveve 11 years ago, many had already resigned themselves to the fact that they might never see Hama.
So silent had he become that some just assumed that he was already with his maker even before 2 July, 2007. Others claimed that he had joined the trek outside Zimbabwe’s borders in search of a better life.
“Yes, I have been quiet for the past four years. I have been experiencing some social problems here and there and that is very natural,” Hama said in an interview some time before his death.
Ironically Hama, who famously sang about the life of down and outs who hungered for money above all else, seemed to be in financially dire straits. This was in 2007, the Zimbabwean dollar had plummeted and Hama, like thousands of economically anxious Zimbabweans, had turned to the bottle for comfort.
This was the source of some of his problems later on in life, some claimed.
“At times we argued, yes, he loved his brown bottle and at times it became difficult to control him but he was a good brother to me,” said Albert Nyathi, a man who used to be close Hama in his heyday.
“He had gone into hard times financially and I guess that’s a lesson to most artistes that investment while one is at the top is very important.”
Before he died, media reports claimed that Hama had gone to Harare to revive his career, something disputed by Cont Mhlanga, a man who was the guardian at the cultural centre when Hama was the resident musician.
Mhlanga remembers Hama’s last days in the City of Kings. At that time, Hama was very much a defeated man whose own body had rebelled against him.
“There’s common misconception that he left Bulawayo for Harare to revive his music career. That’s not true. When he left it was because of health reasons. When it was time he said Mr Mhlanga, I’m sorry but I have to disappoint you now. I don’t have the energy to do this anymore. My body just can’t handle it anymore. He left just like that. That’s why no one seems to quite know what became of him,” said Mhlanga.
Years before, Hama had come to Amakhosi at the invitation of Inxusa Festival and decided to revive old roots in the city he grew up in.
“There was a very Anti-Harare artiste sentiment in Bulawayo at that time. However, we felt like we needed to break that barrier because a lot of top artistes in Harare at that time were from Bulawayo. The likes of Majaivana, Edwin Hama and Andy Brown were Bulawayo boys who had refined their craft in Harare.
“So through Inxusa we invited artistes like Oliver Mtukudzi and Thomas Mapfumo, who held workshops to teach local artistes. However, what happened was that Edwin decided to relocate and became a resident artiste at Amakhosi,” said Mhlanga.
At the time of his death, Hama had not only become a stranger to Mhlanga but to even those who had known him before he moved to Bulawayo from the Capital. Even for old friends the trail had grown cold.
“In the 1990s he was a neighbour of mine at Cranborne and we would even share transport after gigs,” said poet Chirikure Chirikure. “I remember later we worked together at Hifa where his guitar work blended nicely with spoken word poetry. He was very versatile.
“However, later on when he got sick, because there was no Facebook or WhatsApp those days we lost contact. I lost touch with him when he was nearing death and things weren’t going well for him.”
While Chirikure and the rest of the music industry wondered what had become of Hama, he resurfaced to send a call of desperation to his aunt three weeks before his death.
“My mother asked him to come to Bulawayo so that she would take him to private doctors and find out what was wrong with him,” said his cousin Sarah Jane Sibanda at the time.
Although intervention might have come too late to Hama, his mark on Bulawayo musicians, perhaps moreso than artistes that are celebrated more than him, was undeniable.
Dudu Manhenga, Edith WeUtonga, Beatar Mangethe and Dumi Ngulube (both late) are some of the artistes that can bear testament to his influence while he was at Amakhosi.
“I only got to work with him for a short while he had an immense influence on me as a bassist,” said WeUtonga. “As a Bulawayo boy he had a great hand in shaping a lot of us around Amakhosi at that time.
“I remember this one time I had a great collaboration with Mam’ Busi Ncube at Hifa and we did some of his songs. It was so great and that was the moment that I decided I want to become an artiste.”
Perhaps at the price of his fame, the artiste born in Gokwe had fallen in love with Bulawayo, a city he was to die in 40 years later.
“He loved the industrial vibrancy of Bulawayo. He felt like here you could develop and refine an artiste rather than in Harare where you would be chasing one that had already made it. He was a genius composer and the artistes he worked with can testify to that,” said Cont Mhlanga.-zp