Musician cheats death to face bright new dawn

Not everyone can claim that a car breakdown led them to musical stardom, but that is how Edith WeUtonga discovered her “calling” to become Zimbabwe’s only female bass guitar player.

Edith WeUtonga: uses the irresistible rhythm of her bass guitar to speak out for social justice.
Edith WeUtonga: uses the irresistible rhythm of her bass guitar to speak out for social justice.

It all started when WeUtonga – at that time lead singer with the all-woman band Amakhosikazi – was travelling back from Hwange after a performance. The car came to a halt in the middle of nowhere. While waiting to be rescued, WeUtonga randomly picked up a guitar and strummed a few notes. The effect was like lightning. “I immediately fell in love,” she says.

For WeUtonga, the rich rhythm of the bass guitar “moulds and carries” all the other instruments and voices in her band. It gives her music its gentle, compelling edge – and it is also her “secret weapon” for fighting injustice.

“As a child I always told my mom that I wanted to be a journalist. Watching CNN and BBC, I was keen to travel and observe social turmoil. But destiny decided otherwise,” she says.

Suddenly she grabs her guitar from the chair next to her, and embraces it proudly. “This is what I use to address social imbalances!” she exclaims.

WeUtonga’s music does indeed push the listener to confront the complexities of life. Her favourite song is “Stone Child” from the band’s much-praised debut album, Utonga. The song was “birthed from HIFA 2010”, when she was moved by the sight of Harare’s street kids huddled round a fire, provided by the Festival organisers.

“I asked myself: where are their parents? Somebody, somewhere, had denied these kids their basic rights.”

“Mukaranga” is another song that is close to her heart. In it, WeUtonga takes society to task for stereotyping women. “Does a woman have to wear an executive suit to be seen as important?” she challenges.

WeUtonga has always used her creative energy to push social boundaries. She is not only a musician, composer and vocalist, but also an accomplished actress who starred in many Amakhosi Theatre productions. In 2011 she won a NAMA award, and she has recently played the lead in Bed in Her Head – a play that was showcased in this year’s HIFA.

But Edith WeUtonga’s life has not always been full of blessings. In July 2009, she survived a horrific car accident. WeUtonga fractured her hip and suffered serious head injuries that left her scarred. At the time, she was unaware that she was pregnant. Miraculously she survived – and so did her baby.

“Everything changed for me,” she says slowly. “I realised that life is like a balloon popping. I also understood that our appearance has nothing to do with who we are. That’s why I chose not to go for corrective surgery. I decided to face my fans with my scarred face.”

She did more than that. She changed her name to Edith WeUtonga – meaning “Edith of the new dawn” – and she similarly re-named her band. She felt as if she had cheated death, and her life gained a stronger sense of purpose.

WeUtonga is not just passionate about her own career. She also finds time to support Zimbabwe’s new generation of female musicians and artists.

She has participated in the Pamberi Trust’s FLAME project (Female Literary Arts & Music Enterprise), where she has mentored younger women artists on issues like dealing with audiences and male colleagues.

“She is very valuable to us,” says Pamberi spokesperson, Penny Yon. “She has allowed upcoming women artists to tap from her talents and experience.”

WeUtonga feels that more women need to become music promoters, and believes that a quota system is the only way to combat the sexual harassment – and worse – that many female artists experience. “A promoter will say: ‘how about we go for a drink?’ If you don’t agree, there’s no gig,” she explains.

Families also need to be more supportive to aspiring women artists, WeUtonga feels. “Success comes from hard work, watered by support,” she says. “Many parents steer their daughters away from the arts because they think it’s not a good career choice. So I’m here to give support to those young women who can’t get it from their family.”

Fans of Edith WeUtonga will be happy to know that her second album is due in August. But, be warned: there won’t be many love songs.

“I’m not a lovey-dovey kind of person,” she laughs. “So don’t expect any ‘ndinokuda ndinokuda’ stuff!”

Instead, WeUtonga promises plenty of “food for thought”, spiced up by the irresistible rhythm of her bass guitar.

Post published in: Entertainment

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