There’s a new band on the London music scene, and it goes by the name CHIMOIO. Infused with the African marimba and sweet nostalgia of a place they call home, CHIMOIO is a southern-African fusion band with cultural roots in Botswana, Zimbabwe and Mozambique, with a Brazilian flavour for added spice. This distinctively multicultural group produces melodic tunes with pulsating rhythms on the marimba. Getting to know the band after their debut show at Hootananny Brixton gave me a sense of how much they want their audience to enjoy their music, but also get meaningful messages across.
In one of their songs “Let Freedom Reign”, they explored topics of freedom, equality and sustainability, exemplifying through the work of Nelson Mandela and Nobel peace prize winning environmental and political activist Wangari Maathai. The particular mention of Zachie Achmat in one of their verses, the Treatment Action Campaign co-founder, struck a chord with themes of HIV/AIDS activism in South Africa. The pandemic has left an indelible mark on southern-Africa and this strongly comes through in this group’s storytelling.
CHIMOIO focuses on telling their stories, what they have seen and what they hope to see in this world, and the heart of the group is the band’s soprano marimba and mbira dzavadzimu player – Otto Gumaelius. He was born and bred in Botswana and started playing the Zimbabwean marimba in 1998 at the age of 11. Oddly enough, it was only when he moved to Sweden in 2003 that Otto got to delve deeper into southern-African ethnomusicology – learning from many wonderful visiting teachers in Sweden, as well as on various study trips to Zimbabwe, Botswana, South Africa and Mozambique.
The idea to start up a band had been on Otto’s mind from the time he first moved to London in 2010. Finding a committed team, however, had proved to be a very difficult task. Fortunately, in the summer of 2015, he met two former marimba players (Nothando and Dalia) and he approached them to ask whether they would be up for starting a band which would have marimba at its core. They started developing songs they had written, adding vocals, mbira, hosho, bass guitar and drums, and soon the team grew into the lovely melting pot of cross-cultural diversity it is now.
‘Ubuntu’ is a song that demonstrates that diversity with verses in Zulu, Shona and Tswana, where the band highlights the southern-African philosophy of Ubuntu. They chant “umuntu ngumuntu ngabantu”, which loosely translates to “you are who you are because we all are”, with backing vocalist Heidi Sincuba leading the song. A South African born visual artist and designer, Heidi adds warm vocals to the ensemble and says she benefitted from being raised in a musical family. She spent 5 years in the Netherlands before moving to the UK 4 years ago, and brings that wealth of culture into the band dynamic.
Nothando Ndebele aka NoTTy is Zimbabwean by birth but a Londoner by life. She plays the baritone marimba in the band and remembers her days playing marimbas passionately back in Bulawayo, Zimbabwe. She had not touched a marimba for nearly 15 years until Otto reined her back into the passion and expressed his desire to start this ‘band-with-a-difference’ now known as CHIMOIO… How could she say no. Earning whilst doing something you enjoy thoroughly is essential, but more importantly is playing songs that are very carefully thought-out and convey messages of struggle, nostalgia, freedom and fun.
CHIMOIO’s song “For a better life” depicts the familiar struggle that most people go through to survive, including victims of war. With the rhetoric of refugees risking their lives to survive, this points out how current and relevant this band is. “Promise” was another politically-motivated song that hailed the power of personal agency to be free from all forms of oppression. Its rousing chant of “hiya-hiya honde” brought to mind the solidarity of harvest time activities in Zimbabwe, as this song was sung in the not-so-distant past among reapers in villages across the country.
Although strong on their symbolism, their repertoire was full of fun songs like one of their Tswana songs “Dineo” which featured a ‘Mbakumba’ dance-off between Otto and Dalia – the mbira nyunga-nyunga player and lead vocalist. Filled with authentic traditional Zimbabwean dance moves and great tongue in cheek humour, it was a great show of technique and showmanship. That was their final number but the crowd wanted an encore from the group. Their high-energy song “Makoti” was played and the crowd was on their feet enjoying he wedding vibes it brought. CHIMOIO is a definite hit for functions such as weddings.
Dalia Majongwe showed us her moves but getting to know more about her backstory allowed me insight into CHIMOIO lead vocalist and nyunga-nyunga mbira player.
“Sharing our culture allows the world to see what life in southern-Africa is like. We warn each other of future calamity in the lines of ‘nhemamusasa’, we sing of not forgetting the orphaned child in ‘Semolebale’ and encourage valuing child education in ‘Dineo’. We sing about real life and hope our songs inspire people.”
Dalia started her musical journey in high school and played in a marimba band throughout. She was born and bred in Zimbabwe and has lived in London for 10 years but is still connected to life back home.
“We’re taking a stance with our music. Like in Madmen, we are against the devastation that war brings to children and innocent civilians in hospitals. We hope our declaration for ‘no more shooting and fighting’ can echo far enough to reach the places where decision-makers are and effect change.”
Gui Carvalho brings the fusion to the band with his Brazilian roots and pulses his rich cultural experiences through his imaginative bass lines. He spent a long time in Mozambique engaging with the culture and enjoying the music the region has to offer. He has been in different bands in Brazil but CHIMOIO is his first London band, which he describes more as family. Chad Pitt-Murphy completes the backline with is his skilful rolls and Chimurenga-style hi-hat pronounced lines. He has been on the London circuit for a good amount of time and he brings the London feel to the band.
“As performers, entertainment is always a high priority, but equally so is educating and enlightening people; sharing our history; giving those going through low moments hope that there will be a better tomorrow; and reminding people that human existence is interconnected, and kindness and compassion must always be at the core of our daily lives.”
Director of Tribal Sands