Simon "Chopper" Chimbetu, one of ’s most successful and beloved local musicians died on Sunday, August 14, in Harare . He was 50. A veteran of Harare ’s intense nightlife for over two decades, Chimbetu saw his highs and lows. As he died, he was emerging from controversy surrounding his backing of the government’s land-grab policy. But his 2004 album “10 Million Pound Reward” was bringing him back into public favor in recent months. Six years earlier, when I lived in Harare, Chimbetu’s shows were the top draw in Harare, as stylish, polished, and tuneful a take on Zimbabwe’s own brand of guitar-based rumba—sometimes called sungura—as you could find.

Chimbetu was born and raised in Makwiru, Chegutu area, Mashonaland West in 1955. His parents were amateur musicians, and he fondly recalled his father drumming and his mother singing when he was a child. During the liberation war he and his three brothers and four sisters lived on Dendera Farm in Mozmbique. He returned after independence to work with a pioneering sungura band called The Marxist Brothers. When we spoke in 2001, he seemed a little embarrassed about the name, calling it a “nickname,” and explaining that it made more sense in the afterglow of the independence struggle, which was supported by communists in the USSR and China.

When he formed his own band in the early 90s, he called it the Dendera Kings. The name harks back to his experience during the war years, but as he explained in 2001, it has a deeper meaning. “Dendera is an African bird,” he said. “It is found in tropical savannah areas. In English it is called a ground hornbill. It’s quite a big bird. Why we chose that title is that the bird can be heard from 10 km away. Very early in the morning, it produces a powerful sound, like a drum. That is a very respected bird in the region.” The band too was very respected, producing over 15 albums, and performing long, ecstatic shows all over the country.

Chimbetu was never a political singer, but he did address social issues, and sometimes that was perceived as political. “I think when you are a writer, a musician, an artist,” he said, “an artist is mostly concerned about the poor. An artist is supposed to be concerned with the majority of the people. That’s where we belong.” His 2000 song “Ndare Newa” dramatized the plight of workers who spent their entire Friday paycheck by Sunday night, and had to scrounge all week before receiving another. The song stirred minor controversy as some took it as implicitly critical of the government. His loyalty to the Mugabe regime was later reinforced, however, when he participated in its aggressive land grab policy by occupying a 500 hectare farm in Kadoma. At the same time, he spoke out against violence and declared himself “a friend to all Zimbabweans.”

The farm episode nevertheless cost him some popular support, but at the time of his death, he was clearly on the rebound, playing frequent shows in the as well as . A journalist in 2004 described him as “fit as a fiddle,” and reports say he died quickly from an “undisclosed illness.” When he was buried on August 17, hoards of people clogged the streets of Harare . All Zimbabweans mourn Chimbetu, clearly one of the musical giants of his time.

Contributed by: Banning Eyre