The first steps of Zimbabwean musician Charles Charamba’s music journey were traumatic. His first album Tinashe Akatendeka came after numerous futile trips to Gramma Records where he submitted 10 demo tapes that were all rejected, only to get tolerance on his 11th attempt.
His second album Johane 3:16 had further complications that were even more traumatic for a man who knew he had made a breakthrough with his first release and was eager to prove himself beyond doubt. Even now, when he talks about his sad experiences, his gestures betray enduring pain. It seems emotions pierced the softest part of his heart and his consolation comes from the understanding that every baby is born out of pain.
He also understands that getting a recording contract was not easy in those days; many musicians have emotional scars from heartbreaks of that era. But pain can never be shared and musicians have different tales about obstacles on their journeys. This is Pastor Charamba’s story in an interview with The Herald.
Tough struggle with Johane 3:16
“The struggle to be accepted to record the first album was painful but I think events that preceded the coming of the second release were unbearable,” he began his tale.
“We had done well with Tinashe Akatendeka that was released in 1997 and we were confident the next album would take us a step higher. We prepared everything and we were hoping to record in February 1998.”
“Our heartbreak came when we were told that the studio was fully booked for almost a year and the best we could do was to wait for an incidental slot. That meant we could only record when any of the booked musicians cancelled their appointment.
“We were told to stay alert and ready to rush to the studio anytime as soon as we received such a lucky call, if it would come at all.”
Charamba’s first challenge was that competition was stiff and studios were few, so it was highly unlikely that any of the booked musicians would cancel their slot without a serious emergency. Another unsettling issue was that two of his Fishers of Men instrumentalists had other commitments far away from Harare and it was not going to be easy to call them promptly to the studio. Lead guitarist Antony Gasani was doing a project in Zambia while bass guitarist Josphar Mangwiro was running a business in Kariba.
Charamba was doing his first-year studies at a theological college and had to be prepared to drop his books any minute to rush to the studio. They had to live in such suspense for seven months.
The call comes, another problem arises
“It was a period of uncertainty and anxiety. Fortunately, when the call finally came after seven months, the whole team was in Harare and everyone was at the studio in good time.”
But that was not the end of their woes. Something went wrong again. “The call came when I had just caught a cold. When we got to the studio, my voice was very bad and I could not do the vocals. I felt my heart sinking. I felt like my promising career was heading towards a wall.”
However, with everyone else besides the band leader ready to go, studio engineers got down to work. “They recorded instruments and backing vocals and it went well. It brought some relief because most of the work was done. It would be easy for me to go and fill in my vocals when the next opportunity arose.”
And the opportunity did not take long at that juncture
After three weeks Charamba was in the studio completing Johane 3:16. That was in September 1998 and the album was released in April 1999. Ten rejected demo tapes in four years. Now back to the hurdles of the first album, Tinashe Akatendeka, which came after 10 demo tapes.
“I started submitting my demo tapes in 1993. I precisely wanted to work with producer Bothwell Nyamhondera because he was making good music. My disadvantage was that I was playing a new type of gospel. Authorities at the studio were used to slow tempo gospel and mine was close to sungura. They could not believe it would sell. I was turned away several times. If it was not for the passion I would have given up.
“Due to persistence, I was allowed to do a ‘seven single’ that had tracks ‘Jehovah Ndi Mwari’ and ‘Mweya Wangu Unemuponisi’. Although the market accepted the project, studio officials insisted that I continue doing more demo tapes. So from 1993 to 1997, I did ten of them and the 11th one was accepted, culminating in my first album Tinashe Akatendeka, which did well.”
Years of abundance, wife joins music cruise
After getting past the challenges preceding recordings of his first two albums, Charamba’s career was back on the rails and rolled to an era of success stories. His following releases Vhuserere (2000) and Exodus (2001) spurred higher and awards began coming his way while he had sold-out live shows.
His wife Olivia (they got married in 1997) became a backing vocalist in the band until she began her solo projects with the album Amen that was followed by Daily Bread and The Gospel. Although Charamba’s Sunday Service (2003) slowed down his pace, he regained momentum with Verses and Chapters that came in 2004. Subsequent releases New Testament in Song (2007) and Pashoko Pangoma (2010) cemented his position in the list of top musicians.
He had a four-year hiatus that was necessitated by – among other factors – his studies towards a bachelor of music in jazz, which he attained at the Zimbabwe College of Music in 2013. In 2014 Charamba and Olivia made a joint album, WeNazareta, which was received with mixed reactions, although the musicians insist it reached a different market they had targeted with the project. This year they are working on separate albums which will be released next month.
Trapped by a sea of people in Mozambique
Fishers of Men has toured various countries including the US, UK, Australia, South Africa, Botswana, Zambia and Mozambique. Charamba has fond memories of their first tour of Mozambique, which shocked the whole band. An incident disturbed their plans but it was an experience nonetheless.
“It was in 2001 and we did not know how popular our music was in that country. Promoter of the show Raimudo Saringo had the courtesy of taking us to his house before the show,” Charamba said.
“On arrival at his house, people recognised us and we were mobbed. Hundreds of people gathered and we could not disembark from our Kombi. It was almost overturned as people pressed towards it. We stayed there for a long time until the crowd was dispersed and we drove away. We could not get into the house. We realised our music had done well in Mozambique and we regularly had shows there.”
It all began when he fainted at school
As a boy attending a local primary school in the Mudzi rural district, Charamba could not easily get a place in the school choir because it had older members who were considered the best singers. Despite his passion for music, young Charamba had to join the other boys at the playgrounds for physical education (PE).
One day the heat of the day suffocated him and he fainted during PE exercises. He was taken to a shade near a classroom where the school choir was practicing and that was how he joined the singing group.
“My class teacher was conducting choir and he saw me at the shade. I told him that I preferred music to PE. He told me I was too young for the choir but gave me an opportunity because he knew I was a good singer from our class music sessions. He convinced the senior choir master and I became the youngest boy in our school choir.”
After completing his secondary education in Mudzi, Charamba went to Chitungwiza near Harare to look for a job. He wanted to work in the security forces and was almost recruited into the army when he had passed the initial tests. His age betrayed him because he was a few months older than the required age ceiling.
He had begun writing music and his involvement in church activities and subsequent calling for pastoral work saw him focusing mainly on gospel music, which he began pursuing steadfastly. Today the Charambas are regarded as the first family of gospel music. It has been a long journey.
This article was originally published in The Herald on 3 March 2017.