Unpacking Leonard Dembo’s Philosophy: The Case of Shiri Yakangwara Album
14 September 2021
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By Dr Tinashe Gumbo

Music is an essential channel of communication as it allows people to share emotions, intentions, and meanings (Hargreaves, MacDonald and Miell, 2005). It can produce deep and profound emotions within the people, and can also be used to generate infinitely understated variations of expressiveness by composers. Music plays a role in bringing people together for a shared experience where they become part of something that is bigger than them (Ruud, 1997, in Baker, 2015).

However, when compared with language, music is imprecise, ambiguous, with the audience unable to be confident of correctly interpreting the intended meaning or message (Cross, 2005). Therefore, music has an advantage over language because when performed in or to groups, each individual can interpret its significance individually without risking the collective group’s experience. This is probably true when one engages Dembo music. Leonard Dembo of the Barura Express developed from being an amateur song writer (whose music aesthetically pleased self in the days of hits such as Matsotsi) to a professional musician where his music was now aesthetically pleasing millions of his audience by the time of his untimely death on 9 April 1996. He was now sharing his self with others.

One can never confidently say what exactly Dembo meant with each one of his songs. Tendai Dembo, Leonard’s son, actually cautioned me and said “Dr Gumbo, padzimbo dzaMudhara umwe neumwe anodzinzwisisa zvakasiyana. Zvakafanana neshoko remubhaibhiri, rinogamuchirwa zvakasiyana siyana zvichienda nemunhu, nzvimbo yaari uye zvakamukomberedza panguva iyoyo”. Tendai went on to share his understanding of the meaning of his father’s songs. I was personally impressed by Tendai’s intellectual and theological capacity. His interpretation of the message in Wakandigona was particularly out of this world. What a deep and emotional interpretation from Tendai!

Thus, in this brief, I attempt at interpreting Dembo’s message in the album, Shiri Yakangwara from my purely subjective perspective. This is my humble contribution to the Dembo philosophy as the man deeply influenced my life socially, economically and politically.

My Unparalleled Love for Dembo Music

I remain attached to Dembo music and indeed, I have continued to dig deeper into his life, work and thinking. In a separate project, I continue to document the life of this great musician of our time. My good Lord, through one of Dembo’s nieces, Eleanor (nee Gwaringa) Maeresera, connected me to Tendai (a good, intelligent and so accommodative and tolerant man indeed). When I first met Tendai, I was immediately motivated to do more to share my understanding of Dembo’s philosophy with the whole world.

I have also managed to talk to the living Barura Express legend, Innocent Mujintu (though I am yet to meet him physically for more formal processes). Innocent, surviving member of the Barura Express of the 1990s, remains a key member of the Dembo music fan club.

On Independence Day, this year (2021), I met two of Leonard’s nieces, Eleanor and Juliana (nee Gwaringa) Manika. The meeting was held Maeresera Homestead in Harare.On my way to that meeting, I was playing “Kana ndorangariraa magamba eZimbabwee paChinhoyii akafa achitamburaa aya…misodzi inobudaa kana ndorangariraa…” This was a perfect song from Dembo, suitable for the day. For me, this was a special meeting, for I managed to account for Dembo’s life history between 1975 and 1979 where Gokwe comes into the picture. I even drove to Kadoma to try and meet, Gladys (nee Gwaringa) Muzhuzha (Eleanor and Juliana’s sister whom Dembo sang in “Gire”). The song Gire needs no introduction to the Dembo music lovers-yet its origin has not been known by the public- I now have this song’s history.

I learnt that Dembo was so close to Gire (Gladys), Erina (Eleanor) and Jurie (Juliana) as he called them. The three sisters are daughters to Cathrine (nee Zvarevashe) Gwaringa. Cathrine’s mother, Lucia(nee Musorowenyoka) was Leonard’s aunt together with Fenny (nee Musorowenyoka) Mutena. Let me leave the history part here for now and refocus my piece on Dembo’s messaging. A special and official project will cover this history (1975-1979) of the man who emerged as the Greatest Musician in the land. The Dembo family will continue to lead us on this process.

I have also finally met Nicholas Mugauri(Monya) and Rambisai (two of the greatest Dembo fans)-great fans indeed. This team is already doing a wonderful job to keep the Dembo brand alive.

Through my interaction with thousands of Dembo fans on “Dembo the Legend” platform, I got to further appreciate the support that this man still commands in the music industry, twenty five years after his death. Dembo’s daughter, Fenny has kept the platform alive with her innovative ways of entertaining the group members.

However, I am still to meet the Queen herself, Mrs Eunice Dembo (my condolences to her for losing her mother recently) and Nevanji (Morgan Dembo).

As a professional colleague of mine, Eleanor has worked so hard to ensure that everything becomes formal, legitimate and systematic so that her late uncle’s brand is protected. Her efforts will bear fruitful for her uncle’s family.

Of Shiri Yakangwara the Album

The album was released in 1995 and has remained a popular album in and outside Zimbabwe. It carries five excellent songs, Yave; Wakandigona; Shiri Yakangwara (title track); Dzinde Rerudo and Kangamwiro. Personally, I got in love with all the tracks with Wakandigona emerging as my number one from this project.

In 1995, I was in form four at Guruva Secondary School in Mberengwa West and when the album was released, we were already under pressure, preparing for our final Ordinary Level examinations. The song, Shiri Yakangwara became common as we jocked with each other, that “Shiri Yakangwara, inogadzirira examination nguva iripo kwete kukodzera mombe pashowa…”. One of my classmates, Runesu Mugoberi (currently based in Kariba) was the main culprit. He was an excellent mathematician(but he struggled with other specific subjects) and challenged us to be prepared as advised by Dembo. He argued that “solving mathematical problems requires wise birds”.

Below I attempt to review each one of the songs on the album and certainly, this is not an easy task, because Dembo’s message was not as obvious as one would think. For this exercise, I received valuable feedback from Tendai Dembo, who added some flavour particularly on the review of Wakandigona. Tendai generally concurred with me that the album Shiri Yakangwara is a prayer by someone who knew that he no longer had much time to fulfil his aspirations on earth.

One can further argue that Dembo was now in a hurry hence he even released two excellent projects (Paw Paw and Nzungu Ndamenya) in a single year (1994). He now had little time left for him! Thus, in Shiri Yakangwara, he confirms that he was left “with a single year” to serve his Lord and Ancestors. Indeed, it was only a year as he breathed his last in 1996.

The instruments and voices in the album, Shiri Yakangwara, were excellently arranged. However, my focus for this piece is on messaging more than on instrumentation.

Dzinde Rerudo

In Dzinde Rerudo, Dembo presents a person who is giving a strong advice to his or her lover regarding love and marriage matters. However, Dembo does not openly disclose as to whether this is a boy or lady who is offering this advice. I hold that it is a boy communicating to a lady (my thinking). The key message though is that in marriage, communication (mutual understanding) is key between lovers if the couple is to sustain its love. While I have regarded this marriage literally, it can also mean “spiritual” marriage between Dembo and his Ancestors and Lord. This special marriage, required him to have strong relationship with his Creator. The Devil and other deities were likely to continue luring Dembo, but, he surely needed to remain rooted in the only true deity, God (Yahweh). Let me leave it at literal meaning so that I will not add any more confusion here by pursuing this spiritual marriage theory. The song ran like:

“Wangu zvawandida kuti tiroorane, shoko guru mumba medu nderekutererana. Ukasanditeerera ini handikutereriwo, hatingagarisani. Ukatereera mashoko emumaraini, hatingagarisani…..anoputsa rudo rwedu. Mudiwa ndakakusarudza pasina mumwe,ndakaperera…..ndakakuterera wani….ndakakumirira wani… Moyo wako ukange wava nerudo…watotsenga mudzi werudo…chidokunda miedzo yavavengi…ufadze madzinde erudo…aya awuinawoo”.

The lover is advised to ignore rumours as they have the potential to destroy their love. The singer pleads with his lover to value love as it has come as a result of sacrifice. Once one’s heart has been attracted to the other, one should allow the love to sink deep in his or her body. Strong love can resist any form of temptations hence lovers should develop such kind of love.


Generally, in Kangamwiro, Dembo reiterates the message he had pushed out in Mutadzi Ngaaregererwe, off the Tinokumbira Kurarama album. He is now seeking life after death. His earthly life is almost over hence he needs to prepare for that other life as promised in our holy Scriptures. However, for Dembo, he also requires the services of his Ancestors to reach to our Lord.

“Zvinhu zvese zvinondinetsa pano panyika, ndinoteura kwamuri Mwari Baba mundinunurirewo. Nhamo yose yandinoona pano panyika iyi, ndinochema kwamuri Vadzimu vangu mundinunurirewoo….Vakawanda vavengi vangu pano panyika iyi, ndinoteura kwamuri Vadzimu vangu muvaregererewoo…ndinoteura kwamuri Mwari Baba muvaregererewoo. Pamutongo Wangu Baba, ndiiseiwo pamwe navo vosee…Pamutongo wohuipi hwangu, ndiiseiwo divi rimwe navo vosee. Kangamwiro yenyu Baba, ndizadzisireiwo pamwe navo vosee”.

Dembo is praying to God and to his Ancestors for forgiveness. He starts by showing that there are a lot of challenges he is facing at the time but he quickly links them to his “sinfulness” (he later talks of “huipi hwangu” which resonates well with the concept of sinfulness) hence the need for forgiveness from the Lord and subsequently the Ancestors. While Dembo later mentions poverty by name, he still does not give details to the “many things that trouble him”. What is clear is that Dembo values the role of both God and the Ancestors in his life. He offloads all his sins, challenges and poverty onto God and the Ancestors. However, my final analysis shows that, between God and the Ancestors, the former is the one that wields the power to forgive, according to Dembo.

In later lines of Kangamwiro, Dembo highlights the existence of many enemies in his life. However, he quickly prays for them to be forgiven by God and the Ancestors. He even requests for God and the Ancestors to put him on the same side with his enemies when he finally faces his judgement. Thus, Kangamwiro pushes the message of confession and forgiveness on the part of Dembo himself but also of his enemies.

Shiri Yakangwara

This is the title track of the album. The main message is on being prepared in life and the need to be wise in order to deal with all potential challenges. We are challenged to be wise and to be well prepared in life. The issue of strategizing, timing and location of what we do is central in Shiri Yakangwara. It looks like Dembo had wished to live longer but circumstances did not allow him.

“Shiri yakangawara inovaka dendere rayo nguva iripoyo, mwana iwee newewo ngwara iwee…. Mujuru unovaka imba yawo mvura isati yaturukayo mwana iwee newewo ngwara iwee…. Kondo inovaka imba yayo pamanhengaa kuti pasawana anotora vana vayo, ngwara iwee….Inokandira mazai akafanana nevhu, iyo Hurekure kuti vanhu vasaona, ngwara iwee. Zano rako chete ndiro guru pakumisa bango rakoo…pakumisa musha wakoo…Hana yako chete ndiwo musimboti wezvaunorongaa…wezvaunofungaa”.

The audience is encouraged or advised to learn from other God’s creatures for wisdom, alertness and for being prepared in life. A wise bird builds its nest on time before she even starts to lay eggs. Dembo looks to the future generation. We need to build our nests for the safety of our children. Most probably, Dembo is advising that in life we need to ensure that we prepare life for our children well in advance such that if we die one day, they will be safe. At least Dembo did his best for his children while he was still physically strong. He built the nest (akavakira mhuri yake pokuisa musoro). Thus, we need to learn from the birds. Dembo challenges that “child” (mwana iwee) to learn from wise birds.

Dembo further challenges the same audience to learn from the ants (Mujuru). In this case, Dembo probably becomes theological in his messaging. He obviously expects his audience to learn from the ants as advised in Proverbs 6:6 where it is said “Go to the ant, you Sluggard! Consider her ways and be wise”. According to Dembo, the ant builds its house well before the rain season, when it will still have the opportunity to perfect it without disturbances from the rains. Yet, if it were to wait until rain season, it would not withstand the pressures associated with construction in the context of wet conditions. We certainly do not need to wait until we are spiritually, physically and morally weak, as there will be no notice as to when we will die. We need to do our best while we still have time.

The Musician then admires the hammerkop (Kondo) which is a fantastic nest builder according to a Zimbabwean academic, Alex Magaisa. The hammerkop builds its nest with anything she can find such that “kana tsono unoiwana” (you will find even a needle on the nest). Dembo indicates that the hammerkop builds its nest high up in the tree “to protect its young ones” thus, one should learn from such innovations and strategies by the hammerkop.

Dembo further challenges his audience to be like a plover (Hurekure) which lays eggs that physically look like the soil of the area as a way of protecting them from the enemy. Humanity will not be able to observe that there are eggs.


In Yave, Dembo presents life as phenomenon whose control is beyond the ability of humanity. Human beings cannot determine when they will leave the earth. They can plan a lot of things but fulfilment of such will depend on the Creator Himself. While Dembo uses Yave with a “v”, surely he is referring to Yahweh (God). He appears to have become religious in his last days on earth. His respect of God is visible in the whole album. Yet life ends without notice!

“Hazvigoni kuita zvaunoda iwee, zvesee zvaunenge wakarongaa kusvikira zuva rasvikaa, zvimwe unotosiya zvakadaroo…. Hazvigoni kuita zvandinoda inii, zvesee zvandinenge ndakarongaa, kusvikira zuva rasvikaa, zvimwe ndinotosiya zvakadaroo. Hazvigoni kuita zvavanoda ivoo zvesee zvavanenge vakarongaa, zvimwe vanotosiya zvakadaroo. Hazvigoni kuita zvatinoda isuu, zvesee zvatinenge takarongaa, kusvikira zuva rasvikaa, umwe anotosiya zvakadaro… Hazvigoni kuita zvavanoda ivoo… Zvinonetsa zveupenyu izvi hamaa, hazvina anogona nokugadzirira nguva iripoo. Nyeuriro dai iripoo ishee, baba vangu vaigona nokugadzirira nguva iripoo…Nyeuriro dai iripo Yave, mai vangu vaigona nokugadzirira nguva iripoo…..”

Humanity can make plans but in most cases, we do not see our plans through as we would have died. Some of our plans are left unfulfilled, maybe to be attended to by the surviving family members or the community at large. At first, Dembo uses “ndinongosiya zvakadaro” (implying himself). However, along the way, he uses “you; us; them; he/her” meaning that his message goes to different audiences. Indeed, this also shows that the situation he is singing about applies to him as the singer and others too. Of course, at first, I had personally interpreted the song to refer to Dembo’s situation (ill health at that moment) hence he seems to be giving in to it. I assumed that he had a lot of plans for his fans, his family, his Chirumanzu community and the entire nation, yet, his failing health surely meant that he would not manage to fulfill all the plans. I normally cry each time I play Yave-I put myself in the shoes of Dembo at that moment.

In Shiri Yakangwara, the theme of planning on time is visible while in Yave, the concepts of planning and preparations are coming in different direction. In the former, Dembo shows that planning is key, in the later, planning and preparations are presented as futile exercises at times since they depend on God himself. While we plan, God will not hint (nyeuriro) when we will pass on. If God would hint on death, then our mothers; fathers; grandfathers; grandmothers; sisters; brothers; friends; lovers; myself and ourselves would have prepared on time. Unfortunately, God does not give any warning (hint) as to when one will die.


This is my favourite of all the songs on the album. Tendai Dembo likes this one too on top of Dzinde Rerudo. Literally, the main message is an advice to a boy who lost a would be wife to other men. The boy is reminded that he had not been wise enough to win the lady. However, Tendai Dembo argues that “nguva ndiyo yakagona Mudhara wangu apa. My father had been thinking that he still had time to fulfill his plans on earth, only to realise that life belongs to God Himself…”

“Nguva dzose ndanga ndigeree ndichifunga kuti uchava wangu iwee iwee. Wakazoendaa usina kundiwoneka takura tose muraini seii?. Chinono chinemwe bere rakadya richifamba wakandigona iwee iwee. Vanoti rowera kuree ndaida kurowera padhuzee wakandigona iwee iwee. Kuzotora ruva ranguu randaifungidziraa ndakura naro muraini seii? Kuzotora ruva riya ratakakura naro isuu zvakafamba seii?…Honaa ngwara iwee, uchazochemaa ngwara iwee kana mwana ayenda uyuu. Dai wanga wakangwara iwee, hawaichemaa ngwara iwee, dai mwana asina kuendaa. Chinono chaunacho iwee, uchazocheemaa ngwara iwee hama gadzirira nguva iripoo…”

The literal meaning (not withstanding the deep Tendai interpretation) of the song shows that a boy had been waiting for a lady whom he expected to marry. Coming from the same neighbourhood, the boy was convinced that he was indeed going to marry the lady. He wanted to marry someone whose culture he knew (Kuroora wematongo). The singer mocks the boy that he had unnecessarily taken time to officially marry the lady hence he went on to lose her. Dembo brings back the issue of wisdom he had touched in the other songs. He actually argues that it was because of the foolishness and unpreparedness of the boy that he lost the girl. Dembo describes the girl as a flower that had grown in the eyes of the boy. However, along the way, Dembo says “ruva ratakakura naro isu” as if the victims were more than one. At some point, Dembo seems to be addressing the girl herself direct but goes on to direct his message to the person who robbed him of the lady. Dembo dribbled his audience here! That is Dembo for you!

The Call for Dembo Day Movement continues

As one of Dembo’s strong fans and students, I still recommend for the official establishment of the Dembo Day Movement as a way of protecting the musician’s legacy. I have observed that our numbers as Dembo fans are huge enough to keep the Dembo brand alive through his family. I was pleased to note that even Fenny has joined her brothers in promoting her father’s music. Dembo’s three children have already proved beyond doubt that, with support they can revive their father’s music. Remember reader, that, when Dembo died, his children were very young indeed, hence, they could not automatically keep the pace of their father. Thus, we should not put them under pressure to fully represent their father-they can only do their best and their father’s shoes are too big to fill. The establishment of the Dembo Day Movement should be our direct support to this great family. This is my dream! Morgan, Tendai and Fenny can do it with our support!

For any feedback, contact me on Email: [email protected] or WhatsApp or Call: +263773 218 860 or follow me on @DrTinasheGumbo1.

Dr Tinashe Gumbo