Zimbabwe’s Jewish Music
Lemba guitarist Hamlet Zhou takes an interest in his African-Jewish heritage for a new album
When I first met Hamlet Zhou, he was the guitarist in Andy Brown and the Storm, for years one of Zimbabwe’s most popular and exciting bands. A small, wiry guy, he would always remain in the background, spoke little, and never did much to attract attention. He would observe whatever was happening with a slight smile, as if he had seen something but wasn’t telling. When he did speak, it would be slowly and deliberately; usually just a short, to-the-point sentence. His guitar playing reflected his personality—it was never about virtuoso pyrotechnics, just carefully placed, simple, perfect phrases.
Listen to “Masango,” from Mavanga (Red Admiral Records):
Hamlet impressed me as a subtle and very musical guitarist, as well as a superb singer whose music had integrity and depth. At the time, I was based in Zimbabwe, where Hamlet was born and had lived his entire life. I had come there to do film and music projects, and Hamlet was a good friend of my housemate and was a frequent visitor to my apartment. One day, I mentioned to him that I was interested in doing a trip to the Mberengwa District in southern Zimbabwe, about 125 miles from the South African border. I knew that Hamlet’s home village was somewhere in that region, so I wanted his advice on transport. This is not an area with any major towns or tourist destinations, so he was curious about why I had decided to travel there. I explained to him that I had read and seen documentaries about the Lemba people in South Africa, but although I had heard that there was also a Lemba population in Zimbabwe, I had never come across them and knew nothing about them. I said that I am a Jew, and, as I understand it, the people known as “Jews” today, are just one branch of the ancient Hebrews or Israelites, and the Lemba are another. All of us have preserved some aspects of the original culture and lost others. I wanted to meet the Lemba of Zimbabwe and to find out more about them. Hamlet then surprised me by saying that he was a Lemba himself.
In recent years the Lemba people, who live mostly in South Africa and Zimbabwe, have probably received the most attention of any of the so-called “Lost Jews” of Africa—more than those in Nigeria, Ghana, and elsewhere—largely due to the work of British academic Tudor Parfitt and subsequent genetic studies that essentially confirmed the Lemba’s own oral history, which held that they are descended from Jewish migrants from Yemen and share traits and ancestry with other Jews, Hebrews, and Israelites around the world. The Lemba priestly clan, called the Buba, has, according to the genetic studies, a particular prevalence of the Y-chromosomal Aaron, nicknamed “the Cohen Gene,” which is common to all descendants of the Kohanim, the ancient Israelite priestly caste.
The apparent exoticism of the Lemba has occasionally made them the target of rather perfunctory writing. Still, certain practices seem to be common to most of the Lemba. They eat meat only from animals slaughtered in the kosher way, they circumcise their boys, and they play shofars made from kudu horns, just like the Yemenite Jews. Some Lemba celebrate Passover; others keep the ancient Temple-era practice of the priests shaving their heads and blowing shofars to mark the new moon. Near the city of Masvingo, there is an entirely Lemba village called Mapakomhere, where there is a Lemba school and a library, with books donated mostly by American Jews.
Hamlet does not claim to be an authority on Lemba religion and history, or a representative of any kind. But as a musician living in Zimbabwe’s capital, Harare, and playing modern Zimbabwean music, he began to take an interest in his Lemba heritage and has made several trips to his village to learn Lemba songs and musical traditions from the elders. He has also taken up playing the shofar, known among the Lemba as the panza. And his next project will be a first for Zimbabwe: a contemporary album of Zimbabwean Lemba music, using traditional songs and instruments as a foundation for a modern, guitar-based interpretation. He is currently preparing for the recording. His latest album, Mavanga, is available online through Britain’s Red Admiral records.
Listen to “Mavanga,” from Mavanga (Red Admiral Records):
After numerous informal and fragmented conversations over the years Hamlet and I have known each other, I finally sat him down for a proper interview. I started by asking him about his childhood in the village of Taperesu, one of a cluster of villages along the banks of the Mwenezi River, a tributary of the Limpopo. Taperesu is a mixed village of both Lemba and non-Lemba, across the river from several other villages that are Lemba only.
What do you remember of the Lemba festivals or ceremonies from your childhood?
Actually, I grew up during the Independence War, so the annual Lemba festival in Zimbabwe was suspended starting in 1974. Before that, there had always been one big annual gathering for the Lemba, but during the war there was a lot of fighting in the rural areas, and it was hard to get people to come, so they just stopped doing it. Independence came in 1980, but there was still political violence for a few years, so the annual festival was only revived in 1988.
What were the traditions that you grew up with?
From the moment you are born, you are taught that you are a Lemba. You are taught about the history, how our ancestors came from Israel to a place in Yemen and eventually traveled and moved to through Africa. Also, Lemba boys are all circumcised, but there are different customs: In some of the villages the boys are circumcised when they are babies, while others, like me, get circumcised as part of the initiation ceremony. I was circumcised at the age of 12. Once you are initiated you are allowed to teach the younger kids. Some of the Lemba families are priests. They are ones who have been the guardians of the knowledge all these years. They have their own get-togethers that no one else sees, so probably they have ceremonies they perform that I don’t know about.
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