Zimbabwe band lives life to the fullest

Afflicted with a variety of severe disabilities, the eight band members of Liyana celebrate life with music.

By Olivia Damavandi / Staff Writer

To Zimbabwe-born band Liyana, music isn’t about life or death; it’s much more important. Faced with a country whose economic, educational and health conditions are among the worst in the world, and where those with physical disabilities are frowned upon and often disowned by their families, the eight band members use their musical talents to remind the world that dreams can come true, as they did in Malibu Friday night.

The 17- to 23-year-old band members are self-taught musicians with severe physical challenges who met as students in 2003 at King George VI School in Bulawayo, Zimbabwe, a country where disabled children are historically shunned. The school provides rigorous academic training, rehabilitation and boarding facilities to children with physical disabilities and hearing impairments.

Malibu local Shari Sant Plummer, president of Lechuza Beach Conservancy and avid ocean conservationist, hosted an evening of music and inspiration on Friday at her Broad Beach home to honor Liyana’s achievements, showcase the band’s talent to the community and present a sneak peek of “iThemba: My Hope,” a HBO documentary directed by Roger Ross Williams about Liyana scheduled to air early next year.

“It was a reception to welcome them to Malibu, and for other people to have the experience we’ve had: being touched by their determination, their hope and their loving attitudes in the face of the most difficult conditions we could imagine,” Plummer said. “It was such an honor for me to have them out here.”

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The evening was a part of Liyana’s U.S. 2009 tour, a dream fulfilled by a donor who was inspired by their talent and spirit, and by The John Lennon Educational School Bus, a nonprofit mobile recording studio dedicated to providing free hands-on opportunities to students of all ages to produce music and video projects. During their tour, Liyana has performed in various venues such as House of Blues, Stanford University, Disneyland, NAMM, and Macworld in San Francisco, Los Angeles and New York City.

“‘This is exactly what John envisioned-young people all over the world communicating and coming together through music,” Yoko Ono stated on the band’s Web site. “Liyana is an inspiration to us all and its members are a testament to the amazing power of music and how it can transform and enrich all of our lives.”

The band members-Prudence Mabhena, Tapiwa Nyengera, Energy Maburutse, Honest Mupatse, Marvelous Mbulo, Vusani Vuma, Goodwell Nzou and Farai Mabhande-suffer from a variety of afflictions including spina bifida, osteogenesis imperfecta (brittle bone syndrome), hemophilia, muscular dystrophy, hearing-impairment, arthogryphosis (a form of arthritis) and limb amputations.

They play African drums, shakers, and keyboards, and their work fuses myriad geographic, cultural and musical genres including gospel, reggae and traditional Zimbabwean Shona music, among others. Liyana performs in Shona, Ndebele and five other additional languages-English, Dutch, German, Hebrew and Spanish.

Despite the wide range of instruments played by the band members, Liyana performed at Plummer’s house Friday night with the use of a sole drum. Their voices created a symphony of its own, the beauty of which brought tears to the eyes of numerous audience members.

Mabhena, Liyana’s lead singer, composes music in many styles. Though challenges with arthogryphosis have left her with only one arm and have placed her in a wheelchair, her talents surpass those of many able-bodied people and her voice has been likened to the great South African liberation singer, Miriam Makeba.

“To me, music is life,” Mabhena said. “If I didn’t have music, I don’t think I would be here right now.”

Despite the sweetness of her voice, Mabhena’s life story is painful to the ears. It is the main plot of “iThemba: My Hope.”

“Prudence was born to parents and a culture that abandoned her and treated her like an animal,” Williams said in an interview on Friday. “In a country that’s difficult for anyone to live [in], much less for someone who has no arms or legs, she has risen above and become an inspiration and symbol of hope and perseverance to people in her country and around the world.”

Williams said the experience of making the film has changed his life.

“It has changed the way I look at the world,” he said. “Prudence is so positive and hopeful and she has so very little to be positive and hopeful about, yet she finds such joy about everything in life.

“It reminds you that material things are not what’s really important. What’s important is your relationship to other people and the planet.”

The band attributes their success as musicians to the support from Inez Hussey, the 27-year director of King George VI School and band manager who believes in access to creativity for all, and recognized their immense talent soon after putting the band together. The Zimbabwe native became involved with the school when she enrolled her six-year-old son to work with a speech therapist.

“Basically I never left,” Hussey said. “I do what I do because the kids just give me such inspiration. It’s hell to live in Zimbabwe at the moment, but I would never find another job that gives me as much inspiration and such enjoyment as I have working with the kids at King George VI.”

Hussey defined life in Zimbabwe as inconceivable, as its education and healthcare systems are nonexistent.

“We keep hearing things from home and we don’t want to go back,” she said. “The schools were supposed to open on January 8 but they’re still not open and there’s a very strong rumor that they’re not going to open until March. It’s difficult to conceive an economy as corrupt and defunct as ours.”

Plummer stated the importance of funding for both the school and the students. “The film’s not going to help them financially and the tour and shows are free,” she said, adding that the band members cannot be given money because their parents will take it from them.

Despite the difficult paths they have taken, and the long road ahead, members of Liyana remain optimistic.

“There are challenges, but [we] put them aside,” Mabhena said. “Learn, grow and move on. Life is about moving on.”

“We as a band have overcome so many tragedies,” Tapiwa Nyengera said. “If there’s something you want to do, go for it. Don’t let anything or anyone get in your way because if you do, you’re not living your life to the fullest.”

More information about Liyana can be obtained online at liyanatour.com

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