Disabled Musicians from Zimbabwe Tour the US

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Political oppression, violence, hyper-inflation, plus a recent cholera epidemic have devastated the southern African nation of Zimbabwe. But it’s an even more unforgiving place for people with disabilities – who are often shunned for cultural reasons. A band of disabled musicians from Zimbabwe is now touring the United States. WNYC’s Beth Fertig caught up with them this week during a performance in Manhattan.

SINGER: There’s a song we’re still writing we haven’t finished it...

REPORTER: It was a coincidence that Liyana’s first tour of the United States occurred during the inauguration of the first African-American President.

SINGER: Oh Obama… (audience claps)

REPORTER: Obama’s election inspired a new song for this Afro-Fusion band from Zimbabwe, which performed at Teachers College at Columbia University this week. The musicians play marimbas, African drums and keyboards and they sing in English and their native languages.

They’re a visually striking ensemble. All eight have physical disabilities; one is hearing impaired; four perform while in wheelchairs.

MABHENA: I would say getting on stage, singing to people who also feel the songs that I sing gives me wings.

REPORTER: Lead singer Prudence Mabhena has a voice that’s been compared to her idol, Miriam Makeba. Mabhena was born with a debilitating joint disease called arthrogryphosis. She has one disfigured arm; her three other limbs had to be amputated. The 21 year old sees herself as a role model at the boarding school for disabled children where she and her bandmates in Liyana came together three years ago.

MABHENA: Each and every kid who looks at me wishes to be like me. They wish they could have the same talent that I have.

REPORTER: The band grew out of a music class. They gained attention when they won a regional music competition and then the top honor at the Crossroads Africa festival, which led to performances in Europe. A private foundation in the US paid for this month’s tour, which also took them to the West Coast. Some of their stops have included schools; the show at Teachers College was made available to New York City public schools over the Internet.

On their tour of the U.S., members of Liyana have noticed a big difference in attitudes toward the disabled compared to back home. Twenty-three year old singer Marvelous Mbulo, who has muscular dystrophy, says disabled children in Zimbawe are often shunned from the time they’re born.

MBULO: They look at you and then they see you are totally different from the other children, physically. And they believe in all this witchcraft and they even call you, you are from the witchcraft.

REPORTER: Mbulo’s family is from a region in Zimbabwe that’s been hit by cholera. He and his fellow musicians worry about their friends and relatives. Their school, King George the Sixth in Bulowayo, is privately funded and gets medical supplies from donors abroad. It’s the only program in Zimbawe for disabled students in primary and secondary grades. Director Inez Hussey says that’s made it a protective and nurturing bubble for her talented students – within limits.

HUSSEY: We try not to think about going back even though it’s creeping up on us because, it’s, I mean there is no potential for them there. Even their talent is not really recognized in Zimbabwe. So I don’t know. We’ve got to try to get them out of Zimbabwe because that’s the only way they’re going to reach their potential.

REPORTER: Despite the band’s international acclaim, she says the members were rejected from “African Idol” because of their wheelchairs.

SINGER: This song is entitled ‘Never Give Up,’ you’re all free to stand up and dance.

REPORTER: The students in Liyana have just graduated, though the school is letting them stay to continue their musical ambitions. Marvelous Mbulo says he’s eager to record a new album. And he wants Americans to explore their talents, especially since the disabled and people in wheelchairs, like himself, have more advantages here.

MBULO: When I came here to the United States, I noticed that there is a lot of wheelchair accessibilty. A lot of things are already made for them. If I see would them complaining I’m somehat surprised. Because where I come from right now it’s totally different. So I want them, when they’re looking at, especially the band, whenever they’re in trouble, whenever they face a problem, whenever they feel angry about something which they cannot do, they should they face something they cannot do, they should think of Liyana, they should be inspired, they should learn that there is hope.

For WNYC I’m Beth Fertig

SINGER: Fear pulls you down. And you don’t know what to do… Never, never, never give up.

For more on Liyana, visit our News Blog

Liyana will perform at the Paul Robeson Center at Rutgers University in Newark on Thursday, January 29th and at the Roxbury Arts Center in the Catskills on Saturday, January 31st.