Chimurenga Risingby Dave Durbach / 21.10.2011
The heat is rising in Zimbabwe. Robert Mugabe is believed to have been given two years to live, stricken with irreversible cancer. Earlier this month, he jetted off to Singapore for treatment – the seventh time in nine months. Information minister Webster Shamu claimed it was for an eye check-up, though Mugabe said the next day he was visiting his daughter Bona.
Mugabe (87) has since moved to probe, but not deny, WikiLeaks’ claim of his impending death. Undeterred, he wants another five-year term – though the next election might only be in 2013. The party is divided, the future uncertain. Curiously, after a diplomatic pause of 10 years, South Africa’s ambassador Vusi Mavimbela last week came out for first time against land and asset grabs. Meanwhile most Zimbabweans shrug and try to get on with their lives, many in South Africa.
Music, like most other things in Zimbabwe, has suffered over the past decade. Before being fired in 2005, Shamu’s predecessor Jonathan Moyo flooded state-run radio waves with propaganda, provided a pop soundtrack for government policy by forming Pax Afro, and raised local radio quotas to between 75% and 100%. Although Moyo was fired and his measures undone, censorship still looms large. Critical voices are blacklisted from radio, while others have jumped on the pro-Zanu bandwagon to make ends meet. International Music Freedom Day (3 March) this year saw 2000 top musicians request that the Zimbabwe Broadcasting Corporation stop playing local music for six hours, to protest the corporation’s failure to pay royalties since 2008.
Lacking a stage at home and guaranteed an audience here, three of the most influential and important Zimbabwean musicians performed in Joburg recently. The Ellis Park Arena, nestled between Yeoville, Hillbrow and Bez Valley, was an ideal location for the now annual ZimZA fest. Although the place was only half full, with many presumably too busy, poor or jaded to show up, it was a rare chance to see three giants of Zimbabwean music perform on one stage.
The ‘Lion of Zimbabwe’ began his career singing rock covers. In the 70s he formed the Blacks Unlimited and crafted his own style, known as Chimurenga. Imprisoned briefly as the war for independence raged, his message was that people needed to reclaim their traditional beliefs and culture. After independence, Mapfumo’s popularity grew, initially by singing the praises of Zim’s new leaders, later as their most vocal critic. In 1988, when government ministers were bust buying luxury cars with taxpayers’ money, he released ‘Corruption’. In 1999, he released Chimurenga Explosion, with hard-hitting songs like ‘Mamvemve’ (tatters) and ‘Disaster’. The album rose to the top of the charts in 2000, the year Zanu-PF was “nearly” defeated at the polls.
Rumours soon emerged that his songs were being pulled off the air. In June, police raided his home and confiscated three cars, claiming they’d been stolen in South Africa. The following month, Mapfumo and his family moved to Eugene, Oregon. He has only returned home a handful of times in the past decade, releasing albums like Rise Up (2006) and Exile (2011).
The only other Zimbabwean musician to rival Mapfumo in popularity, Oliver Mtukudzi and his band the Black Spirits have churned out some 60 albums since the late 70s. Like Mapfumo, his songs – now known simply as “Tuku Music” – also draw on traditional Shona music and culture, although typically with more pop and less politics.
Although sometimes seen as a benign compatriot to Mapfumo, Mtukudzi has also run foul of authorities. In November 2000, he released the album Bvuma/Tolerance, featuring a remake of a song from his 1978 debut album. ‘Bvuma’ (accept it) – retitled ‘Wasakara” (you’re worn out) – urges an old man to accept his age. Although he fervently (or cunningly) denied its political implications, claiming the song was autobiographical, Tuku’s fans enthusiastically interpreted it as a call for Uncle Bob to step down. At a concert in Harare in December that year, a lighting engineer was arrested after he shone a spotlight onto a portrait of Mugabe during the song, much to the delight of the crowd. Mtukudzi has always maintained his innocence, insisting: “I am not a politician.”
In a country where many expect women to stay home and raise children, female musicians are few and far between. Considered one of the most important on the scene today is Chiwoniso Maraire. Born to musician parents and raised in Washington state, she learnt mbira in the US and returned to Zimbabwe as a teen, determined to undo the stigma of women in music.
On Sunday, while Mapfumo strolled around outside shaking hands and posing for photos with starstruck fans, Chiwoniso opened proceedings inside the arena, backed by her Vibe Culture band. Blessed with a powerful voice and mastery of the mbira, she got things started on a positive note before Tuku took over.
Mtukudzi and Mapfumo performed together in June, at the One Night In Africa gig at Carnival City. Mapfumo had been in town on business and only joined Tuku for a few songs. This was the first time in SA that both men have performed full sets with their own bands. Tuku was on top form and got the crowd worked up with his infectious spirit and incredible voice.
Mapfumo took the stage last. The crowd grew slightly more subdued – out of reverence, fatigue, or just that his performance was less flashy. At 66 (seven years older than Mtukudzi), ‘Mukanya’ can be forgiven for slowing down. His music might also be considered less catchy, characterized by hypnotic, drawn-out mbira grooves, spiced up with spiraling guitar riffage and horns. He was obviously distracted by on-stage sound problems, at times standing hunched over his monitor, yet the aura hanging over him was enough to ensure no one was left disappointed.
By the end of the night there had been five hours of dancing, not so much drinking, and plentiful good vibes. It was a rare opportunity for Zimbabweans stuck in SA to be proud of where they come from, led my men and a woman they admire – and hopefully be optimistic about their future, as the curtain slowly draws on Uncle Bob…
*All images © Dave Durbach.