What Is Zimbabwean Music Today? Some Musings with Mudhara Danga

In this two-part series of articles, writer and scholar, Lennon Mhishi considers the past and future of Zimbabwean music with legendary African music promoter, Wala Danga

The shining instrument reflects my face, or what passes for it as it looks fluid and melting under the lights and movements in the room.

From where I am sitting, it is as if the music is coming from this black hole in the hollow of the instrument that my eyes are transfixed on. I have been commenting on not-so-good graffiti-like writings on the wall of the venue, and I am too close to the stage to keep looking into his eyes, I somehow feel shy. The music, however still gets to my core.

Paul Lunga, a Zimbabwean Jazz musician, has taken his music from Bulawayo, to Seattle, to London. Transnational. Just a glimpse of a great musician, but this is not about him, alone.

Paul Lunga holds the trumpet like a lover, a sleeping beauty that, as he blows, he kisses to life, and the room erupts in cheers and ululations.

It is my first time seeing him play live, and the atmosphere in the room transports me to a scene somewhere in Yvonne Vera’s Stone Virgins, where, in Bulawayo in Rhodesian (colonial) times, black Zimbabweans congregate in a room or basement somewhere, drinking from home fashioned cups, dancing the trials of colonial segregation away to township music.

Yet this is London, Brixton, playing this particular brand of Zimbabwean music and I never saw Rhodesia, except in its vestigial elements, to me at least, in the contemporary socio-economic and political malaise of the past decade in Zimbabwe, and yes, on the streets of London as well. That is the power, in Yvonne Vera, of literature, and of music, to transport you to imaginaries, places and times that you have not lived, and that remain just that, imaginaries.

That is also the power of people like Wala Danga, who can show you around places in London, and narrate the stories of how they have changed in relation to Zimbabwean, and African music and existence in Britain. Owning stories, power, knowledge and all that jazz, remember it? It is one of the tragedies that for a people who number so few as Zimbabweans do, archive and memory are lost with individuals and where they are not, the hunter still tells the story.

Yes, this still is about music.

Wala Danga

I have had the privilege of spending time with Wala Danga, who has been active in the African music scene for over three decades.

I respectfully and affectionately call him Mudhara Wala, or Mudhara Danga. A friend would be quick to remind me that Mudhara sounds like a derivative of what people (the people, through hegemonic nationalist discourse) call the late nationalist and vice-president of Zimbabwe, Joshua Nkomo, “Mdala Wethu”. I will not hazard to translate. The musical experience is equally not easy to translate so I asked Mudhara Wala for some thoughts on how Zimbabwean music has changed and grown over the years in the UK.

At the height of the Second Chimurenga, the war of liberation, the music that resonated in the UK in Mudhara Wala’s point of view was protest music, in tandem with what was going on in Zimbabwe at that time. The lyrics of music such as Thomas Mapfumo’s appealed to the politicised student refugee population. In Mudhara Danga’s words

“Other  music types were of the satirical type like Safirio Madzikatire (Mukadota)(and) were (popular when)  people needed comforting away from home. It was quite apparent that as people came to the UK they were cutting off links to the Rock  and underground music they had grown accustomed to in the then Rhodesia  opening up to other music forms.Local (British) black people were listening to in the UK Soul, reggae and soca music. It’s at this point (in the) mid 70s that the formation of Zimbabwe student bands emerged, bands like Shaka led by Fred Zindi , Fungai Malianga Band, Mandaga,Matatu &Bingam Inquiry  formed with other Zimbabwean  student musicians based in London.

On the other part Otiswaygood,  a band formed at the University of Rhodesia made up of white rebellious  students had also arrived in the UK and were now playing reggae music .The Colored community had Richard John Smith and Alton Edwards and later Rozalla Miller  (with a no 2 in the UK charts) who were enjoying chart successes in the UK top of the pops. (The) 70s period had people meeting for socials and fundraising for political parties with these bands performing for them  and DJS playing the newly released covert lyrics of the new music coming from Zimbabwe like Thomas Mapfumo.”

Growth points at Chakonda

I smile as I think of how, as a little boy, I used to hang around the shops, what we called “growth points” at Chakonda, in my rural village in Shamva. Sent to buy bread and milk by my grandmother, I would, after using the change to buy these small sweets of different colors we called viscose, place the milk and bread down, pop the viscose into my mouth like a pack of pills, and raise some dust to Thomas Mapfumo’s  Jojo.

By the time I got home my grandmother would be standing outside her hut looking towards the road,worried and I could not tell her that Jojo was playing. This was the 90’s, and already, from what Mudhara Wala shares, to my experiences, the general and generational (dis)connections in how we enjoyed and understood the music start showing.

Independence Music

Bob Marley graced Zimbabwean independence celebrations in 1980.

I have recently read that Marley’s namesake, and current, and long-time president, Robert Mugabe, would have preferred the “cleaner” Cliff Richard!

So as the people felt ok to some reggae vibes in Zimbabwe, Zimbabweans in the UK were also mashing it up with the Afro-Carribean community with  reggae and soca, as Mudhara Wala points out.

The dawn of independence in Zimbabwe also brought a celebratory turn, with songs such as Pemberai by Thomas Mapfumo, and Makorokoto by Four Brothers, egging on the joy and euphoria of self-rule, the transition from Rhodesia to Zimbabwe, in politics, as in musical expression.

In the belly of the Zimbabwean music circles in the diaspora in the UK, Mudhara Wala observes

“(The) 8os, as the new dawn of Independence, came in with it a new attitude , new music  lyrics which  were more to the point .Music was of a celebratory nature with lots(of) bands forming in Zimbabwe and releasing new music.

It’s at this point we decided to bring in to the UK Zimbabwe bands first with Thomas Mapfumo ,Real Sounds,Bhundu Boys,4Bros,Lovemore Majaivana, Oliver Mutukudzi, Jona Sithole, Devera Ngwena, Albert Nyathi, Ilanga,Andy Brown, Mudzimu, Stella Chiweshe, John Chibadura, Dorothy Masuka to name a few.

The 80s were graced with the rise in popularity of World Music and Zimbabwe benefited in that it became popularized during this period with the Bhundu Boys enjoying huge successes in record sales and popularity, at one point playing to a sold out Wembley stadium supporting Madonna. I was instrumental in working with all these musicians and bands, bringing them over and setting up their tours”

The shift from protest to celebratory music accompanying Zimbabwean independence also witnessed more mobility on the part of Zimbabwean artists playing in the UK, to the now well established, although relatively small, Zimbabwean community, as well as to a larger audience with the growth of what Mudhara Wala points out to be “World Music”.

The contentions around naming are for another time. It remains interesting to note that there was a conscious attempt, even after encounters with different musical influences, to still listen to, engage with and promote what was regarded as “Zimbabwean music”. So the music that was gaining popularity in Zimbabwe at that time is music that was also gaining ground amongst the “diasporans” in the UK.

Lennon Mhishi is a Zimbabwean, who tries to pass as a writer and academic.