What Is Zimbabwean Music Today? Some Musings with Mudhara Danga

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

 [Part Two]

You already know that I was dancing to Jojo in the late 80s and early 90s. I am not sure if the late Leornard “Musorowenyoka” Dembo ever performed in the UK, but I have often heard and read of the legend of one of his songs, Chitekete, being played at a Miss World event. It seemed Zimbabwean music at this period was enjoying transnational acclaim, basking in the euphoria of a newly independent nation. I think of the 90s as better years, of course, to what I experienced of Zimbabwe post -2000, socio-economically and politically. Yet I also think of structural adjustment, what was called ESAP, and how we would get these ESAP  branded pens in primary school. Because of space limitations, there was such a thing, as still exists I am sure, called hot-seating. One group would attend school in the morning till about midday, another from midday to late afternoon. This meant time sitting on the bonde, and listening to these artists that Mudhara Danga worked with on their tours in the UK.

Growing up later in Highfield, one of the earliest black townships in Harare,  for me encounters with the “been tos”, people who had travelled to the UK and elsewhere, were rare.

There must have been one girl, who I often heard people berating for having gone to the UK and brought back unacceptable dressing habits, of short skirts and tight trousers. I did not mind. A certain kind of music was also starting to emerge, appealing to a younger, urban based, post-independent Zimbabwean generation. Artists like Fortune Mparutsa, who was later to move to the UK, had hit songs such as Wangu Ndega, a song talking about what he would do to ensure a girl remains his alone. In a call to use protection, he used the word condom in the song, and I used to squirm and cringe because the word seemed an obscenity then.

Fortune also had a song called Kure Kwaunoenda, lamenting the departure of a loved one. Together with songs in the mould of  Tombofara by Kelvin and Muzi, who were rumoured to either have returned at that time, or subsequently left for the “diaspora”, there was a shift to a soul-like, R’n’B inspired music in Zimbabwe. There are obviously many other examples of musicians like Prince Tendai , Edwin Hama, Frontline Kids and many more.

Fred Zindi has said the Frontline Kids called their music “Afro-acid”, a fusion of jiti and Western sounds. The Frontline Kids toured the UK in 1991. I struggle, from my memory alone, to remember prominent female artists in that period, nor can I name all those who paved the ground for what we eventually came to call “Urban Grooves” in Zimbabwean music today.

There certainly is a very important point to be made about how the music industry then leaned towards men, which was not peculiar to Zimbabwe, and which is something that merits a more sustained conversation around the development of female musicians and their appreciation in Zimbabwe.

Colonial morality and laws around mobility and the policing of women’s bodies remained critical in shaping urban cultures, as well as post-colonial musical practices. I return to the “urban grooves” examples because they offer a poignant instance of how different musical experiences were certainly shaped by place as well as generational (historical) events and concerns. From the protest, to the celebratory, to the urban groves, which are neither mutually exclusive or linear in their development (that word again!).

Meanwhile, having established a name bringing Zimbabwean artists to the UK, and the popularity that the music had garnered, Mudhara Wala worked with the other people and groups in African music.

“With the popularity of these tours other African musicians wanted to work with me .We set up Limpopo club at the Africa Centre then at this period with a conscious effort of an African led promotion to push our music forward using a PAN African front. We ran the weekly club for over 25 years bringing different African bands from all over Africa and the Caribbean (of) these include launching and giving their debut performances in London, Angelique Kidjo,Baaba Maal,Misty in Roots,Chanderliers from Trinidad, Bembeya Jazz ,Les Amazones,Simba Wanyika,Them Mushrooms,Kokeb,Seeds of Creation,Dele Sosimi,ET Mensah,Nana Ampedu & African Brothers Band, Remmy Ongala,Kanda Bongoman,Sona Diabate, to name a few. It was the hub of African Music in London if not in Europe itself .(With)the demise of the Africa Centre brought with it less visibility of African music in London and less new talent being showcased, less stages for African bands to perform on. Increasingly we have been observing this lack of spaces for African Bands to perform in London, more and more places closing down.”

Having been in London for only a year, I caught a glimpse of the remnants of an active Africa Centre before it folded and was packed onto the shelves of history as a place, a space that once catered to a people. I am sure the walls are stuck with memories, unseen, and the floors invisible footsteps of those who passed through it.

Maybe the pores of the building absorbed the sweat and tears of those who danced, cried, found love, fought, and made a home for music and art in the Africa Centre. It now only exists to people like me in the stories and memories of people like Mudhara Wala. Lament, or laud, or neither?

In a conversation with a friend, it was opined that there seems, just as there have been generational shifts with literature, music and all such, to have been a shift in the appreciation of Zimbabwean music, especially in the past decade as Zimbabwe-Britain relations became icy, and particular narratives gained traction in the UK, and in Zimbabwe. Who said music is not politics, and vice versa? This, similar to the historical relationship of women and music in Zimbabwe, and its diasporic communities, merits its own space.

Mudhara Wala, if for different reasons, does believe that there has been a shift in the appreciation of Zimbabwean music

The music post 80s is not as popular as it was with the host nation audiences but has remained confined to the Zimbabwean community. Bands come and perform for Zimbabwe audiences in Leicester ,Coventry and London .There are a few Bands  being formed here in the UK,  of these include Heritage Survival, The Gentleman’s Band, The New Green Arrows UZambezi,  Royal Destiny, Obert Mazivisa, Jane Doka, these last three groups being Gospel. The audiences mostly refugees /migrant workers  use the music as a therapy for reminiscing the good times they had when they were still in Zimbabwe. It appears that there is a polarization, the old and the young in their musical tastes with the growth of Zimbabwe Reggae  dancehall styles and the Urban grooves the young seem to move away from the more traditional type of music Thomas Mapfumo and Oliver Mutukudzi styles now  reserved for the middle aged and older folks in the community.”

It seems obvious that there would be a generational connect, but it is not. Some young Zimbabweans I have encountered in London are making an effort to reconnect with musical genealogies they may have lost contact with due to the migratory journey, and growing up in a different context. Musical tastes have become eclectic, definitions of what is Zimbabwean music (more) multiple, and replete  with fusions of different types of music. One discovers that musicians like Shingi Shonhiwa (formerly of the Noisettes), who may self-identify, or are appropriated as Zimbabwean, play music that does not fit into the mould of either world, or Zimbabwean music. If it is music, played or performed by someone identified as Zimbabwean, does it become Zimbabwean music?

Declines in economic fortune, and technological changes have also brought about a shift in the music, and Mudhara Wala feels it is important for young Zimbabwean artists to still promote traditional Zimbabwean music.

“With the recession it appears that there ares less groups being formed in comparison to the mid 80s; the content of the music and lyrics has changed. Most of the music being produced now is computer generated music. Artists or the technicians have found a cheaper way of producing music; this has resulted in the major recording companies closing down. The readily available technology has seen the growth of piracy, less remunerations to the musicians and slow decline in the growth of the music Industry. The lack of new Acts coming in to the UK has seen audience attendance going down; To move forward one would have to reverse these processes, encourage original recordings, play and record live music more… it sounds better than the computer generated music; bring back good sound recording companies that can record and produce high quality music. Encourage good musicianship, good creative lyrics, good workmanship, and take the music Industry as a viable Industry like any other on the part of the government invest in it. For the musicians there is a need to develop and compose of our indigenous Zimbabwean traditional music to the highest standards. For the audiences we need to support our local musicians and criticize if you must and be part of our new music renaissance. We have done[it] before, I am convinced we can do it again.

I regard myself as an eternal optimist, but my views concerning how many fortunes are tied to the politics and socio-economic condition of nations make it difficult for me to see a revival in the fortunes of artists, or recording companies, without the revival of the various sectors of the nations at large. Something about the whole being greater or something, I am not sure which hole I am digging myself into.

One cannot help being cynical and jaded. What is indigenous or traditional to a group of young Zimbabweans who have grown up in London, or even their counterparts in Harare, or Bulawayo?

I have watched Winky Dee send “Afropolitan” youths crazy with his lyrics in Shona from South Africa, to Australia, Canada and the UK.

Watched Lady Squanda sing about common social issues, in a language that reconnects to other places, and other times. One can make preferences in musical taste, and claims to aunthenticity, but one thing is for sure, Zimbabwean music will never be the same.

When I go to Youtube, and click on an urban grooves song, I think of how far Zimbabwe has come, of what I have missed and continue to miss out on in the lingo of urban Zimbabwe, in the resilience which sometimes seems a curse.

When I click on other older songs, I think of my grandparents, my parents, independence celebrations at Chakonda, at the “stadium” next to the council offices, where Gore the midget used to dance Jerusarema with the beautiful girls from Jiti High School. I think of my mother singing songs by the Bhundu Boys, or Clive Malunga, of my father, rarely, doing this dance we always laugh at him for doing.

I think of my red Caltex dungaree, bought from the cotton harvest, I think, in which I would dance to Jojo, before I knew about oil, and degradation, and the general fuckery of the world.

By the time Paul Lunga is done raising the sleeping beauty, blowing soft kisses, as if after intense love-making, I am in a trance. He finishes too early. I pride myself in not being awe struck, or a victim of celebrity worship, but I get a CD signed.

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