Zimbabwe and the Beauty in the Struggle

[21 August 2013]

By Chris Kjorness

He’s done it again. Zimbabwean president Robert Mugabe, the longest-serving leader on the African continent, has won reelection. Despite international media claims of voter irregularities and an impending lawsuit challenging the result from Zimbabwe’s opposition party, The Movement for Democratic Change (MDC), the 89-year old Mugabe appears to be going nowhere. Underlining this point in his first address to the Zimbabwean people since the election, wherein the feisty Mugabe said those unhappy with the result could “commit suicide if they so wish.” Twisting the knife a little more, Mugabe added, “Even if they die, dogs will not eat their flesh.”

In spite of this, a hopeful spirit is a hallmark of the Zimbabwean people, as illustrated here by Oliver Mtukudzi:


In the four-decade-long story of the Mugabe’s rise to power, music and the arts have been major players. And throughout the political, economic, and social trials that have dominated and threatened to decimate one of the world’s most vibrant cultures, musicians have stood fast—drawing on ancient traditions to voice the hopes, fears, and frustrations of the people of Zimbabwe.

In 1889, having inveigled mining rights agreements from local tribal leaders, British politician and mining magnate Cecil Rhodes was granted a royal charter allowing his British South Africa Company (BSAC) to establish a mining colony in the lands between the lakes of central Africa and the Limpopo river. As the colony of Rhodesia (named by and after Rhodes himself) and BSAC mining operations grew, colonists came into conflict with the Shona natives that populated present-day Zimbabwe. A series of revolts followed as the Shona sought to repel colonial encroachment. Central to these uprisings (or Chimurenga as they were called in Shona) was the mbira, a thumb piano that had been used for centuries by the Shona as tool for communing with tribe members—both living and deceased.

Traditional Shona music was used as an aid to spiritual practice. The hypnotic melodies, layered texture, and galloping rhythm provided by the hosha (rattle) all served to transport anyone in earshot into a trance-like state. It was in these states of communal ecstacy that the ancestor spirits found the opportunity to possess the svikiro (spirit medium) and bring comfort and encouragement to the living.


The power of these ceremonies did not go unnoticed by colonial authorities. In 1898, after the First Chimirenga (1896-1897)—a native uprising sparked by the imposition of a “hut tax”—the colonial government tried and hanged the revered Shona spirit mediums Kaguvi and Nehanda.

Having quelled the uprising, colonial authorities hoped to “civilize” the native Shona population through missionary schools. Seeking higher status, many urban Shona took to the European ways of the colonialists, but in rural areas traditional practices remained strong. As commercial recordings became available in urban areas, black Rhodesians quickly gravitated to the musical stylings of jazz and pop artists like The Mills Brothers and The Ink Spots.

After World War II, a loosening of liquor laws led to the creation of the first black Rhodesian music clubs. At the same time, racial segregation in cities prevented black workers from planing too deep of roots in the city. As black workers traveled between the country and the city, the lines between past and present began to blur. Recently reissued recordings of groups like The Green Arrows and the Hallelujah Chicken Run Band give listeners a taste of the burgeoning music scene of Harere (then Salisbury) in the ‘60s.


The end of WWII marked the beginning of the end of colonialism. Having just won a noble victory against the racist Nazis, the United Kingdom began a long campaign towards indigenous African rule. In Rhodesia, local white authorities rejected British calls for the institution of a multiracial democracy. In November 1965, Rhodesia formally severed all ties with the crown. It was beginning of the Second Chimurenga—a bloody,15-year civil war from which the nation of Zimbabwe emerged.

With the rising tide of black nationalism, musicians began seeing the incorporation of Shona musical elements as a political statement. Artists like Thomas Mapfumo—who despite having rural roots began his performing career emulating American and British rhythm ‘n’ blues artists—began creating a new Zimbabwean music. The interlocking guitar figures, layered form, and rolling, compound rhythm of Mapfumo’s chimurenga music stood as a stern rebuke to the notion that the imitation of European culture was the only route to progress. Young revolutionaries wrote songs to encourage the fighters and shame the oppressors. 

The lyrics in Mapfumo’s 1977 release, “Hoyoko!”, were thought to be so incendiary that the record was banned by state authorities and Mapfumo was arrested and put in a prison camp. Dixon Chingaira (under the name Comrade Chinx) used his skills as a choir director to create Chimurenga choral compositions that were modeled after traditional Shona songs. Oliver Mtukudzi began performing sophisticated, cosmopolitan music that drew on diverse, international influences while staying firmly routed in central African traditions.

By 1979 it was clear that white authorities could no longer control the country. In a effort to salvage some white control of Rhodesia, president Ian Smith called for elections, provided they excluded the more radical of the black nationalist parties. The winner of those elections, Abel Muzorewa, was seen as illegitimate by the majority of black Rhodesians. New elections, including the previously banned candidates were called for. Not surprisingly, Robert Mugabe’s popular ZANU-PF party won the 1980 election, giving birth to modern Zimbabwe.

At the new nation’s independence day celebration elated Zimbabwean artist were joined by the international symbol of black liberation, Bob Marley. The joy of the emerging Zimbabwean state can be heard in Mapfumo’s “Chitima Cherusunguko” (The Freedom Train).


But independence was no panacea. The following decade saw Zimbabewea’s economy languish while tensions between white and black Zimbabweans festered. Charges of corruption and oppression began to be leveled against the hero of the Chimurenga, Robert Mugabe. Once again, the musicians of Zimbabwe sang of the crimes of those in power. In 1989, Thomas Mapfumo again found his latest record (Corruption) banned by the state—only this time it was banned by the very Mugabe administration that his music had helped bring to power. By 1990, a campaign of police harassment prompted Mapfumo to flee and seek exile in the United States, where he still resides today.

The dawn of the 21st century was a particularly dark period in Zimbabwe’s history. As Mugabe was entering his third decade of “democratic” rule, hyper-inflation and unemployment ran rampant. At the same time, a violent and disorganized land-reform program destabilized the once lucrative agricultural sector of the Zimbabwean economy. While reports of Mugabe’s heavy handed tactics surfaced as early as 1983—when by some estimates as many as 20,000 dissidents were killed in the province of Matabeleland by Mugabe’s North-Korean-trained 5th brigade—the 21st century saw some of the most damning condemnations of the regime’s security forces from international observers, prompting international sanctions for human rights abuse that further isolated and weakened the country.

Despite domestic tensions and growing censorship, the music went on. Today, Zimbabwe has a rich pool of musicians working within the country, as well as in the diaspora. Zimbabwean musicians still use music to challenge authority and ask difficult questions, in spite of all of the barriers they face.

Here (in a video recently shot in Zimbabwe’s Capital, Harre) Comrade Fatso & Chabvondoka with guest OutSpoken and Lassane Diabate take on the issue of hustling and what constitutes a ‘legitimate’ businessman in a corrupt society:


Sadly, Zimbabweans lost one of their most powerful and promising artists last month with the passing of Chiwoniso Maraire, a multi-talent singer, songwriter, and mbira player. The daughter of professor and mbira master Dumisani Maraire, Chiwoniso spent the first seven years of her life in Olympia, Washington before moving to Zimbabwe in 1983. A strong woman with a clear understanding of the values, as well as the limits of tradition, Chiwoniso (as she was called) carried on the Shona tradition of using what is behind you as a means of propelling yourself forward, as can be heard in this performance of the track from her latest, and sadly last, album Rebel Woman:


It’s not just musicians who use their art to talk about the challenges Zimbabwean’s face. In a recent NPR story, “Holding Zimbabwe’s Leaders Accountable Through Poetry”, Ofeibea Quist-Arcton presented a group of Zimbabwean poets who took their verses to the streets in order to encourage discourse among citizens before the upcoming elections (17 July 2013). Zimbabwe is home to many award winning authors and filmmakers. While the world waits to see how long the 89-year old Mugabe can hang on to his earthly form, we can be sure that the musicians of Zimbabwe will be there to comfort, challenge, and inspire the people.

A graduate of the New England Conservatory, Chris Kjorness works as a writer, musician, and educator in Northern Virginia. When not wielding the weapon of the future, you can find him indoctrinating his two young boys with music snob specials.


Published at: http://www.popmatters.com/pm/column/174526-zimbabwe-beauty-in-the-struggle/