Daniel Gonora
Photo: Nyasha Manamike / Courtesy of Phantom Limb

Zimbabwean Sungura Fortifies the Spirit on Gonora Sounds’ ‘Hard Times Never Kill’

Gonora Sounds’ Daniel Gonora sings about economic crises, tragic deaths, and social struggles from his personal history and the lives of those around him.

Hard Times Never Kill
Gonora Sounds
The Vital Record
4 February 2022

It’s not for nothing that Daniel Gonora’s debut album as the frontperson of Gonora Sounds is titled Hard Times Never Kill. Over nine tracks, Gonora sings about economic crises, tragic deaths, and social struggles from his personal history and the lives of those around him. Still, he comes through each song as a man of faith, in a religious sense and more broadly in terms of his belief in individuals to survive in the face of overwhelming odds.

The basic setup is straightforward; Daniel Gonora sings lead vocals and whips out sprightly ostinati on solar-powered electric guitar. Accompanying him from start to finish is teenage son Isaac, who is a force to be reckoned with on a homemade drum kit. The two are no strangers to mass media; in 2014, when Isaac was 12, father and son went viral in a video of them busking to the song “Go Bhora”, cheering on Zimbabwe’s national football team. A similarly stripped-down studio version of the song opens Hard Times Never Kill, getting the album off to a jubilant start.

Joining the Gonora family are stars from across Harare’s musical scenes, most notably bassist Malizani Mbewe and guitarist Nelson “Mr. Longman” Mutanda. Like Gonora, Mbewe and Mutanda are aficionados of sungura, a predominant genre in Zimbabwe’s pop industry marked by, among other things, fast-moving guitar melodies. The members of Gonora Sounds excel at these. Gonora has a long history with the genre as a former member of the now-disbanded Jairos Jiri Band, an ensemble sponsored by Zimbabwe’s Disabled Musicians Society (Daniel Gonora lost his sight for unknown reasons as an adolescent).

That experience comes to the forefront on tracks like “Kusaziva Kufa”, in which a mix of interlocking guitar and bass parts and rolling percussion is filled out further by vocal harmonies as Gonora sings of his resilience. Singers Isabel Piyo and Sehlapi Mthombeni provide many of the album’s backing vocals, their tones fresh, strong, and perfect for the album’s most upbeat cuts.

While optimism abounds, it does so only in the face of hardship. Stripped-down “Muchange Muripiko” sees Daniel Gonora, a pastor, bemoaning day-to-day faithlessness over a simple acoustic guitar loop. In “Mukoma Shadreck”, he decries the tradition of marrying widowed in-laws, singing about his own late brother’s widow. Other songs speak to more significant issues. “Madhiri” promises consequences for crime and corruption brought on by economic struggle.

“MaZimbabwean” is the album’s most poignant piece, depicting the sometimes life-threatening difficulties many Zimbabwean people have faced in seeking opportunities abroad. Vimbai Zimuto, formerly of Oliver Mtukudzi’s group Black Spirits, duets with Gonora here. Her heartfelt delivery adds depth to an already emotional track, one that begins with Gonora complicating the album’s title. “Let me tell you one thing, ladies and gentlemen,” he says, “a hard time never kills, but it pushes you where you do not want to go.” Gonora Sounds explore many difficult paths on Hard Times Never Kill and do so with strength and grace, no matter the cost.

Perhaps this is due to the spirit of collaboration so abundant across the album. For the final track, “Kuna Mambo”, Gonora Sounds join forces with Vabati VaJehova, an apostolic gospel choral group who lend their resonant voices in a protest song invoking Old Testament imagery to suggest that the time might be right for political change.

There’s a little bit of fire and brimstone to the songs Daniel Gonora sings on Hard Times Never Kill, but it’s clear from his sincere delivery and the love with which his band comes together that what he wants is for his people to be safe and well. What Gonora and his family and friends have witnessed over time is worth remembering. As Gonora preaches his tuneful gospel, he does so with a hopeful heart and capable hands, all poised in the service of a greater good.

RATING 7 / 10