he first album I knew all the words to was Paul Simon’s Graceland. The “Graceland” concert came to Harare in 1987, just as my family moved to Zimbabwe; the audience and performers were an almost unprecedented mix of races. Earlier that year, Simon had decided to visit South Africa and, with a dream team of South African musicians, record an album without a single lyric resembling a protest song. At the time, Graceland’s breezy, wordy lyrics appeared immutable and perfect. I had no idea what the opening line—“The Mississippi Delta / Was shining like a National guitar”—meant (What was a National guitar? Where was Mississippi?), but its rhythms sparked a primordial response; I especially liked the Tom-and-Jerry humor of “Believing I had supernatural powers, I slammed into a brick wall / I said, ��Hey, is this my problem? Is this my fault?’” We listened to Graceland on week-long holidays in the perfect solitude of the National Parks, where you could drive for an entire day looking for animals and never see another car. Bakithi Khumalo’s fretless bass and the tiptoe shuffle of mbaqanga became inseparable from the fleeting visions of waving, smiling children and Coca-Cola ads on the bottleshops in roadside towns.
Twenty years later, the lyrical innocence of Graceland seems an act of startling and bewildering artistic omission. But politics and protest, acknowledged or not, seep into everything. Simon staged the concert in Zimbabwe because Hugh Masekela and Miriam Makeba, who both played in the show, were barred by the South African government from returning to their homeland. In retrospect there is an odd feeling of gazing south across the border, waiting for the change that was already visible on the horizon, the two countries tied to each other by history and culture, by music. But to my family, the concert felt like a celebration of Zimbabwe’s multiracial society, of the independence that had come a short seven years before—the year I was born.
With Graceland, I became aware of music as a distinct substrate, something that could be listened to actively, liked, disliked, known. I plundered my parents’ Eurythmics and Dire Straits collection (it was the end of the ’80s). I paid more attention to the radio; the English-language station, which I never listened to, played sugary, self-congratulatory hits by Phil Collins and the Bee Gees. The Shona-language station, which my family’s household manager and my surrogate mother turned on whenever she was home, played as much foreign music as local pop with shrill, treble-heavy production: frantic rhumba, soukous, and kwasa-kwasa by The Lubumbashi Stars or Kanda Bongo Man from Zaire to the north; kitschy South African disco by Brenda Fassie, Mango Groove, PJ Powers. I could barely pick out artists’ names in the rapid-fire Shona commentary between tracks, so I never got around to collecting records. Anyway, the only record store was overpriced, on the far side of town, and mostly stocked the same western music I avoided on the radio. It was years before I discovered the CD and tape stalls in our local fleamarket, and by then I was living in another country.
Thomas Mapfumo’s 1989 single “Corruption” created a major stir when it came out. It was the first record to call attention to a government that appeared to be losing its popular, populist leanings, and Mapfumo had the stature to make it count. People talked about it for months, and it played on the radio constantly—it’s the first Zimbabwean song I really remember liking. Part of my appreciation might’ve had to do with how weighty it seemed in contrast to the fever-pitched pop of the time. Zimbabwean music videos usually relied on scantily-clad dancers and cheap, cheerful Photoshop effects: Rorschach-blotted dancers in psychedelic silhouette was a favorite technique. But “Corruption,” which appeared regularly the extravagantly titled music video show “Mutinhimira weMimhanzi/Ezomgido,” was austere and monochromatic, Mapfumo’s face obscured by a black pork-pie hat as he hunkered down into the mic. Mapfumo is credited with creating the chimurenga style, the urban music of the liberation struggle of the 1970s. Chimurenga music is built on the intertwining harmonies of the mbira, but “Corruption” marked a stylistic as well as a political rupture. Shaking his dreadlocks, decrying a system of “Something for something, nothing for nothing,” Mapfumo drew on the international rebel tradition of reggae. He had Marley’s millenarian convictions as well as his hair, and sang with the dire, lachrymose assurance of a prophet.
In 1994, my family went on holiday to Mozambique, which had then-recently emerged from civil war. The roads were still so pitted with potholes and barricades from old ambushes that most of the time it was smoother to drive alongside the road, hard up against the thick scrub, rather than on it. Surrounded by white families on holiday with their black maids in tow, we camped on the beach in Beira, tuning in to the BBC on the car radio every few hours for updates on the first-ever democratic South African elections, holding our breath for the final tally. We listened to Hugh Masekela’s strident, imperious epic “Mayibuye (Bring Back Nelson Mandela),” which never failed to give me chills, and Chicco’s disco thriller “Papa Stop The War,” featuring the booming voice of the poet Mzwakhe Mbuli as “The Voice Of Reason.” I had no idea who Mbuli was, and didn’t understand all of what was happening, but I knew that the songs I loved—triumphant songs of suffering, hope and struggle—were finding a resolution. It was as though you could see history happening, see justice (a good word for a 14-year old) emerging everywhere. I was suddenly aware of how lucky I was.
As a teenager, along with every other white Zimbabwean, I fell in love with Oliver Mtukudzi. A lot of Zimbabwean music felt impenetrable or dull to white ears, but Tuku, Mtukudzi’s style, synthesized all kinds of southern African music with Otis Redding-like majesty. He had intricate arrangements, a killer band, and the best production in Zimbabwe. He wasn’t embarrassed by losing his brother and several bandmates to HIV, and sang at least two songs about AIDS on each album. His supporting role in a Zimbabwean movie about a widow struggling against the strictures of traditional culture following her husband’s death lit up like a Tom Waits cameo. I remember being at a solo acoustic performance where he played “Kwawakabva,” a song about remembering where you came from; though its central lyric was about being black, I didn’t let it exclude me. Two months later I left the country to go to school on the opposite side of the planet, on Vancouver Island.
In 1999, I returned to Zimbabwe for a year but spent a lot of time outside of Harare. The long-distance buses to and from the city were packed so solidly with people, bags, produce, and livestock that I sometimes had to balance myself on one foot. I was always the only white person on the bus, and though I was occasionally accorded minor celebrity status as a result, I never scored a seat. As well as the big, ancient, foul-smoking government buses, there were private minivans that plied the long-distance routes. Though the vans were usually missing upholstery and the sliding door often had to be held shut by hand, they were always thoroughly wired for window-rattling sound. I discovered with some dismay that I hated most of the Zimbabwean pop I heard on the minivans’ radios, which seemed to be recorded by running the tape through a wringer first. My experiences with the buses and their music were the subject of one of my first published pieces.
Most weekends I took the bus back into Harare. I went to the occasional Mtukudzi show, but they were big, expensive, and often tame. Mapfumo seldom played in Harare; he would show up horribly late to open shows for touring artists like Salif Keita and play sullen, druggy sets. I’d go downtown to The Tube nightclub, which had transformed from a mostly white high-school hangout to a sweaty, overcrowded bar where women could count on being hit on all night by amorous drunks. Andy Brown played there with his band the Storm, who had just released Tigere, their greatest album; they tore the roof off every night. The shows always began the same way: a single mbira player perched on the edge of the tiny stage, picking out a plaintive melody. The rest of the band, ten or so, crowded on one by one until the whole place boiled over with groove. Potato (pronounced “poh-tah-toe”), the band’s ragga hype man, bounced off the walls; the ridiculously sexy bassist tossed his short, slim dreads with each turn of phrase. The dancing went on until early morning.
In 2000, three months before I left the country a second time, I went on a Peace March in downtown Harare. I got tear-gassed, but avoided getting beaten (others weren’t so lucky). As we marched nervously around the city centre, we chanted slogans about change, but the movement was young and there were few good Zimbabwean protest songs that didn’t belong to the liberation struggle and thus to the government and so-called “war veterans”—the ones administering the beatings. One or two friends tried singing old Lennon songs and handing out flowers to the jumpy policemen that stood at the edges of the march. When I left the country, I carried a spent teargas canister with me.
The next time I lived in Harare was three years later. Everyone I knew was tense and exhausted. The 2002 elections had seen some of the worst political violence since independence—torture, rape, murder—and the 2005 elections were just over the horizon. A secretive grassroots organization called Zvakwana (meaning, simply, “enough”) was distributing, for free, a compilation CD entitled Get UP! Stand UP! Red Hot and Riot: Rocking The Regime Into Retirement. The album included Bob Marley’s eternal chestnut “Get Up Stand Up” and several spoken-word political screeds by union leader Raymond Majongwe, sounding eerily like Mazwakhe Mbuli, and blunt as a homemade club (“No amount of brutal violence can hinder people from expressing their political views!”).
The album was clumsy, angry, and fiercely partisan, but I choked up every time I listened to Masekela’s “Change,” a catalog of past-their-expiration-date African rulers that included the lyric “Robert Mugabe, don’t you think it’s time to say goodbye?”—strong words at a time when few South Africans were prepared to admit their northern neighbors might be in trouble.The song bears a striking resemblance to the fire-and-brimstone struggle songs Masekela sang sixteen years before in Harare. Despite less overt violence during the campaign, the ruling party kept its parliamentary majority in 2005. A month after the elections, in its twenty-fifth year in power, the government began evicting thousands of families from homes abruptly deemed illegal, demolishing their homes as people watched. The program was called “Operation Murambatsvina,” which translates to “Operation Clean Out The Trash.” Change seemed further away than ever.
This January I returned from a month in Harare. On New Year’s Eve, stretched out in Zimbabwe’s summer sun while a thunderstorm gathered energy on the horizon, we listened to two archival recordings of Zimbabwean bands of the 1970s put out by Alula Records: one by the Green Arrows (who briefly featured Oliver Mtukudzi in their line-up), and the other by the magnificent Hallelujah Chicken Run Band (one of Thomas Mapfumo’s first projects). Hidden at the end of the Green Arrows album is a rambling interview snippet with Zexie Manetsa. Crickets chirp and beer bottles clink—the sounds of an African evening—while he describes running off with two guitars as back pay for three months of gigs. On first listen, neither of the records sound political, but their uncanny musical invention is the sound of a revolution in progress. Hallelujah Chicken Run Band wrote the first pop songs of liberation, the Zimbabwean counterparts to “I’m Black and I’m Proud” or Masekela’s “Bring Back Nelson Mandela,” while the Green Arrows demonstrated, with an excess of flash and style, that black Zimbabweans could never be the subservient menials that white Rhodesians demanded.
Today’s struggle is not last year’s, nor—despite the government’s best efforts to cast it as a revived racial struggle—is it the same as thirty years ago, when Zimbabwean music sent sparks flying, demanding change. Change is in the air again, but the music has mostly not risen to the challenge. Andy Brown is on the government payroll, dutifully churning out propaganda ditties about land and perfidious foreigners. Oliver Mtukudzi toes an ever finer line between state sanction and singing about the lives of his audience.
But like wet earth in the aftermath of a summer thunderstorm, there are signs of growth and renewal. Zimbabweans are adopting hip-hop and turning it to their own lives. Thomas Mapfumo, shorn of his dreadlocks, recently released one the angriest and best albums of his career, channeling the same foment as Hallelujah Chicken Run, but with a larger serving of vitriol and disillusionment. Unfortunately for Zimbabweans, Mapfumo now lives in exile in the US (whether it’s economical or political is unclear), and Rise Up is not available within the country. Like everything else in Zimbabwe, the album is waiting on change.
Thanks to Dave Brazier/Wideangle, who provided images for this article.
Visit the Stypod to hear an exclusive podcast containing many of the tracks that Andrew writes in this article.