Mokoomba: Keeping the Tonga language alive through music

Mokoomba's Rising Tide. (Supplied)

Mokoomba's Rising Tide. (Supplied)

Mokoomba is a band from Zimbabwe but Mokoomba isn't a Zimbabwean band.

I realise I am treading on dangerous territory here. That opening line assumes that there is a quintessential Zimbabwean sound, whose existence and provenance one might swear an oath before a sober judge.

Mokoomba are different from the average Zimbabwean outfit in a lot of ways. They don't sing in the three major languages, English, Shona or Ndebele but in Tonga, a minority language spoken on both sides of the Zambezi.
They are not even based in the capitalHarare or Bulawayo but in the tourist centre of Victoria Falls.

The Tonga are the people who gave the Victoria Falls its real, which is to say, original name of Mosi oatunya, (the smoke that thunders). If you never go to the Victoria Falls, the Tonga name encapsulates what the gorge and the cascading waters are really about.

Mokoomba, whose latest CD Rising Tide is a big hit in Europe, is the band that's keeping the Tonga language alive and breaking the dominance of the bambazonke (winner take all) language duo poly of Ndebele and Shona. The band was formed from the nuggets of a talent competition in which Zimbabweans, Zambians and Mozambicans battled it out. The rest, as they used to say, is history.

Feverish chanting
A stand out song on the cd is Masangano on which the six men band feature Guinean kora player Prince Diabate. The song begins in a laid back style, tentative, before it gives way to feverish chanting made popular by the likes of Malian maestro Salif Keita over a bouyant melody that would be at home, again, on a Keita cd.  

But the CD doesn't just have the imprint  of West Africa; there is all the sound textures you would expect from a contemporary band of young people, including rap and reggae.  But, beneath this universalist exterior, there is something Zimbabwean, even if its unstable and always vanishing.  The foreign influences are to be expected on a CD on which 13 guest musicians are featured. There is a Dane (Lene Norgaard Christensen), Swedish born cellist Anja Naucler and several other nationalities.

Other notable tracks include Mangongo on which the band's chief vocalist Matthias Muzaza soars beautifully above the fast-paced, percussive ambience of the drum based Jit sound that reminded me somewhat of Biggie Tembo and the Bhundu Boys, the first Zimbabwean band to conquer the "world"; there is something, too, about Oliver Mtukudzi in this song.  

Track five, Misozi, is in communion with the Zimbabwean sound's central African rhumba roots, a lifelong project of the late master Simon Chimbetu. Chimbetu, a war veteran, learned to appreciate the Rhumba sound during the days he spent in guerilla camps in Tanzania. Upon return to an independent Zimbabwe, he tried to fuse that genre with a Zimbabwean sensibility (whatever that is).  

Mokoomba is a phenomenon, a band that makes use of what's local while borrowing from others to create.. ahem ahem …something strange and beautiful-whatever its passport.

Percy Zvomuya

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