The experienced traveller in all his passport-stamped and border-crossing glory would be ill-equipped for Zimbabwe, mostly because it is anything but the stereotypical African country some imagine it to be.
Power cuts and politics aside, Harare is an ever-vibrant capital city with a nightlife so busy it reinforces the meaning of the city’s Shona name as a place that never rests.
The capital remains ever-shifting under the temperate bright blue summer days or the chilly starry winter nights – more so every year in April when the Harare International Festival of the Arts (Hifa) kicks off in an explosive celebration of dance, theatre, music, art and culture.
This festival transforms the city into an animal that breathes through drum beats, dancers’ flexed feet, brushstrokes of artists and the voices and footsteps of thousands of festival goers that religiously attend the shows every day.
The theme for this year’s festival – What’s Next: Looking Back / Looking Forward – echoes the sentiments of Zimbabweans: what next for the country and its future? One of the top-selling shows, 51%, may have an answer.
This sold-out stand-up comedy show finds common humorous links between disparate or controversial issues like race and gender as well as topics ranging from troubled policemen, nuclear threats and crazy Australian wildlife presenters.
Featuring Michael Kudakwashe, Comrade Fatso and Clive Chigubu, 51% fosters a growing appreciation for stand-up comedy in Zimbabwe.
According to Fatso, it allows people to “laugh out loud at our issues” in a controversial yet humorous performance that combines political satire, wit and clever observation.
In true form the performance does have moments where, in addition to laughing, you do look around to see if the ever inconspicuous state secret police will single you out for laughing too hard.
Although shows like 51% may not be directly changing people’s lives, they do inspire people, and form part of a greater collective of cultural activism platforms headed by Fatso’s Magamba Network, the country’s leading hip-hop and spoken word organisation.
Such projects range from Shoko, Harare’s first hip-hop and spoken word festival, to the highly popular Zambezi News, a satire comedy show along the lines of South Africa’s ZA News.
The explosive performance by Noisettes on Thursday evening seemed to be the one that most appropriately answered the festival’s question.
The band, led by Zimbabwean-born Shingai Shoniwa and Dan Smith, enthralled a crowd of over 1 500 people with their smash hits Never Forget You and Don’t Upset the Rhythm.
The best part of the performance wasn’t even the inspiring, enigmatic Shingai, with her sensual allure, likeability and distinctive neo-soul vocals.
It was the collaborations between Shingai and up-and-coming local artists like Hope Masike and the award-winning Chiwoniso Maraire.
The collaborations created a unique fusion of sound, mixing Zimbabwean musical instruments like the mbira with electric guitar sounds, creating an eclectic fusion that is so aptly Zimbabwean in nature and sound.
Superb renditions of songs such as Miriam Makeba’s Kilimanjaro and Malaika and remixes of popular tracks such as D’banj’s Oliver Twist were included in the band’s repertoire.
“This is a dream come true for me. Zimbabwe, I am home!” said Shingai to a roaring crowd. We couldn’t have agreed more.
If the band’s success is “what’s next” for a generation of Zimbabwean musicians then many more artists may now have the courage to pick up a guitar and play the first chords to what could be the next greatest song.
Shingai, we want to be like you when we grow up.
Other Hifa music highlights
Daughters of Legends – Selmor Mtukudzi, daughter of superstar Oliver Mtukudzi, and Nkulee Dube, daughter of the late reggae icon Lucky Dube, will thrill audiences with their unique sounds of afro-jazz and reggae.
Friday May 3, from 10pm to 11pm.
Baaba Maal – The legendary Senegalese musician and guitarist Baaba Maal will be performing with his band.
Saturday May 4, from 8pm to 9pm.
Mi Casa – South Africa’s hottest house music band will collaborate with Zimbabwe’s hottest up-and-coming solo female vocalist, Ammara Brown.
Saturday May 4, from 11pm to midnight.
Mokoomba – Award-winning Zimbabwean band Mokoomba will close the programme with their vibrant afro-fusion of Tonga traditional rhythms with modern influences.
Sunday May 5, from 8.30pm to 9.30pm.
The 14th annual edition of the Harare International Festival of the Arts runs until May 5. For the full lineup, see the official website http://www.hifa.co.zw
This story was originally published on Voices of Africa.