The Rasta roots of Zim dancehall
Versatile dancehall champion Busy Signal will be in Harare this weekend, becoming the latest Jamaican artist to make the trek to Zimbab-we, a movement that began in 1980 when reggae legend Bob Marley performed at the new nation’s independence celebrations.
Before Busy Signal goes on stage as the concert’s main act, a gaggle of Zimbabwean dancehall artists will perform, including leading DJs Killer T (who has four Zimbabwe dancehall awards, including Best Album and Best Male Artist, and who was probably 2016’s top act), Calaz, Freeman and Dadza D. The genre boasts of other soar-away successful DJs, such as Soul Jah Love (perhaps 2015’s top artist), Winky D (a crowd favourite) and Toki Vibes (a big sensation from 2014).
Some have said Zimbabwe’s relationship with reggae was inked in the stars when Marley composed the song, Zimbabwe, for his 1979 album, Survival.
Struggle folklore has it that, when the Union Jack was lowered during the last few minutes of April 17 and the new Zimbabwe flag was hoisted, some of the first words uttered in the opening moments of April 18 were, “Ladies and gentlemen, this is Bob Marley and the Wailers”, or something to that effect.
But in the 1980s, the Rasta man (or anyone who remotely looked like him) was shunned even though his music was loved, as Dambudzo Marechera sardonically observed in his book Mindblast: “I cannot account for the national paranoia about Rastafarians. They invite a lot of Rasta musicians to the main centres of the country yet, at the same time, in the whorehouse bars and hotels … in the government corridors and in the squatter settlements — everywhere it seems — the Rasta man and anyone who remotely looks like him is abused verbally, physically, historically, socially, psychologically.”
This schizophrenic relationship with the music and its exponents has changed, if the mainstream acceptance of Zim dancehall and its artists is anything to go by. But the sound’s evolution has been long and arduous, a trajectory whose signal moment happened when Zimbabwean DJs discarded faux Jamaican accents to sing in Shona.
It is, naturally, a story that spans generations and features a diverse cast of musicians. As strange as it may sound, Chimurenga music maestro Thomas “Mukanya” Mapfumo’s role in the sound’s development was crucial; so was Zimbabwe-based Jamaican-British radio announcer Dennis Wilson, who was a weekly fixture on national radio in the 1980s and early 1990s.
Important also was the growth of a sound system culture in the country’s cities and towns. So it was that rival troupes of DJs, selectors, roadies and hangers-on coalesced into rival sound systems such as Silverstone, Stereo One International, Lion Heart, Alkebulani and Small Axe, the platforms on which the DJ chanting style of many MCs was honed.
The sound system business was made possible by a vibrant local reggae scene, which included bands like Transit Crew and British outfit Misty in Roots, whose members had settled in Zimbabwe in the 1980s.
We should also not forget the role of the steady stream of reggae acts that visited Zimbabwe in the 1980s, 1990s and 2000s, a roll call that included just about every major musician and band from Jamaica.
Considering Zimbabwe’s colonial past and its racialised class system, reggae’s suffering servant blues motif and its strident call for revolution were always going to find receptive ears in the ghettos of cities and towns such as Harare and Norton, Chegutu and Kadoma, Kwekwe and Mutare, Chinhoyi and Kariba, Bulawayo and Hwange — centres in which the sonics resonated with the offspring of Zimbabwe’s working class.
The taxi industry, especially in Harare, has played the role of the latter-day sound system. The drivers, conductors and touts are embedded in the sound and its distribution networks and so play the latest tunes in their taxis ad infinitum.
A few years ago Mukanya dismissed a release by Winky D, but he was one of the first Zimbabwean musicians to experiment with the sound.
In many ways, Mukanya played a foundational role in Zimbabwe’s reggae tradition. In one song on his 1985 five-track album, Chimurenga for Justice, Mukanya departed from his signature Chimurenga sound, which could be abbreviated as electrifying the mbira and updating the spiritual music of the Shona for a city audience.
The song was Mugarandega, in which the musician experimented with the reggae sound and Jamaican DJ-style chanting. The album was recorded at Addis Ababa Studios in London, with the assistance of personnel from Misty in Roots. The song was later released as a maxi single, complete with a dub version, to popular and critical acclaim.
A few years later, he released the hit reggae song Corruption, about pervasive graft in Zimbabwe, also with a dub version, a fire starter of a song in Mukanya’s already breathtaking oeuvre.
While he was carrying out these sonic experiments on what was called Radio 3, a similar shake-up of musical tastes was taking place.
Wilson had a weekly slot on radio in which he played the music of his other homeland. He had arrived in Zimbabwe in the early 1980s to work as an engineer at a state telecommunications parastatal but was “discovered” by veteran radio DJ Kudzi Marudza while spinning vinyls at a friend’s house and invited him to play on national radio.
“People [back home] ask me, why Zimbabwe, and I ask them, why not? I don’t know where my ancestors are from. Sometimes the way I feel about [this country, my origin] could be here,” Wilson told me in an interview early last year.
The DJ recalled going “upcountry” with a friend and, when asked what his totem was, he went blank and confessed to not having any, but his older interlocutor said to him, “Don’t worry, you can have my totem.” Wilson said: “That made me feel so accepted; it meant so much to me.”
These sentimental narratives aside, I asked him why Zim dancehall had stopped using the Jamaican patois and had adopted Shona.
“It’s not strange that dancehall is popular now,” Wilson said in an accent with heavy traces of Jamaican. “It’s our children that’s doing it. They have taken it and made it their own to suit the market here so that they can understand it. Whereas, if it’s in Jamaican patois, they can hear the lyrics but they are not living in Jamaica.”
It was only a matter of time before Zimbabwe’s sound systems of the 1990s — which played mostly Jamaican dancehall and lovers’ rock — had to adapt to the local context, in the way that American jazz, R&B and the blues had arrived in Jamaica and been adapted to ska, which then became rock steady, which in turn became reggae, which then morphed into dub, until the birth of dancehall in the 1980s.
In many ways, my generation was steeped in the sound systems of the day, the youth culture that was the ancestor to what became Zim dancehall. As a teenager in the 1990s, I would sneak away from home to listen to Buju Banton, Bounty Killer, Barrington Levy, General Degree, Luciano, Cocoa Tea, Mad Cobra, Cutty Ranks and many others blaring from wardrobe-sized speakers until six in the morning.
I would amble back home, eyes red from a lack of sleep, head about to explode from the Jamaican sonic assault and, of course, slightly drunk from experiments with alcohol and cigarettes.
Later, when I moved to Harare to study at the local university, a dancehall crazy friend and I were regulars at what was then called Job’s Nite Spot, a club on Julius Nyerere, in the centre of Harare, listening to Jackie B of Silverstone spin tracks.
Twenty years after all of this, Busy Signal will step on that stage this weekend, but I doubt if he knows the full story of the jagged trajectory and the cast of protagonists who made his journey to Zimbabwe possible.
Percy Zvomuya is a writer and football fan. This is part of a longer essay on the evolution of Zim dancehall and Zimbabwe’s reggae tradition