The music of the outlaws

For the past two or three years, writer and former Mail & Guardian reporter Percy Zvomuya has been tracking down the story of Zimdancehall, culminating in a recent longform piece, “None but ourselves”, published in Chimurenga Chronic.

“I’ve been researching other parts of Zim history and reggae … is integral to that history,” he says.

The incidents of the past few months in Zimbabwe have offered us a number of oblique ways of looking at the former head of state Robert Mugabe’s rule. The timelines of Chimurenga Chronic’s “The invention of Zimbabwe”, of which this 6 000-word piece is a lead off single, to use an apt musical metaphor, means that whatever tangential connections Zimdancehall may have had to Mugabe’s rule, in a way, take centre stage now.

In this interview, Zvomuya teases out these angles.

For you, how does Zimdancehall and its evolution speak to the Mugabe moment, if I can call the changes that have taken place over the past few months that?

Most of what I’ve listened to or what is available now, it’s almost like we are in the Eighties again in Jamaican dancehall. In the early Eighties, is when Jamaican dancehall was becoming dancehall; there was a lot to like, but also a lot to dislike at that point.

I mean the reason people like Capleton, why and people like that became important, was because they represented a break with slackness (lewd themes) going on in the music.

There is quite a lot of consciousness about politics — the politics in Zimbabwe and politics in general —and also quite a lot of slackness. The musicianship is still rudimentary, especially production-wise.

Was it ever seen as a political threat to Mugabe’s rule, because it seems ubiquitous, at least in the way you describe its presence in Zimbabwe?

You can’t classify all of it, or even most of it, as political. There are artists who focus on women, there are people who sing about life in Harare, people who sing about their mothers.

You can imagine about four months ago, while Mugabe was still around, if you wanted to be on radio, radio stations are either owned by the state or people who are close to the state. You would self censor. I don’t know about what’s going on now since Mugabe’s departure.

Also in Zim, if you wanted to be critical, you might say things in a general kind of way. People are not confrontational. So when people speak, they use idioms and other roundabout ways. Even elders, when they speak about a person they don’t like, there is an understanding that you cloak your resentment by using idioms and poems.

In a modern kind of context, that phenomenon is still there. It’s only Thomas Mapfumo in Zim’s pop culture who you could say was straightforward. That’s why he was easily targeted. Normally people are critical but they find ways.

In the days of HIV, people would say, “Lo, ushonile” [“So and so has passed away”]. Someone would ask, “What happened?” and people would say, “Lo, bekagula” [“They were sick”]. You generally knew what that meant.

When Ian Smith said there wouldn’t be majority rule, “not in a thousand years, not in my lifetime”, Thomas Mapfumo came out with Pamuromo Chete — which meant “This is mere talk”.

People knew exactly who and what he was referring to.

Quite early on in your piece, you speak of Mugabe as a terrorist, with hardly any irony.

The whites had considered him a terrorist.

The first lyric laid down by Tobias Areketa, in a song recorded with Thomas Mapfumo in England, is quite a repetitive chant that hardly moves anywhere. But I guess you are referring to the faux-Jamaican accents which still rule the roost this side of the border [in South Africa], to an extent. But as you say, this begins to change in Zimbabwe when Mapfumo starts throwing shots all the way from Oregon?

Remember this guy [Tobias] ordinarily wasn’t a Jamaican chanter, but a backing vocalist. I think that’s the only song in which he does lyrics in that style and in English.

Also, I would say at that point, the facility with that chanting style was still in its rudimentary stage. Remember it was the year 1985. People hadn’t quite mastered it. I think the mastering happened only after 2000, maybe around 2002 or 2003.

You look at people like Jah Seed [from kwaito group Bongo Maffin] whose chanting style isn’t as sophisticated as what we have now. So people were still trying to make sense of the whole thing. Remember it was a foreign idiom and no one quite knew how to use it.

The irony, or the point, I guess, is that chimurenga music was doing the same thing, in a sense, hybridising things.

Yeah, you could say that.

Your piece is more a mind map of chimurenga music speaking to Zimdancehall, more than a chronological take?

I guess what I was trying to do is to say Thomas Mapfumo is the godfather of all these things. We speak of King Tubby as the godfather of all dance music, you know, dubstep, jungle, etcetera. Even though Tubs himself might find some of the sounds that fed off what he was doing strange, and in this piece I was trying to say Thomas Mapfumo is the godfather of this Zimdancehall moment even though, at first glance, it doesn’t appear so.

In an interview with Bongani Kona, Nora Chipaumire suggests that the music now represents a kind of violence, a turning against English accoutrements, which could be a direct riposte to decades of Mugabe rule?

The whole article, you could say, is a paean, some praise poem to the ghettos, the smithy of this sound. I don’t think I would describe it as violence, more a simple recognition that we can’t, in this music, do what Chinua Achebe did with the English language in Things Fall Apart or Arrow of God. That, instead, we have to do what Ngugi proposes in Decolonising the Mind.

Chant in our own language because it’s the language we know best. Remember most of the genre’s practitioners, I would guess, are more comfortable in Shona than English.

But you could say it’s a rebellion to the British colonial project that Mugabe espoused and represented. In a sense when Bob Marley and the Wailers came in 1980 they switched things. That [independence celebration] concert was meant to be for VIPs but people broke down the walls. Marley had played for Mugabe at his house. This I left out of the piece: He speaks with revulsion of being served cucumber sandwiches by black men in starched clothes. So the next day the government people decided to do a more public show because they gauged that Marley seemed to be popular [with the masses].

There is this respect in Zimbabwe for guys who look like outlaws or are seen to be outlaws. A filmmaker I know says he was once out at night with a camera and was able to talk his way out of a tense meeting with a pro-Zanu-PF militia purely because he had dreadlocks.

So you can see why the music of the outlaw has gained acceptance 20 to 30 years after liberation. It’s almost like the outlaw gaining mainstream acceptance.

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Kwanele Sosibo
Kwanele Sosibo
Kwanele Sosibo is the editor of Friday, the arts and culture section of the Mail and Guardian.

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