/ 2 March 2024

Happy feet, empty pockets

Graphic Lovemore Page 0001
(Graphic: John McCann/M&G)

The exile of creatives and other thinkers — radical or otherwise — has been, since the coming of independence in Africa, part of a complex tapestry defining and capturing the spirit of the fight for the right to think. 

It certainly looks like it has always been like that, an unintelligent design if you will, for Africa’s tortured immediate post-independence intellectuals will attest to the angry anti-intellectualism embraced by their tormentors.

As soon as the founding fathers took over from what others like to call “minority settler regimes”, there was no reason to tolerate the views of compatriots who disagreed with Kamuzu Banda, Mobutu Sese Seko, Robert Mugabe and other strongmen from that stock. 

For musicians especially, and in Zimbabwe in particular, Thomas Mapfumo stands as the lodestar of early 21st-century musical exiles who fled under a cloud of political persecution in 2000 — his story has been told and retold. 

However, in south-western Zimbabwe, another exile emerged about the same time, albeit for different reasons. 

When the much-celebrated singer-songwriter Lovemore Majaivana decided to show the country of his birth his back and leave for America, it was not because he was fleeing political persecution. 

His own commentary through song could well match Mapfumo’s politically charged anthems, for it was Majaivana whose lyrics would be a call to arms of sorts for people in the historically marginalised region of Matebeleland. 

His music became a rallying call for any agitator where the politics of language remained writ large, from supporters of Bulawayo’s biggest football club Highlanders, to secessionists poking former president Robert Mugabe’s nose about self-rule as the Mthwakazi nation. 

Yet Majaivana would swear he was not a “protest” anything. 

His decision to leave the country as the millennium turned is captured when he says in one documentary his passion for song and dance died because he realised that he was not making a living out of his music. 

Happy feet and empty pockets — Majaivana could take it no longer.

He complained that artists singing in the majority Shona language were better off as they were receiving fat royalty cheques, testimony to the financial support of their fans. 

And this was long before streaming interrupted how music is consumed and how musicians make money. 

The logic was simple, really — if “his” people loved his music so much, why is it that it didn’t show in Majaivana’s bank account? 

After all, he did say that, in the early 1980s, his classic Istimela Segoli was such a commercial success he was able to buy himself a house, something latter-day musicians can only dream of. So, what changed in the intervening years?

The personal is political and, for Majaivana, it certainly got very personal and political. It was a gripe that would be heard more than two decades after Majaivana folded up his tent and left — a young hip-hop prodigy by the name of Cal_Vin (now deceased) would lament that if only he was Shona, he would have been rich from his music. 

He was the type of fellow who was gifted, and knew it, yet despite bagging national hip-hop awards, he still lived in his mother’s house in Bulawayo, unable to afford what Majaivana had achieved more than a generation earlier.

With the explosion of Zimdancehall, one young chanter whose rhythms had been played at ruling-party rallies threatened to quit his art a few years ago because, as he put it, “People love my music but look at me — I’m still riding commuter omnibuses. I can’t afford a car like South African musicians.”

Those listening laughed.

And the young man is based in Harare, the putative citadel of the entertainment industry’s glamour and glare.

Majaivana did relocate to Harare in the 1990s, pressured by financial circumstances to coin it on the capital city’s pub-and-private-gig circuit. But, like any exile in the making, relocating to another city did not provide comfort. His feet kept itching. He didn’t last. 

Yet a bigger story is to be told regarding how musicians from other parts of the country have struggled to live off their creative juices. 

After Majaivana, younger musicians from Bulawayo would abandon the city long considered a creative cauldron and head for the capital, seeking small fortunes. 

Some were disappointed and disappeared into obscurity. Some stayed and made the mother city their second home. 

It is telling that Majaivana seems to have set the tone, realising that, if he was to earn a living, he would have to literally follow the money. If the mountain would not come to Majaivana, Majaivana would have to go to the mountain. 

A jazz artist did say many years ago that relocating to Harare made business sense to her because that is where the embassies are located, letting us in on the fact that they regularly hold cocktail parties and hire musicians to entertain the diplomatic corps at a premium. 

If the musicians had expected to make a killing out of record sales, well they were in for heartbreak. The money was in private gigs, so it was explained, to make sense of the decision to move to the capital.

It was also explained that major corporations were based in Harare — remembering the mass shutdown of Bulawayo companies — and these, like the embassies, held occasional, if not regular, parties and routinely hired musicians for entertainment. 

And the music was not the riotous type — which would not have suited executives and diplomats wondering what planet they had been dumped on — but that which was designed for the mature suit-and-tie (read civilised) crowd. And that invariably meant laid-back jazzy numbers. 

In an earlier time, portentous if you like, Majaivana had met Mapfumo in the capital city, exchanging notes on the technical aspects of assembling a band. Majaivana later said Mapfumo would pinch his ear about live instrumentation and the amalgamation of sounds and everything else that gave heft to live performances. 

If their paths ever crossed again, in their respective exiles in the past two decades, one has to imagine what would preoccupy their reminiscences. 

A meta-local frustration?

While Majaivana’s frustration with Zimbabwe would appear meta-local, based on his inability to make a living as a Ndebele musician from the country’s south-west, that itself was political as the region from whence he came was on the back foot of the government’s development agenda.

Recently Jeys Marabini, some would say a pretender to Majaivana’s throne, said he had been persuaded to move from his Bulawayo base to Harare — again with the promise of easy pickings — but he has resisted for personal reasons.

From his lamentations as early as the 1980s, long before the ruling Zanu-PF party made its self-destructive economic detour, Majaivana was very much awake to the zeitgeist. It was a time when Mugabe’s star had begun to dim, when his erstwhile bush comrades were already getting tired of him, barely a decade into independence. 

Little did they know he would have his claws on the levers of power for 37 years. It is no wonder then that Majaivana has become the standard fare of academe from the Matebeleland region, with tons of scholarly writings placing him at the centre of the Mthwakazi self-rule disaffection. 

Majaivana’s exile has been in many ways as bitter as Mapfumo’s, yet because he would reincarnate in the US as a preacher — he is after all his Malawian-born preacher father’s son — he would probably tell you bitterness is not part of his calling. 

And he has not shied away from telling anyone to leave him alone. 

Years ago, a group of well-meaning young, well-heeled admirers (themselves exiled by Mugabe’s economic kamikaze) reached out to Majaivana seeking to honour him, recognising his contribution to the Matebeleland region. For indeed it would be pretty strange for any native of the region to claim they have never heard of Lovemore Majaivana. 

These young men were obviously from that generation who believe in giving their heroes flowers while those heroes are still alive. Majaivana’s response was curt: “Leave me alone. I’m done with that past.” Well, not exactly in those words but he did get his message across. 

When Mapfumo held a well-attended homecoming show in Harare, nostalgia got the better of Bulawayo fans who did not waste time calling on Majaivana to hold his own homecoming extravaganza in the second city. 

However, not one to hold his tongue, the late Cont Mhlanga — himself a cultural institution — didn’t mince his words, advising Majaivana to stay as far away from Bulawayo — and therefore Zimbabwe — as he could. Mhlanga’s reason: the same fans clamouring for Majaivana’s return had frustrated him into exile as they never supported him by attending his shows. 

Now, as Mapfumo rests his microphone after a long and fulfilling career, with its attendant highs and lows, and away from his motherland, it is worth reflecting on the cards post-independent Zimbabwe has dealt these icons.