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Zimbabwean musicians struggle to play

Amy Jeffries
Associated Press
Vail, CO Colorado

JOHANNESBURG, South Africa ” Before the onset of Zimbabwe’s economic and political crisis, the southern African country was not only the regional bread basket, but a cultural center that boasted a renowned literary tradition and a vibrant music scene.

Now, many of its national treasures like author Chenjerai Hove and chimurenga musician Thomas Mapfumo are now living abroad. Singer-songwriter Oliver Mtukudzi still calls Zimbabwe home but his songs have been struck from radio playlists and his production company cannot raise enough foreign currency to release his latest album in the country.

There are fears that if Zimbabwe’s decline continues its great cultural assets could disappear like bread from the shelves.



“I think that one day Zimbabwe will be considered a country without musicians,” says Martin Sibanda, the lead vocalist of the group Ndolwane Supersounds.

Zimbabwe is a country facing economic and political ruin. It’s crisis began after President Robert Mugabe ordered the seizures of thousands of white-owned farms in 2000, disrupting the agriculture-based economy. Now, unemployment is around 80 percent, and political unrest is high. Foreign investment, loans and development aid have dried up.



The nation has the highest inflation rate in the world, now officially estimated at 4,500 percent, though unofficial estimates put it closer to 9,000 percent. Government ordered price cuts have seen basic staples disappear from stores in the last several weeks. With bans on public gatherings and demonstrations dissent has been all but outlawed.

Downtown Johannesburg is swollen with refugees fleeing the economic collapse across the border. An estimated 2 million to 3 million Zimbabweans have immigrated to South Africa since the downturn began.

The a capella group Abanqobi Bomhlaba, which sings in the style made internationally famous by the South African group Ladysmith Black Mambazo, came to South Africa with hopes of taking advantage of freedom of speech here and preserving their music.



Back home in Zimbabwe, it won national competitions and all 11 members were employed as full-time musicians.Here in South Africa, one is a chef, one an electrician, another a gardener, another a security guard.

“We need to specialize (in music) from morning to sunset,” says Emmanuel Nkomo, who sings bass, leaning forward in his plastic chair. “We need everybody to be here everyday. Now you see some of us coming late. That thing drops us back.”

They have maintained a reputation for performing songs with a political message, including criticism of Mugabe’s regime. They left Zimbabwe after the secret agents in the country’s Central Intelligence Organization started trailing their director, Elijah Mbambo, members say.

One of the tracks on Abanqobi Bomhlaba’s just released album, “Isivumelwano-Tiripachirangano,” accuses South African President Thabo Mbeki of doing too little to resolve the crisis and the hardships of Zimbabwean immigrants. Mbeki, now heading a regional effort to try to get Zimbabwean politicians to agree on how to bring the country out of crisis, has long advocated quiet diplomacy, while others have called for more forceful action.

“Now here in South Africa it’s better because we can say the truth through our performance and no one can just take us to jail. But in Zimbabwe, even if you see someone killing a baby, if you say … the killer is wrong, you can be arrested for that.”

Even in South Africa, the group is careful, avoiding bars and clubs and playing private functions put on by non-governmental organizations and attended by handfuls of Zimbabweans and sympathetic South Africans.

They all pause when a police siren sounds outside the rehearsal space. Four members of the group are illegal immigrants, one has already spent time at Lindela, South Africa’s infamous detention center, and they worry that they could be arrested when they go on the stage.

Sibanda said he started to notice the police showing up at their gigs about six or seven years ago. He says Supersounds was the first Zimbabwean outfit to record in South Africa when they put together their debut album 10 years ago.

Sibanda says some fans are being scared away by the threat of arrest and deportation, which has made it particularly difficult for young Zimbabwean bands to start up in South Africa.

“Our fans are being arrested. You feel bad. Every time you organize a show you feel that I am putting some people’s lives at risk, because when they come trying to support me, (maybe) the police are going to arrest them.”

Sibanda has watched some upcoming bands collapse because of a lack of audience.

Paul Brickhill, a saxophonist and the creative director of the Book Cafe arts center in Harare, Zimbabwe, said as many as a third of Zimbabwe’s musicians have fled, mainly for Europe, as well as the United States, South Africa, and elsewhere.

Brickhill is now based in Johannesburg, where he is working to open a second Book Cafe in part to subsidize his Harare operation. He says it has been especially difficult and his monthly trips back are in jeopardy.

“All the inputs to running any kind of business. … You don’t know where you’re gonna get it,” Brickhill says, exhaling deeply. “You can’t plan anything for a month. A week is planning for us, and sometimes just day to day.”

He says musicians still based in Zimbabwe piece together a living with performances outside the country where they are paid in foreign currency. A $2,000 or $3,000 performance fee can mean month of survival in Harare “before the next gig comes up in London, or Zanzibar, or Durban,” he says.

Remarkably, Book Cafe is still hosting two or three musical or literary events everyday, which is about on par with the average over its 10-year history.

“It’s amazing to us at Book Cafe how (after) a band will disappear, three appear.”


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