Thomas Mapfumo, celebrated at home and abroad as the don of Zimbabwe’s rebel music scene, invited a tsunami of brickbats when he dismissed a music genre that has the whole country talking, if not dancing.
Zim dancehall, as its name suggests, borrows heavily from Jamaican chants in a country where Bob Marley is revered as an icon of the black man’s redemption from Babylon.
The beats are “minimalist” (recalling a dig that anyone with a PC and Pro Tools can now call themselves a music producer); the chants are sometimes ranting, sometimes profound; but one thing for sure, it has the country excited.
But in a country where everything has come to be viewed in binaries, I have heard in Bulawayo that Zim dancehall is particularly enjoyed by Shonas, and one chap actually complained in a pub about why the barman was playing Zim dancehall and not Lovemore Majaivana who still commands a huge following in the second city with a string of 80s and 90s hits but has long quit the mic and now leads a quiet life somewhere in the United States of America.
The Shona-speaking barman was clueless who Majaivana was.
But as always, music and politics have gelled well in Zimbabwe’s second city, if not the country at large, as Mapfumo’s rebel music attests.
Perhaps that’s exactly what irked Mapfumo, reimagining a contemporary Zimbabwe where young artists born into Zanu-PF’s misrule would take up his mantle and tell off the ruling elites through song.
After all, Mamvemve (tatters/rags) off his 2000 album Chimurenga Explosion is a stinging paean about a country that went from riches to rags, and he certainly expected the same derring-do from the young chanters now that they are singing to starving audiences.
Mapfumo’s beef was that Zim dancehall epitomised bubble-gum, with a very truncated shelf life, and it was a brickbat he had previously aimed at Winky D when he questioned the relevance of the young “Ninja President”, as Winky D is wont to call himself.
Then with the Winky D tiff, as now with the broader Zim dancehall movement, fans and connoisseurs responded with venom, lighting up social media with language they would never use in front of their fathers.
What some found distasteful in Mapfumo’s rant is why he found this kind of music bland when Mapfumo himself did not disguise reggae influences, most notably in his seminal hit Mugarandega back in the 80s.
It will be argued that Mugarandega was reggae music adopted by an African artist in its rawest form, whereas Zim dancehall is a radical departure from the reggae purists know, and who might call it “slack”.
Yet this acrimony could also arise from older generations refusing to accept any new adventures by young artists willing to push the boundaries of old genres.
Looking at it through the Mapfumo-Bulawayo prism, one cannot help but wonder why in Bulawayo, where reggae has always been part of everyday discourses since pre-independence, there is an absence of the city’s own version of Tocky Vibes, for example.
Those who care remember a time when khaki jackets with hand-drawn pictures of ganja-smoking icons – from Bob Marley and Burning Spear to Joseph Hill and the Black Uhuru trio – were worn as an affirmation of being a true Rasta. Back then there were no claims to devotion or belonging to any of the Rastafari mansions. They could have simply appreciated reggae for reggae’s sake, with its unapologetic motifs rooted in Black Consciousness.
In Bulawayo, young men fashioned themselves as reggae DJs with whole catalogues of music purchased from Kingstons Record Bar and hired community halls, with paying partygoers skanking” the night away.
But what happened to those influences?
The young men who fronted this movement grew up, had families and felt it was no way of life for an adult (ganja and discotheques). But no new generation of reggae radicals emerged to continue the tradition.
I recently spoke to a chap who grew up on anything reggae complaining that Bulawayo boys were not creating their own Zim dancehall.
I asked him where Zim dancehall had been all along. He didn’t have an answer, but complained about music from Harare finding itself with irritating frequency in Bulawayo pubs.
This Rasta in his 50s felt compelled to perform for me an impromptu rendition of what Bulawayo’s own Zim dancehall, chanted in the local siNdebele, would sound like.
I suppressed my mirth by reaching for my lager and gulping it. I wondered if the other guy who had earlier complained in a Bulawayo pub would embrace the genre if it were sung in the language he preferred. It raised important questions of identity, about how and why a people could lose their association with a particular music genre.
During the sound system boom in the 80s, the influence and dominance of Soul Brothers-type “mbaqanga” was all the rage in Bulawayo. Many young men shunned it and promoted reggae sounds, but these influences have waned, if not disappeared entirely, today.
I know one or two youthful chanters of the raw reggae persuasion who can be seen doing rehearsals in their back yards, but I am yet to hear any of their compositions – live or on radio.
There is no doubt about the immense influence of reggae in Harare, which spurred on in the 80s by Dennis Wilson of Radio 3’s famous Reggae Session. But why has that influence lingered and reinvented itself as Zim-dancehall, and with so much apparent mass appeal?
There is a small reggae movement in Bulawayo, and there have been numerous attempts to take the genre into the mainstream – by older aficionados – by having annual commemorations of the death of Bob Marley, but the success of these shindigs has been muted as it has tended to cater for folks with “insider” reggae knowledge, the same nostalgic buffs who will claim their type of “conscious reggae” is not afforded as much airplay as Zim dancehall.
I was taken aback then when a popular reggae DJ based in Harare with a regular radio show came to Bulawayo earlier this year with a declaration that he wanted to ensure Bulawayo’s youths got their fair share of representation in the Zim dancehall galaxy.
But an appeal like that only opens the doors for below-average wannabes to spring from their reveries to claim the mic only because the region has a point to prove. You can already predict the kinds of productions that will emerge from such ridiculous motivation.
One thing for sure is that the sparse “real” reggae gigs in Bulawayo have often failed to garner mass appeal, perhaps because the purists have created a kind of enclave where any other genre or subgenre just won’t be accepted because of the perception that it contaminates reggae as they know it.
Main Gif: From Tocky Vibes’ Mhai video
Thomas Mapfumo is headlining the 2015 Zim Music Festival at the Bassline in Newtown, Johannesburg on the 4th September. He will top a bill that features Freeman, Kinnah, Jay C, Lady Squanda, Selecta Garry B and Lenny Matterhorn. Doors Open: 6pm and tickets cost R250 at the door or R200 at Computicket.