The Bhundu Boys, under the leadership of the late Biggie Tembo, arrived at Heathrow Airport in 1986 at the behest of Gordon Muir, a young Edinburgh graphic designer turned ad hoc concert promoter. It is reported that the ensemble was left furious after their new showbiz patron turned up in a van while they expected a Rolls Royce. Nevertheless, the cantering snare drums and the delirious guitar lines were soon getting audiences on their feet, “jiti-jiving” in most pub backrooms and gradually larger dance-halls around Britain.
By Jairos Saunyama
British Radio 1 disc jockeys John Peel and Andy Kershaw became enthusiastic converts to the Bhundus’ cause and within two years, the band had signed to a multinational record label, WEA, and the following year history was made.
In 1987, the late Biggie Tembo (real name Rodwell Marasha) of the Kuroja Chete fame found himself in front of a record 80 000 music fans at Wembley Stadium in the United Kingdom. He did not only perform at the majestic venue, but the Chinhoyi-born singer shared the stage with pop star Madonna.
The bar was set high, and since then, no local artist has ever matched that level, as far as supporting a star, playing at a big stage like Wembley and performing before a record crowd is concerned.
However, notables like Thomas Mapfumo, Hope Masike, Mbira Dzenharira, Blessing Chimanga and Mokoomba have also performed at international platforms, probably because of their traditional, cultural and fashionable music genres.
Zimbabwe’s music has been described as revolutionary. Creativity among local artists has resulted in the country not boasting of its own genre, while the advent of the technological era has given every music enthusiast a chance to contribute to the music industry through dishing out beat after beat and song after song.
A few years ago, a group of young artists emerged from Mbare and brought along a genre called Zimdancehall that has become the music of the moment. Zimdancehall resulted in the death of urban grooves, another genre that had given both rhumba and sungura musicians a torrid time.
Out of Mbare, chanters Seh Calaz, Kinnah, Killer T and Soul Jah Love, among many others, took over the music industry with their new genre, and despite being sometimes characterised by dirty, immoral and violent lyrics, Zimdancehall occupies top position, forcing sungura musicians out of the market.
Despite the genre being the most popular in the country today — even in the rural areas — it is still a mystery as to why artists are failing to break the international market. If it was not about the economic hardships that drove millions out of the country seeking greener pastures, a number of artists could not have flown overseas.
Zimdancehall artists have been touring Europe and South Africa not because of the appreciation of their music by international musiclovers, but because they are being invited by “homesick” Zimbabweans in the Diaspora.
Does this, therefore, mean that zimdancehall music is cursed? Does it lack international appeal?
Arts critic Chamunorwa Mashoko said zimdancehall music lacked depth and was constrained by the issue of language, among other reasons.
“Zimdancehall is a local music genre heavily influenced by Jamaica’s dancehall. The genre appeals mostly to ghetto youth in both countries, but their circumstances and experiences are different,” said Mashoko.
“However, while it is an outlet used by youths from both countries to vent their suffering artistically, Jamaican dancehall is an offshoot of Reggae, which is recognised internationally? So it is easy for international listenership to identify with Jamaican dancehall.
“Language use is also another factor hindering zimdancehall from making an impact on the international market. The international market is very fussy about language. Dancehall is pop in nature and it generally ignores musical elements incorporated in world music. So to compensate, followers at least prefer to hear the lyrics in the songs,” he added.
Mashoko, however, urged zimdancehall artists to break into the international market by strategising, for example through the use of international and regional music video channels like DStv.
“However, we should be cognisant of the fact that Zimbabwe is yet to produce an international pop star. So it is rather too ambitious to expect zimdancehall to make it internationally,” he said.
After getting contracts from local promoters based in foreign lands, zimdancehall artists have perfomed for peanuts, and it seems they are being attracted to the European countries for the sake of going “overseas”.
The Standard Style has it on good account that a number of artists who travel overseas have been paid with electronic gadgets, a few dollars as well as being accommodated at cheap hotels.
Sweden-based musician and founder of Zimfeb Arts Festival, Luckson “Manlurkers” Chikutu said breaking into the international market depended on promoters’ interests.
“It is hard for zimdancehall to break into the international market because dancehall music is everywhere, people make electronic music everywhere in the world, at home with garage programmes, it is the same version but with different lyrics; there is nothing new. It’s like repetition every time,” said Chikutu.
“The success of Jamaica’s dancehall, means theirs is a bit different from others and also because of Bob Marley. He managed to establish a good image for his country.”
Internationally-acclaimed drum- mer Blessing “Bleds” Chimanga said the magic behind breaking into the international market is producing quality music.
Chimanga, also a Marimba tutor, leads a band of Italian instrumentalists that includes Max Covini and Matteo Boldini. The trio have become a formidable outfit whose output has seen them having tight schedules around the world.
Reggae ensemble Transit Crew’s bass guitarist Munyaradzi “Bhudhi” Nyemba said: “ It is not easy breaking onto the international scene. Many countries have their own dancehall musicians but still we don’t hear of them but in their countries they are big. Also, the creativity and music has to be worked on. To some extent I think we take things for granted.”
In August this year, Chimurenga supremo Thomas Mapfumo openly blasted Zimdancehall artists and accused them of lacking originality.
“Zimdancehall can only grow if the youngsters desist from imitating Jamaican musicians, like patois,” said Mapfumo.
“We cannot do patois better than the Jamaicans and if you go on the international market with such products, they would rather prefer that from Jamaica than ours.”