It was only 8pm on January 27 and I thought I had come too early for the Mokoomba gig. How wrong I was. I spent close to half an hour looking for parking space outside Ambassador Hotel. I did not find any. The car park was already full, so was the venue. I resolved to park near the garage in Sam Nunjoma Street where there was a bit of space. In the past the Mokoomba shows held at the Book Café or at Alliance Française were never full, but on this night things had changed.
By Fred Zindi
The venue was the recently renovated rooftop on the second floor at the hotel. Entrance into the venue was a bit tricky as one had to use the elevator or stairs to get to the second floor, then through Room 206 into the venue.
However, the refurbished, already tried and tested state-of-the-art venue was impressive. From innovative new interior design to up-to-the-minute technology of stage lighting and a tent covering the roof and sides with adequate bar and catering facilities, it has been catapulted into the spotlight, thanks to the general manager at Ambassador Hotel, Hugh Mandizha’s innovation.
The multi-racial audience which had packed this venue included white Zimbabweans, Italians, Indians, coloureds and blacks. Notable among them were Gus Le Breton the Miombo Festival promoter, Patrick Mula, the Italian jazz singer, Vee Mukarati, Mono Mukundu, Filbert Marova (who recently appeared on CNN’s Inside Africa programme alongside Joyce Jenje Makwenda, Prudence Katomeni-Mbofana, Sharon Buhle Ndlovu and Tahle we Dzinza).
In an exhilarating, visually stimulating two live-concert hours on this night, the emotionally-charged sensory explosion of Mokoomba came alive at Ambassador Hotel which was filled to the rafters.
Before they came onto the stage, we were treated to an opening act of Masa Carolina with her tight three-piece band called Umasa which gave the audience an hour of mournful, solitary Afro-jazz fanfare with lead guitarist Takudzwa Kaseke showcasing his non-stop skills as they belted out their original tunes ranging from Nzelo, Mazhet, Mutongi Tochema, Rainbow to Ndega and some cover versions such as I Met Dambudziko.
There is no doubt that although Umasa was an opening act, they managed to thrill the audience in this full capacity house as most of them were already on their feet before Mokoomba came on stage.
Next came Mokoomba.
Led by their manager, Marcus Gora, they strutted their way to the stage past the already excited crowd who gave loud screams as they walked in. They immediately took their instruments like soldiers getting ready for war.
The last to climb onto the stage was Mathias Muzaza, the lead singer. His vocabulary in both English and Shona is still limited (quite understandable as his mother is Zambian and father is Angolan and was raised speaking Tonga in Victoria Falls’ Chinotimba suburb). But he managed to say a few words: “Muriko here uko? This is Mokoomba from Victoria Falls”.
In Harare, since winning the Music Crossroads International competition in 2007, the band has been considered outsiders because they sing in Tonga and audiences have been slow in warming up to their songs, but not tonight. Indeed, it has taken time for Harare audiences to appreciate them due to both the barriers in language and the fact that they are not a sungura or Zimdancehall band which most people are used to.
However, with word spreading around Zimbabwe, that these guys are doing wonders in Europe and are getting awards and accolades at major festivals across Europe, every Zimbabwean has now become curious to see what makes them tick.
“We have brand new songs” bellows Muzaza. In no time at all, the songs came one after another, but none of them were familiar to the crowd which had previously got used to the likes of Njoka and Misozi.
However, Mokoomba were not slow in letting the 400 plus audience up on their feet. Song after song, the crowd at first showed anticipatory excitement, sometimes after the first note, and enthusiastic appreciation with clappings after every song. Far from remaining stoic, at the beginning when Muzaza began singing with occasional bursts of colour in his stage moves, the motionless crowd hung on every note, with many faces blissed out in rapturous contemplation. That didn’t stop a few hips from swaying during the jubilant Kumukanda or its follow-up tunes, Konkolo, Weleye, Nyansola, Njawane, Kulinokwe, Muzwile, Munaye Makisi, Margaret and Masango.
In no time at all, everybody was on the dance floor but they did not sing along because they did not know the lyrics. Most of the band’s songs are not easily understood by the average Shona or Ndebele speaker as they are purely Tonga. However, the crowd did not care. They just appreciated the good melodies and rhythm coming from the band spiced up with well- choreographed stage moves. I could see that on this night Mokoomba was out to conquer.
With Muzaza on vocals, the rest of the six band members are Abundance Mutori on bass, Costa Ndaba Moyo on drums, Miti Mugande on percussion, Trustworth Samende on guitar and Donald Moyo on keyboards. They all hail from Chinotimba suburb near the border with Zambia and they trumpet the energy and dynamism of their region’s best known geographic feature, the august Victoria Falls.
It was not easy for me to figure out the music genre these guys were giving us. Many people just give it the blanket term Afro-fusion, whatever that means. They were churning out on this night songs which range from funky rap, to expert Congolese grooves, including quasi-reggae and even a Latin tune along the way. They started with an introductory mbira tune and then went into Kumukanda and Nkonkolo.
It was not until much later that they decided to play songs from their previous album, Rising Tide. Njoka was well-received as the crowd was already familiar with this one.
Although Mokoomba exploit Tonga rhythms and melodies, they are out to create a global fusion, a music rooted in their home reality while still open to the sounds of the world as evidenced by their latest CD Luyando, which was selling at the door for $10 a copy.
After winning awards in Zimbabwe, recording a debut CD and touring Europe in 2009, 2010, 2012, 2015, 2016 and 2017, Mokoomba has now become a force to reckon with.
Muzaza’s edgy and soulful lead vocals and rich layers of backing vocals from the rest of the group proves that this band can sing, and they prove it on every song. I overheard one member of the crowd asking: “Hey did they sing Nimukonda?” She replied: “Which one is that?” He responded: Nimukonda is that melodious old-school reggae which ends up in rough-and-ready dancehall.” “I don’t think so,” was the final reply and the man seemed disappointed.
The sheer density of ideas in this session is impressive, but it never feels like the musicians are merely checking off stylistic boxes. Their commitment and verve enlivens every performance. Tonight was no exception. Mokoomba is an unmistakable and powerful asset.
This is an excellent international concert from a band nobody saw coming. They are an amazingly incredible live band. By 11.30pm it was all over.
Although Zimbabweans in Harare are yet to sing along to their songs, in all, Mokoomba, riding their own rising tide, are probably the best news in Zimbabwe at the moment. Mokoomba have travelled all over the world and wherever they performed, they left an indelible mark. That mark is also beginning to show in Harare as the band finally gets its well-deserved recognition. That is impressive.
It is a matter of time before we all celebrate Mokoomba’s international success, that is if the boys stick together and there is discipline in the band. Gora, do not despair. You are onto a winner here!
On a different note, I must stress that I am capable of writing about other artistes besides Bob Marley. Memory Chirere at the University of Zimbabwe always teases me, “Prof Zindi, why are you so obsessed with Bob Marley? Each time I open your column in The Standard Style, it’s all about Bob Marley!” Not true, but I am pleased to know that Chirere, like many others is an ardent follower of my column.
l Feedback: f_zindi @hotmail.com