Monday, 27 June 2005

Music & Politics; Disillusionment & Dissent

The Shona music of Zimbabwe is anything but dissonant. It was the early eighties when I was first infected. My Seattle housemate coaxed me into tagging along for an evening of music and dance at a local community hall where Dumi and the Maraire Marimba Ensemble was performing. Previously unaware of the charismatic Dumi Maraire who had single-handedly spawned many a marimba band from Vancouver, BC to Eugene, Oregon, it took hardly a minute for me to be lost in the infectious rhythms and melodies which seemed to overtake one's motor functions while transporting the soul to a place of pure joy. Dumi soon left for Zimbabwe, but his influence remained as the infection spread from musician to musician in the Northwest United States.

Fast forward twenty plus years, and my son is playing in his grade school marimba ensemble, Rufaro!, one of Maraire's many compositions to which I sweated with great joy in Seattle community halls way back then. Though clearly not as accomplished as the adult bands which I remembered, these 5th and 6th graders quite compellingly bring the power and joy of this wonderful music to the present day.

Maraire, especially renowned for his mastery on the mbira (thumb piano), moved back and forth between Seattle and Zimbabwe in the eighties. I recall once being told he was returning to become a minister of culture in Robert Mugabe's government there. Recent web searches have revealed that he actually returned to "develop an ethnomusicology program at the University of Zimbabwe", but I recall feeling a bit of shock at the news at the time, for though I had once
naively believed Mugabe to be a benevolent liberator of Zimbabwe from oppressive white rule, I had learned enough in the meantime to realize that he had proved to be a tyrant far worse to his enemies than Ian Smith had ever been. I wonder how it all played out, but have discovered that as Mugabe's tyranny has heightened, his censorship of any expressions of dissent against his government in this music -- that had once been an inspiration to idealists fighting against minority rule in former Rhodesia -- is now utterly complete and chilling.
It appears that only outside of Zimbabwe, are ex-patriot musicians like Thomas Mapfumo able to marry a meaningful message of dissent with this joyful music which once carried the dreams of a younger generation, such as young Mai Chi Nemarundwe (later Dumi's second wife) longing for political independence and freedom, with Mugabe as their charismatic leader. Inside Zimbabwe, dissent within the musical community has been muted or squashed, with Dumi's own daughter kowtowing to Mugabe's propoganda machine.
Sadly both Dumi and his wife died in the late nineties, but Mapfumo, still quietly respected within Zimbabwe, must now live in exile for his artistic expression to remain free. I'll have to look for some of his music where the spirit of chimurenga (struggle) must still live. Perhaps my son will be playing it someday.


Pat Lewis said...

This was a very interesting read for me because I just saw Zimbabwe musician Oliver Mtukudzi at the Triple Door here in Seattle this Wednesday. He sang songs about life, and it was a joyful concert. However, I think it would have been a much different experience for me if I had read your article before going to the show.

Walker said...

Did you notice that Mtukudzi figured prominently in the Centre of Political Song link which was embedded in my article? The relevant excerpt is: "it is painfully noticeable in and around Harare that his music is not given the precedence it once commanded. The safer option for public establishments these days is Oliver Mtukudzi.

Tuku as he is known, has been on the scene almost as long as Mapfumo, and over the past couple of years has made considerable inroads into the international world music market. It is really only since Mapfumo’s departure that Mtukudzi has become the main seller on the home circuit. During the late 1970s some people accused him of being a collaborator of the Rhodesian government, although there was never any concrete proof to this effect. To some, there was proof enough in the fact that he did not sing anything that brought him under the direct gaze of the government. In independent Zimbabwe, Mtukudzi seemed to have kept himself firmly apart from Zimbabwe’s murky political waters, that is, until the release of his album "Bvuma" (literally translated, ‘accept’). The title track basically says that you should accept you are old. This was interpreted as a reference to Mugabe’s desperate attempts to hold on to power, despite his age, and this inference brought it great popularity. Mtukudzi has never given much away in his interviews as to his political views, and, according to some fans, he has issues to clarify. They want him to declare his position publicly in Zimbabwe.

Easier said than done. The harsh reality of this for someone like Mtukudzi is that there is a clutch of musicians who are being boycotted because of their political leanings."

I M SINCLUE said...

Found these comments in a search for Dumi. I saw him many times in Seattle in the 70's. In particular I remember several shows at a place called the Bombay Bicycle Shop in Pioneer Square. The place would fill up with incredible energy and spill out into the street. Often times Dumi and members of the ensemble would play and dance through the club (upstairs and downstairs) and then out into the street and the Square followed by a conga line of practically the whole club. It was a magical and energizing communal experience. One of the things that made Seattle so the pre-Californication days. The tallest building was the Ranier Bank building fondly called the Box the Space Needle came in and the whole city had a more relaxed friendly atmosphere. While jobs weren't plentiful cheap rents and low property values made it very livable. I still have one of the records he used to sell at his shows to help make ends meet. I was saddened to learn of his passing, but treasure his memory, music, and the joy thinking about those days brings to me.