20 chapters in history that impacted the course of Zimbabwean music

The Zimbabwe music industry has gone through a number of transformative phases since independence that have had an impact on its outlook, value, sound and direction. This piece, though not exhaustive, looks at some of these key developments.  Most of the developments highlighted in plain sight, appear non-musical yet they have been transformative towards the Zimbabwean sound. 

Opinion piece By Plot Mhako

1. 1980 Independence

The coming of Zimbabwe’s independence opened doors for many artists to start recording and producing music. Previously it was difficult to record music, more so when the content was deemed politically incorrect. Those who managed to record their music, did so through the national broadcaster and soon South African companies would establish recording studios in Bulawayo and then Harare. A lot of the musical influences in the colonial era were Rock & Roll, Rhythm and Blues, Reggae, Country and various African sounds. Independence soon broadened the influence to include dominance by traditional Mbira sounds, home grown Zimbabwean sounds of varying influences from Chimurenga to Sungura, Kanindo and various South African sounds.

The ending of the liberation struggle saw the returning of freedom fighters from different parts of the continent, bringing with them a potpourri of melodies. The coming of Bob Marley to perform at independence in 1980 left a legacy of Reggae in our ears. 

Local Radio programming was segmented based on sound and geographical demographics. This helped shape what was consumed by different societies, ages, ethnics and a growing working class that could afford to buy music. Zimbabwe was in a serious experimental mode trying to find its musical feet. In most of the popular songs you could hear imported melodies and styles.

2. ESAP 

End of the year 1990 the Government introduced a new drastic Economic Structural Adjustment Programme (Esap) policy which saw a major economic shift with institutions downsizing on non essentials. A lot of people lost their jobs. Prices of basic commodities went up, priorities for most families moved towards survival.

Entertainment became a luxury, a lot of artists struggled to maintain and some eventually looked for alternative employment. 

3. 1992 Drought 

Almost two years after ESAP was introduced, Zimbabwe was hit by a heavy drought. The situation further strained the average man’s purse which directly affected artists and entertainers who relied on live shows and music sales. 

4. HIV / AIDS 

Around the 90s HIV / AIDS was ravaging across the continent and Zimbabwe became a hotspot. The message, access to protection, treatment were still limited and entertainers were at high risk. Sadly, a lot of the amazing talent was wiped by HIV/AIDS. This was a big blow to a promising, young and diversely sounding music industry. The effects are more evident now when one looks back at the musical geniuses we had and lost at tender ages.

We lost a generation of great artists to HIV/AIDS

5. The Rumba Era

Around the late 90s Zimbabwe witnessed an influx of Rumba music and artists into the country. Some bands from the then politically volatile Democratic Republic of Congo decided to settle in Zimbabwe and became household names. The impact saw Radio 2 introduce a program dedicated to the music genre. The Rumba cultural influence and fever gave local artists a lot of challenge. Sungura bands started infusing the sounds of Soukous, chants and Kwasa-kwasa dances into their acts, something that is still evident today. 

6. Collapse of mines & mining towns

Mining was one of the major pillars of the Zimbabwean economy and a lot of bands were born from mining towns and thrived in their areas, some shooting to national stardom. Sadly, when the economy took a big sneeze, some mines resized and others closed down, pushing some residents and workers to relocate. Artists were not spared.

One typical example is Shabanie Mine in Zvishavane, the mine had produced Zvishavane Sounds, a band composed of employees from the mine.

7. The Farms & land reform 

Farms were a key player in the musical landscape of Zimbabwe. A lot of the most successful artists came from either mines or farms. The set-up at farms allowed self-taught performers to perfect their craft whilst tapping into ethnically diverse backgrounds and narratives to create music that would move the nation. The land reform (a very important program) in a way disrupted the social and cultural fabric that held the farming communities together and built stars.

Alick Macheso is one example of an excellent artist who grew up and started his journey at a farm in Shamva.

8. 100% / 75% Local Content 

The introduction of the 100% then 75% local content was a huge disruptor for the musical trajectory. Zimbabwe was hungry for locals but was not ready to meet the demand. The development provoked an excitement that saw a lot of young artists replacing the American and South African voices on the airwaves but with most of them imitating, sampling from outside to create their own. Slowly some of the artists found their own footing but a good number remained shadows of those they copied. We had more quantity and less attention to quality. After a decade, the Urban Grooves genre was dead and the young people had to start again. 

9. PowerFm Radio moving to Gweru 

The move by Power FM to Gweru was one of the major and important events in the history of Zimbabwean music. The development saw the rise of new talents from the southern and midlands region.

Today the most prominent producers of music and videos come from Gweru and Bulawayo and there is a direct connection to the relocation of Power-Fm.

10. Murambatsvina 

Traditionally in Zimbabwe, music was distributed and sold through record bars, super marketing, departmental stores. However with the coming in of new players and the changes in the economy we had flea markets setting up. Flea markets and make-shift stalls also became major distribution points and this favoured a lot of the new young artists who were selling music on their own. In 2005 the government of Zimbabwe started a clean-up program called Operation Murambatsvina (drive out filth). The campaign saw the demolition of a lot of the Flea markets, pop-up stores and record bars. The move hit a lot of artists who lost their CDs, Cassettes and Vinyls in the process losing income. Some musicians were left homeless and some music venues were also shut down.

The changes in the urban dwellings also directly affected a lot of composers. A number of them never recovered and some changed trade.

11. The Digital shift

The coming of the fourth industrial revolution buried a lot of talents. A lot of artists failed to adjust and adapt to how technology and the internet changed the music scene. Zimbabwe used to press records for a lot of countries within the Southern African region. More studios opened, some big traditional ones closed (The two major record labels Gramma and ZMC have become white elephants.) production of music changed, distribution and monetization has completely changed over the past two decades and there is a generation that failed to adjust.

With the digital changes the cancer of piracy spread widely eating off potential revenue from artists and leaving most in abject poverty.

12. Exodus to the Diaspora

Hordes of seasoned musicians and instrumentalists left the country for the diaspora in search of greener pastures. Some have managed to establish themselves where they are based but some gave up on music. 

We lost a lot of great talent when we needed it the most. Zimbabwe had some of the finest engineers, producers, musicians, instrumentalists, composers and vocalists who had to choose between art and survival.

13. 2007-8 Hyperinflation

The hyper-inflation environment of 2007-2008 literally ended the careers of a lot of talented and seasoned artists. During this period it became difficult for artists to make savings and live off their craft. This is one era that negatively impacted our musical landscape. 

14. 2009 Dollarisation

Following a troublesome ZimDollar era the Government adopted the multi-currency system in February 2009. The change brought some stability to the economy and the creative industry. Artists could better plan, work, budget and earn from their creative works. Zimbabwe once again became attractive to saw to international acts who had a good feast on the stable currencies. I Am not sure how much the local artists benefited but the bulk of the money left the country.

The biggest winners during this period were visiting international artists. They cashed in big.

15. New Radio stations

Zimbabwe opened up the airwaves moving from 4 radio stations to 17 in a space of ten years. The move has accommodated a lot of new voices and been very positive for the growth of the music industry. The only limitation is that the national airspace remains limited to a few voices, predominantly from the capital.

16. Closure of the Book Cafe

The Book Cafe in Harare had become the cultural heatbeat of the nation. The event space became the one stop for diverse creatives and performers. A lot of new talents passed through the place, perfecting their skill, collaborating and growing their craft. Some became stars and continue to make music. The closure of the space a few years ago was a huge blow for the Zimbabwean music industry.

17. Zimdancehall 

Around 2011 when the former (Urban Grooves) had subsided we saw the emergence of Zimdancehall. The genre was a real disruptive phenomenon. The young, chanting artists were hungry and determined to make it. Their stories were raw and real, their sound borrowed from Jamaica with a flavor of Zimbabwe. This chapter literally silenced any other music genre and created its own economy. Money exchanged hands, the youths were empowered but soon the flame would go dim without creating viable structures and systems for music development.

18. Drugs 

Drugs took a toll on some of the talented ZimDancehall artists. Over the past decade we have seen them rise and fall. The adverse impact has been so real and very worrisome for a genre that was promising but struggling to see a wholesale evolution. 

19. Covid

2020 the Corona Virus hit and shut the world. The effects literally put the Zimbabwean music scene on mute for a while but slowly the industry found its way on to digital platforms. Covid became the catalyst for artists and producers to go digital. However, our sound kept facing a dizzy whirlwind of confusing chapters. 

20. Banning of Kombies

As if Covid-19 was not enough, the Government of Zimbabwe banned one of the key drivers and distributors of Zimbabwean music, the public transport commuter omnibuses. The ban earlier in 2021 was a big setback for music distribution especially for upcoming artists

Whither the Zimbabwean sound!

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