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keeps protest music muffled
Timberg, Washington Post
August 04, 2004
Bulawayo - The crowd
at the Large City Hall here had become a sweaty, tipsy, swaying throng
by the time Oliver Mtukudzi played his most controversial song, "Wasakara."
As he sang in his native Shona, "Admit it, you are wrinkled...You are
worn out," several members of the crowd pointed upward. There, above the
stage, hung a framed portrait of a man wearing a dark suit, with the narrow
wisp of a mustache running from his lip to his nose. The picture - the
same one found in hotel lobbies, car rental agencies and government offices
throughout Zimbabwe - was of 80-year-old Robert Mugabe, the only ruler
this southern African nation has known. Such gestures are among the few
public protests Zimbabweans still make after years of repression under
Mugabe. During the fight against white-minority rule in Rhodesia, which
culminated in the creation of independent Zimbabwe in 1980, musicians
such as Mtukudzi and Thomas Mapfumo provided the soundtrack. But more
than two decades later, Mugabe's government keeps far tighter control
over political expression - including music - than Rhodesia ever did.
say they rarely can get protest songs recorded. When they do, the songs
are almost never played on radio stations, all of which are owned by the
government. Mtukudzi's music gets airplay, but he has repeatedly disavowed
the widespread interpretation of "Wasakara," which translates to English
as "You are worn out." He says his songs are based on timeless themes
and are not about particular people or events. "Wasakara," he says, is
about growing old and the wisdom that comes from experience. But he doesn't
begrudge his fans for interpreting a song however they choose. He plays
"Wasakara" at almost every public performance. "All my songs work yesterday,
today and tomorrow," Mtukudzi said in an interview. "My definition of
a good song is a song that the next person is able to use." Mapfumo is
far more outspoken, but does most of his talking from the United States,
where he moved in 2000 because, he said, it was no longer safe for him
or his family in Zimbabwe. He returns for performances each Christmas,
but his political songs are rarely played on the radio - a problem he
didn't face when the Rhodesian government owned the stations. "It was
easier in those days," Mapfumo said in a telephone interview from his
home in Oregon. "Today we have a black government and...it's even worse.
It's very irritating. You are trying to tell the people the truth, what
is happening in their country, and somebody is trying to shut you down."
The muting of protest
music comes as Zimbabwe's economy is shrinking, hunger is widespread,
the rate of HIV infection is among the world's highest and opposition
leaders are frequently harassed by the government. The airwaves, meanwhile,
are filled with endless hours of propaganda songs extolling the virtues
of Mugabe and his ruling party, Zanu PF. In one song receiving heavy play,
pro-government singer Tambaoga complains about British Prime Minister
Tony Blair's supposed attempts to reestablish Zimbabwe as a colony, a
favorite theme in Mugabe's speeches. The twist is that the word "blair"
in Zimbabwe also refers to the crude pit latrines common in rural areas
across the country. Tambaoga switches out of Shona to sing the punch line
in English: "The only Blair that I know is a toilet." The line provokes
amused smiles from many Zimbabweans, even those who dislike Mugabe. But
Mapfumo says the song is just another example of the one-sided nature
of political debate in Zimbabwe. "Everything is just propaganda. They
are trying to fool the people," Mapfumo said. "You cannot call somebody
a toilet...I don't think that is right." His most famous protest song
is "Mamvemve," a Shona word that translates as "tatters." "The country
you used to cry for is now in tatters," Mapfumo sings. "Let's get out
of here. The country you used to cry for is now run by crooks."
As the government
has restricted political messages in music, protest songs have gone underground.
The recordings are sold by musicians, then passed around by hand and copied.
Raymond Majongwe, a protest singer, said he had sold a total of 10,000
copies of his four albums, all recorded in South Africa because no Zimbabwean
company would produce them. He has tried to deliver them to stores and
radio stations, but none would take them, he said. To get a copy of Majongwe's
music, fans go to his office at the Progressive Teachers Union of Zimbabwe,
of which he is secretary general. He charges the equivalent of $1 for
a tape and $2.50 for a CD. In October 2002, he was arrested twice and
beaten and tortured by police, who applied electric shocks to his genitals,
he said. More recently, in March, Majongwe was targeted in what he said
was an assassination attempt. Majongwe, who attributes the government's
animosity to both his roles, union leader and protest singer, said he
had never tried to hold a public concert because of his fear that police
would intervene violently. The situation would be even worse, Majongwe
said, if he didn't practice what he called "self-censorship" by never
mentioning Mugabe or his ruling party by name in a song. He said that
Mtukudzi has made a similar calculation in disavowing the political interpretations
of "Wasakara." "He's also a clever politician," Majongwe said. "It's only
a fool who will go against the wind. He'd be crushed."
caution, police in 2000 interrupted one of his concerts. As he played
"Wasakara," a lighting technician aimed a spotlight on the picture of
Mugabe near the stage. Police arrested the technician and kept him in
a squalid cell for four days, according to reports. Two years later, during
hotly contested national elections marked by extensive political violence
and reports of vote-rigging, Mtukudzi released another album, "Vhunze
Moto," which in Shona means "burning ember." Several of the songs revived
debate about whether he was slipping subtle political messages into his
lyrics. The album cover pictured a bright yellow flame covering a map
of Zimbabwe. Mtukudzi again said the controversy resulted from coincidences
and misinterpretations. He also has made clear that he has no desire to
follow Mapfumo into exile, despite the difficult times in his country.
"Zimbabwe is home," Mtukudzi said. "What can I do?"
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