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Mokoomba: Zimbabwe's new sound
Denselow, The Guardian (UK)
April 25, 2013
Abundance Mutori was just 14 when he began playing with the other
members of Mokoomba. It was in 2002, when they were at school together
at Mosi-Oa-Tunya High in Victoria Falls, Zimbabwe, and he remembers
that their biggest problem was getting hold of instruments. "We
didn't have our own, and even at school when we had a music class
we didn't have any guitars or keyboards," he says. "But
my dad used to play in church and had a bass guitar at home, and
he first showed me how to play. From then on, I was practising by
myself or jamming with the guys."
Now, in their mid-20s,
Mokoomba are being feted as Africa's most internationally successful
young band after a rise that is as deserved as it has been remarkable.
After all, they come from a country with an international musical
profile that has sadly declined since the glory days of the 80s,
largely because of Aids. Even in Zimbabwe they were initially considered
outsiders. They sing in Tonga, a language that most Shona and Ndebele
speakers can't understand, and come from a tourist border town that's
a 12-hour drive from the capital, Harare.
The group are signed
to a small Belgian label and were unknown in Britain until their
second album, Rising Tide, was released here last August. But by
the end of 2012, they were featuring in the annual "Best of"
lists in publications from the Guardian to fRoots, and so it is
no surprise that they should win Songlines magazine's newcomer award,
announced yesterday. This summer they will be playing at major festivals
across Europe, including Womad in Britain.
They succeeded thanks
to a mixture of determination, skill and luck. As teenagers, they
got most of their experience with the help of a local bandleader,
the late Alfred Mjimba, who was "the only guy with musical
instruments in the area. You'd go round to see him, and try to play
this or that, and if he liked what you did, he'd say: 'There's a
gig, come and play with us.'" He was no major star, but he
played in local hotels and small clubs – though it was initially
impossible for Mutori to play in bars because he was the youngest
member of the band, under-age, and his parents objected.
The would-be musicians
lived in Chinotimba township, a "high-density" area that
was first established in the pre-independence zone outside the smarter,
affluent one reserved for white people and tourist hotels near the
spectacular waterfall. As a border town, close to Zambia, Botswana
and Namibia, Victoria Falls was a "melting pot", according
to Mokoomba's young manager Marcus Gora. "When you were growing
up there, you couldn't escape different cultures, languages and
musical influences. There was music from the local Tonga tradition,
Congolese rumba and soukous, funk, pop from the Beatles, and even
country. That's what our parents played."
The band reflects these
different cultures. Mutori plays bass, and his bandmates include
Trustworth Samende, an excellent guitarist, and the powerful, soulful
singer Mathias Muzaza, who travelled widely in southern Africa as
a boy with his Angolian and Zambian parents. The band played in
restaurants, or busked for tourists, and developed their own distinctive
style. "It's Afro-fusion," says Mutori. "A mixture
of Tonga rhythms, soca, soucous and the other things we listened
to growing up."
Mokoomba broke out of
Victoria Falls, and then Zimbabwe, with the help of the non-profit
NGO Music Crossroads International, which organises workshops, festivals
and competitions in Africa. The band took part in a local competition
in 2007, and the following year were invited to the InterRegional
festival and contest in Malawi – which they won. Their prize
was to record a six-track album, which has not yet been released
in Britain, and a European tour.
didn't prove easy at first, but Mokoomba were at least getting noticed.
In Malawi they had met Manou Gallo, the bass player and singer from
the Ivory Coast, best known for her work with Zap Mama. She collaborated
with the band at the HIFA Harare arts festival in 2010, then produced
last year's breakthrough Rising Tide. Enthusiastic reviews, and
an impressive appearance on Later… with Jools Holland followed.
Now, as the band prepare
for a lengthy summer tour, bolstered by their latest award, it seems
that Zimbabwean music could enjoy an international renaissance.
Of the country's 1980s heroes, Oliver Mtukudzi is still in excellent
form, while Thomas Mapfumo, who lives in the US, returns to Britain
next month to play the Field Day festival. But several of that glorious
band the Bhundu Boys have died. "The momentum was lost because
of Aids," says Gora. "A whole generation was decimated,
and they were the core of the music industry at the time."
How do they feel about
Robert Mugabe and the political upheavals in Zimbabwe? Gora is diplomatic.
"As a band, we have made a conscious decision to build our
career outside of politics until a time we are established enough
to have an effective voice."
be leading the country's international music campaign, but it has
taken time for Harare audiences to appreciate their Tonga-language
Afro-fusion, which has little in common with the fashion for the
Congolese-influenced Sunguru music of local hero Alick Macheso.
But that's beginning to change, as Mokoomba spend more time living
and performing in the capital. "Baaba Maal is appearing with
us when we play the Harare festival on 5 May," says Gora. "Mokoomba
is becoming a big band."
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