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Singing Brother Bob's praises
Arno Kopecky, The Nation (Kenya)
November 12, 2007

http://www.allafrica.com/stories/200711120517.html

Nairobi - The potbellied, high-stepping Jamaican superstar Luciano descended like a cloud of smoke on Zimbabwe last week, and although I can't confirm that he actually got stoned with the dictator, they certainly shared a few laughs. Luciano, who calls himself the Messenger, did indeed come with a message: "The taking of land was a good move by the president," he announced on arrival in Harare. "Mugabe is a great man!" I'm used to reggae artistes praising brother Bob, but I must say it came as some surprise to hear the surname changed from Marley to Mugabe. My interest was piqued; though not normally a fan of Luciano's hymnal version of reggae, I decided to check out the show and see what everyone else thought about his Message. But first, a barbecue. Kenyans, take note: Zimbabweans also delight in nyama choma and ugali. Due to the great man's good moves on land reform, the maize quality has declined drastically, leading to a soupier sadza (ugali) than the good kitchens of Kenya produce, but the meat - if you can get it - is superb. My hosts were a crew of independent journalists and proprietors of a local NGO called Crisis in Zimbabwe - a lively group who shared in that other Kenyan passion, big bottles of beer. The venue was a spacious bungalow on the outskirts of Harare; some two dozen of us gathered in the back yard, enjoying the shade of a giant oak on a hot summer's day. Beside us, an outdoor pool with about five centimetres of green water left in it slaked the thirst of a short-tempered lap dog. "Water shortages," my hosts explained.

As we sipped our Pilsners in the back yard, my friends reminisced about a recent interview they'd procured with the sacked minister of Information, Jonathan Moore, who had managed to shut down five newspapers before getting himself fired. "He asked for body guards half way through the interview," laughed one of the interrogators, "as though we were going to beat him up." "I would have beaten him up if you'd let me," said another. Unfortunately, the power went out half way through dinner, and stayed out. "If only we lived closer to State House," someone said through the dark. No light was one thing - there's always candles - but no music? Time to go. We crammed into a bright blue Beetle, and proceeded downtown. Still too early for Luciano; instead, I found myself in the ball room of the Intercontinental Hotel, Harare's finest. A lawyers' conference on human rights was winding down, and a local band had the early drunks leading a congo line through the room to the beat of Zimbabwean samba. A waiter came to take my order, and for the first time in over a week I didn't have to revise my tastes to suit supply. Coca Cola? No problem. Rum? What kind? These lawyers are on to something, I thought, uphill battles notwithstanding. My colleagues apparently felt the same way, since three hours later we were still there. I was sure we'd missed the show, but couldn't complain - on top of the free and bountiful refreshments, I had met a mine-defuser who worked in Afghanistan, a troop of Rastafarians too broke to see Luciano, and half the NGO workers in the country. Still, it was a relief when we finally arrived at the City Sports Centre around midnight and heard the music blaring.

The enclosed stadium used to serve as a training centre for Zimbabwe's national tennis team, back in the days when there was one. It's vacant nowadays, but the Tourist Board decided to open it up for the hordes of Zimbabweans they imagined would show up to hear Luciano sing their leader's praise. But even the best laid plans can go awry. Who would have thought that not everyone could afford the five million dollar (Sh350) cover charge? Just because that's twice the monthly wage of a teacher, I mean, really. More potential fans were lost due to poor lighting, mugged on the pitch-black access road leading to the stadium, as the two independent papers left standing reported the next day (no mention of such unpleasantries in the state-owned Herald). I was almost turned back myself when security discovered the camera in my back-pack. I retreated with a colleague, who had better luck at a different gate when he showed the guards his press card and a million zim dollars (about Sh70). Safely inside, there was plenty of room to stretch. The stadium wasn't enormous, but seemed that way for being mostly empty - two thousand tickets were sold in all. Not exactly a blockbuster, but if you got close enough to the stage it almost felt like a decent crowd had showed up. Perhaps in the hopes that the stadium would eventually fill up, Luciano waited until well past midnight to hit the stage. While we waited, an ancient and incredibly spry Zimbabwean Rastaman named Trevor Hall, with long white dreadlocks hanging from his chin, gave an outstanding performance. He mixed some masterful Marley classics with a few hits of his own, spinning his cane like an acrobat and making us all sing along. By the time Luciano came out, the crowd was already worn out. My comrades actually left, leaving me to clutch my bag and wonder what would happen if I pulled out my camera - a quick survey of the grim-faced intelligence officers in the otherwise empty bleachers convinced me it would be better not to find out.

I realised at that moment that this was also the first reggae show I'd ever been to without catching the slightest whiff of ganja smoke - surreal. Not quite as surreal as Luciano, who appeared in a black cape with gold trim, his knee-length dreads stuffed into a black leather cap and waving a mahogany sceptre like a magic wand. The crowd - if you can call it that - forgot how tired it was. Luciano crooned, and jumped, and beat his wand on the stage; we danced, and cheered, and waved our lighters in the air. For the first half hour, it seemed we were just at a reggae show after all. But then came the chant: "Zimbaaaabwe!" Luciano shouted. We hollered it back. Then came "Haraaare!" We turned up the volume. But finally, as though hoping we were too caught up in the magic to pay attention, Luciano cried, "Mugaaabe!" It's true he wasn't met with silence, but the shout-back was about a quarter of what came before. He kept the mic to himself from then on, steering clear of politics until the final number, when he played us the song he'd hinted at in the papers. "I composed something just for you," he'd said at the press conference, and he repeated it now. The words? "We've got to fight for our homeland, We've got the right to our own land, Robert Mugabe is a great man?" Well, at least it rhymed. Sort of. The closing words, "stand strong, Zimbabwe", were delivered in a suitably dramatic whisper which was almost enough to make the crowd forget this was a campaign speech disguised as a melody. Some people even cheered. But if you ask me, the most prophetic words were delivered unknowingly, during a cover song Luciano sang earlier on. We heard Bob Marley once again, reaching beyond the grave to advise the audience about the relative trustworthiness of western powers versus that other Bob, freedom-fighter-turned-dictator of Zimbabwe: "Your worst enemy can be your best friend," sang the Messenger, "and your best friend, your worst enemy."

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