Oliver “Tuku” Mtukudzi, one of Zimbabwe’s most beloved musicians — and, I admit, my favorite — has rightly become an international favorite for his sweet melodies and his socially conscious lyrics. Tuku was not as critical of long long LONG-ruling leader Robert Mugabe as other Zimbabwean musicians such as Thomas Mapfumo, though his 2000 song, “Wasakara,” which means “You Are Worn Out,” did feature the lyrics, directed at the aging autocrat, “Admit you have gotten old, Admit you are worn out.” See Tuku perform both solo and with his band.
“Dali Ngiyakuthanda bati ha ha ha” Ha Ha Ha” was a hit song in the ’50s by George Sibanda, highlife pioneer from Zimbabwe, who is widely agreed to be the first sub-Saharan African music star. Sibanda was from the city of Bulawayo in then-thriving British-run Rhodesia. His happy, melodic acoustic guitar music became all the rage, especially in far-flung countries like Kenya, where the masses sang along with his songs even though they didn’t understand the lyrics. Sibanda became rich and famous but found himself overwhelmed. He died of alcohol poisoning some time in the late ’50s.
Yesterday we enjoyed the music of Thomas Mapfumo, one of Zimbabwe’s most beloved musicians. Mapfumo and other artists such Stella Chiweshe pioneered Chimurenga music, which has become the voice of a proud Zimbabwean people — “chimurenga” is the Shona word for “revolutionary struggle.” Chimurenga features the mbira, an ancient Shona thumb piano, and is known to follow mbira music’s 12 beat polyrhythms, breaking the 12 beats into either four measures of three beats each or three measures of four beats each.
One of Zimbabwe’s musical giants is Thomas Mapfumo, known as “The Lion of Zimabwe.” Mapfumo came to musical prominence as part of Hallelujah Chicken Run Band which formed in the darkest days of Rhodesian colonialism when the Mangura Copper Mine hired musicians including Mapfumo, some of whom worked as chicken-tenders, to entertain its weary miners. Watch Mapfumo perform “Moyo Wangu.” Listen to the Chicken Run Band’s “Ndiringe” and “Ndiyani Angandiudze” on YouTube. Hear a public radio feature on the Chicken Run Band.
Happy New Year, friends! We may be celebrating our planet’s next turn around the sun, but in our musical world we don’t skip a beat. For this week’s online class we travel south in Africa to Zimbabwe, a country whose recent history is full of high highs, such as that of gaining independence, and low lows, such as unfathomable hyper-inflation, all set to the bounding musical soundtrack of an ancient thumb piano, a man nicknamed Tuku and some guys who used to tend chickens. Let’s go.
We end our Congolese week of music class by playing a game. The Luba people of Central Africa archive their cultural identity using traditional form of art known as the “lukasa memory board.” The wooden board is a literal platform for capturing an important community memory. Artists start with a blank board then attach beads, shells and other available materials in traditionally metaphoric patterns. Those who can interpret the patterns understand them as a way to tell a story about a particular chiefdom, such as its major historical events, structures and philosophical beliefs.
All Around This World has created a game based upon the memory board, giving you and your kids the chance to make memories like the Luba. Learn how to play here.
Next week, Zimbabwe!
Kwassa kwassa is the primary dance of Congolese Soukous, in which the legs shake, the hips roll around and the hands follow the hips’ motion. The dance originated in the 1970s and became popular all over Africa in the ’80s. The name for the dance may have come from the French “Quoi ça”? (what’s that?). The kwassa kwassa appeared almost two decades after the Congos became independent, but its relationship to soukous makes it feel like it celebrates freedom.
“Independence Cha Cha” is an optimistic African independence song from the Belgian Congo that struck a chord in Francophone African countries that were just becoming independent in the early 1960s. The original version is by Le Grand Kallé, known as the “Father of Congolese Music,” who first performed it during talks with the Belgians that set the date for Congo’s independence. In this video Congolese hip hop artist Baloji updates the song, reminding us that a whole lot has happened in Central Africa since.
Why is there such a deep connection between Cuba and the Congo, one that would inspire Congolese musicians, like soukous star Kanda Bongo Man in this video, develop an African version of rumba? During the colonization of the Americas most slaves came from West and Central Africa, bringing their African rhythms with them. Over the centuries Afro-Latin musicians often returned to their roots by touring in the region and by building cultural and instrumental connections with West and Central African musicians. Perhaps because of this shared history, in the 1960s Latin Americas most prominent Communist revolutionaries, Fidel Castro and Che Guevara, supported Congolese anti-colonalialist struggles–Fidel by sending Cuban troops, Che by sending himself.
Yesterday we met the dynamic Congolese music called Soukous. It emerged in the years after World War II, starting in the ’50s when big Cuban rumba orchestras became all the rage in the Congo. By the ’60’s musicians like Joseph “Grand Kalle” Kabasele who we see in this video, readily blended rumba with African jazz, and formed a genre sometimes known as Congolese Rumba. Soukous emerged when innovators such as Sam Mangwana layered funky African rhythms and racing, jangling guitars on top.