Socially conscious rhymes and hipster swag; sexy dance moves and magical mbira; traditional Shona sounds and contemporary jazz skills; rock, traditional Japanese, Colombian cumbia music and electro…the recent Harare International Festival of the Arts (HIFA) got bodies from different racial and social walks of life, some even from as far as Europe, the U.S. and Asia, moving and grooving. Doreen Gaura joined the party.
The Harare International Festival of the Arts (HIFA) whose theme this year was “What’s Next” began and ended a couple of weeks ago, 30 April to 6 May to be precise, and I am still reeling from the few shows I managed to catch. This year’s festival was its biggest to date with over 200 performers from both Zimbabwe and other countries around the world. If there is one thing art can do, it’s bring people together. Well, almost. The Harare Gardens were swarming with people from different racial and even social walks of life. Some even came from as far as Europe, the U.S. and Asia. Class diversity was not as present of course because like in all other parts of Afrika and possibly the world, the enjoyment of the arts in such a set up is still a privilege reserved for the bourgeoisie and at the most only extends to the middle class. However, artistic expression, especially at the festival, has become more diverse and it transcends the “class” barrier.
Most of the shows I managed to catch were those of Zimbabwean artists and I must say I got my money’s worth. The opening night was a wonderful exhibition of Zimbabwean talent in the form of singers and dancers who dished out various popular cover song delicacies starting from as far back as the 1960s right up to 2013. The musical greatest hits (that transcended geographical and genre boundaries) timeline, beautifully performed and put together, kept people in the crowd either on their feet grooving away or enthusiastically singing along (or both) throughout the entire show. People, including whole families, were there in spite of the nippy conditions on this Harare late autumn/ early winter night and the jubilant atmosphere easily made one grateful to be a part of one of Zimbabwe’s greatest offerings. Also the fireworks finale was a real treat for all, young and old and cemented the euphoric sensation of festiveness and community amongst HIFA goers.
The highlight of the night for me was Ammara Brown’s performance of one of her father’s, the late great Andy Brown’s, greatest hits Mapurisa. That sent the crowd going wild. This vibrant and extremely talented young woman is intoxicating both on and off the stage. Her appeal goes beyond her talent but extends to her confident, meticulous, self aware and enigmatic personality which at first can easily be misconstrued as arrogant and standoffish but can later be respected and even admired once one sees just how loveable she is. Brown has managed to maintain a very good relationship with her step mother, renowned and extremely talented Zimbabwean musical icon Chiwoniso Maraire (whom she has performed with countless times) who taught her how to play the mbira which is also included in her musical repertoire. This fierce young woman by no means attempts to ride her late father’s wave of musical success even though she always commemorates his legacy in her all her performances. She is an artist in her own right and she carries with her the blessings and gifts bestowed upon her as a chosen one by the ancestors of her clan. It is easy to tell that she is dedicated to her calling in the arts from the attention to detail she paid to the preparations for her performances which included wardrobe organisation, time management and rehearsals to making sure she puts on the best performance she can when the time comes and best believe her vocal abilities, sexy dance moves and magical mbira skills left the crowd yearning for more.
The epic opening was just a prelude of what was to come. The following night I had the pleasure of attending the performances of Zimbabwean hip hop artists Tehn Diamond, Junior Brown, Karizma and Take Fizzo at the Coca Cola Green stage. I must admit, in the last few years I had become rather cynical of Zimbabwean hip hop, mostly because I felt, that there isn’t much that makes a lot of it stand out from other MCs around the world but on this night I was completely wowed by these guys and proven wrong.
Producer Tatenda Jenami aka Take Fizzo has been around since my high school days (eons ago) and he is extremely talented and his work appears to be getting better with time. He started out as a rapper in the group Madd Flava of the Hapana Chakaipa fame and he soon went into producing when he started Chamhembe studios. He has produced some of Zimbabwe’s more popular Urban Groovers over the years, namely Roqui, Mafriq, Leonard Mapfumo, ExQ, Stunner (now of the Tazoita Cash record label), Tererai, and Taurai. In his earlier stuff, Jenami fused traditional instruments such as the Zimbabwean mbira with more modern/ urban instruments and beats and this, along with the fact that his artists don’t only sing or rap in English but also Shona, contributed to his success with the greater Zimbabwean audience who were mostly critical of the Urban Grooves genre of music. His love for music and his gift and talent have kept him in the industry for over 10 years in spite of various obstacles and we have seen him grow from strength to strength and we look forward to hearing more of his offerings if they are going to be anything like the afore mentioned and the newer generation MCs like Junior Brown and Tehn Diamond.
Tehn Diamond is one very talented young man. He is both an artist and an entertainer who is both a singer and an MC. His song Heppi featuring Junior Brown is a great party song that makes use of double entendre and beneath the jovial and upbeat tune and chorus, he speaks to the need for people, especially young people, to always know who they are, where they come from and that not all that glitters is gold. He has also worked with other Zimbabwean maestros on the hip hop circuit such as producer and MC Simba Tagz who has also just recently released his new album Black. Appearance wise, he has a certain hipster swag that definitely gets the girls’ attention. That and his self assured and “but I am a nice guy” playful demeanour on stage makes it difficult to not pay attention to his presence and performance.
Junior Brown, has the spirit of a skilled hunter and the moment he steps onto the stage you are wowed even before you hear his deep and captivating voice. He is a dedicated artist and lyrical master and this showed when he performed that night in spite of having lost his father the night before. He exudes an energy that makes him come across as sincere in spite of his efforts to come across as blaze and “chilled”. He has a way of seeking his audience out without even trying and drawing them into his presence on the stage and the message he is conveying by the way he strings his words together in his rap. The moment he went down on one knee in prayer during his performance of the song The Realness was very powerful and moving and put weight behind two of his lines at the beginning of the song where he says “presence of a king, pachivanhu ndiri mambo” which in English translates to “in our culture (Shona) I am a king”. It’s no wonder the crowd went totally wild when he go onto the stage.
Tinashe Sahanga aka Karizma is a young and talented up and coming Zimbabwean MC who until a little over a year ago had been based in the UK for 12 years. He is back in Zimbabwe and has taken the airwaves by storm with his single from his mix tape No Guts No Glory version 2 The Homecoming, Tsvarakandenga featuring UK based brothers BKay and Kazz and quickly making a name for himself. His strategic collaboration with the likes of Take Fizzo, Tehn and Jnr Brown has positioned him nicely on the Zimbabwean hip hop scene. He entertained the crowd with another gem from his mix tape titled Ma Passport which he performed with Junior Brown. With his Cool kid swag and playful boyish charm coupled with his skill of stringing together words that the young and hip Afropolitan can definitely relate to, one can’t deny that he is definitely a star in the making.
Zim hip hop is certainly coming up and starting to be recognised as an actual career and there are a lot of talented young MCs in Zimbabwe.
On the Thursday night I had the pleasure of attending the UK band the Noisettes’ show and see the famous, talented, stylish and beautiful Zimbabwean vocalist Shingai Shonhiwa in action. Their career has spanned over seven years and they have produced smash hits like Don’t Upset the Rhythm and Never Forget You. Their music easily puts you in a happy-go-lucky mood and the band had the audience dancing and singing along in spite of the fact that Zimbos are generally not known for their appreciation of indie rock. Her outfits and the extraordinary, witty and rather random personalities of her band mates were very festive indeed. What made this show even more awesome was the fact that the Noisettes were accompanied by three other great Zimbabwean female artists; Tariro Ruzvidzo aka Tariro neGitare, Chiwoniso Maraire and mbira darling Hope Masike although in this performance she was on the hosho and the queen of the mbira, Chiwoniso was doing her thing on, well, the mbira.
However, in spite of all this Zimbabwean awesomeness my personal ultimate experience at Hifa was seeing Senegalese singer and guitarist and human rights activist Baaba Maal in action. It was, as expected, a performance like no another. The djembe drums played by members of his band, his powerful voice and stage presence and that of his entire band served to remind one of what it means to be an Afrikan. He sang, as always, in a language that all in the audience could understand no matter in the world they are from and that was the language of music and ancestry. What made this exhibition of Afrikan strength and supremacy were the messages he conveyed in between his songs. Messages of love, unity, respect for women and Afrikan pride. His inviting the great Chiwoniso Maraire onto stage with him rather unceremoniously from the crowd also helped this along of course. The visual and the energy of these two Afrikan greats together on stage was overwhelming and reinforced the Pan Africanist ideology of a united Afrika to all who were present to witness it.
In addition to the live musical performances at the main venues, there were music DJs who kept the party pumping till the early hours of the morning after the main shows as well as shows running parallel to HIFA at various other venues both in Harare and in Bulawayo by some of the artists who performed at Hifa. I was lucky enough to catch Hope Masike again but this time accompanied by her band and she had teamed up with Bokani Dyer at the Book Café on the Friday night. Hope’s relationship with the mbira and the hosho is one of true beauty. The combination of traditional Shona sounds and contemporary jazz carry her sweet and melodic voice right into the hearts of her listeners. This show in particular was especially excellent thanks to the accompaniment of South Africa’s very own Bokani Dyer’s keyboard. The son of musical legend Steve Dyer is a very gifted but humble young man whose music was greatly appreciated by the audience who were not disappointed in the performance in the least.
That same night at the Book Cafe, Japanese mbira player Sakaki Mango also wowed the crowd with his very eclectic brand of music. Mango has taken the mbira from its Afrikan context and added elements of traditional and modern Japanese culture to create a unique and deeply spiritual but modern musical fusion of rock, traditional Japanese and Colombian cumbia music and electro which he sings in his native Japanese.
All in all, HIFA was well organised and the venues were secure and family friendly not to mention pocket friendly as festival goers were permitted to bring in their own cooler boxes with their own refreshments, this in spite of the various food stands and strategically positioned and well stocked bars all around the venue. This in – good – faith allowance really made up for the rather pricey tickets that cost anything between US$8 and US$15 a pop, I must say. Unfortunately I did not manage to catch any of the literary workshops or the theatre productions this time around but if word on the proverbial street is anything to go by, they were just as amazing and worth the trip from whatever corner of the world one may have journeyed from in order to be a part of this extravaganza. The craft stands and fashion shows also exhibited the various talents coming out of Zimbabwe.
Ours is a country often incorrectly portrayed in the international media as a desolate country in turmoil on the brink of conflict but events like HIFA do a good job of dispelling these misconceptions and instead show what a “heppi”, vibrant and welcoming country it is, so full of life, energy and promise. As a devout lover of the arts and firm believer in their importance and influence as well as a proud Zimbabwean Afrocentrist, I am truly encouraged by my first HIFA experience in four years since moving to South Africa and by my reacquaintance with Zim hip hop but I also remain cautious in my enthusiasm as we are still to see in which direction our young artists, especially in hip hop, wish to take our country. Are we conscious of the kind of art we produce as young Zimbabweans who will one day be the elders of our societies? Art is not a toy or something to be trifled with after all. In our quest to express and entertain we must also always remember that we also instruct those who take in our art. It is both a tool and a weapon, depending on its bearer, and should be respected as such. It is so easy and even tempting to get caught up in trends, Western pop culture that is not necessarily edifying or constructive and the “yolo – bitches&hoes – drank – in – my – cup” lifestyle but I think that it should not come at the expense of the kind of future we want and most importantly need to build for ourselves as Afrikans. I certainly look forward to my next HIFA experience and being about that (hip hop) life in Zimbabwe again.