Music, that food for those who trade in affection as Shakespeare says, is cultural staple fare in Zimbabwe.
From the inception of township music in the 1930s to the present, the industry has not short supplied aesthetes who relish the savour of mellow jams.
Ironically, not much has been done to profile the achievements of our musicians for posterity. Literary critics, including Memory Chirere and Tinashe Mushakavanhu, have decried the lukewarmth with which Zimbabweans appreciate their arts fraternity.
Our country is terminally imperilled by a cultural Attention Deficit Disorder whereby we depend on foreigners for the funding, critical appraisal and documentation of our own artistes.
The problem is most severe in literature but also extends to music in respect to lack of textual responses. A healthy arts sector must encourage the dialogue of genres.
Not much is known of Zimbabwe’s yesteryear artists.
Some ascribe the poor visibility of Zimbabwean artistes to relative poverty of merit. That is true, to an extent, but the underlying problem is that there can be no development where there is no appreciation.
Multiple award-winning journalist, historian and musician Joyce Jenje Makwenda has come around the problem with her masterly compendium of Zimbabwean music.
Makwenda has previously done a remarkable job on Zimbabwean music with her flagship title “Zimbabwe Township Music” and a children’s book “Please Gogo, Can I Have the Mic?” Her latest offering, “Women Musicians in Zimbabwe”, is a coming-of-age narrative on the contributions of women in the development of local music.
Melody is among the most imposing attributes of the feminine anatomy. Women season their environs with touches of splendour and their numerical edge over men has a soothing effect in a world riven with trouble and conflict.
Although the stratification of men and women in terms of peculiar riles some ideological circles, caution against stereotypes must not be stretched into ascetic indifference to virtues which merit celebration.
Women, by virtue of favours of nature alone, have what it takes to jam this embattled world to mesmeric flights of fancy. Considering their special attributes, one would expect women to have a queen size stake in music, troubleshoot ambience and inject sheer sweetness into the industry.
“What struck me most during my youth days, and a trend which has continued today, is that in Zimbabwe very few women take music as a career, unlike men,” Makwenda recounts. “If they do, they are either employed as backing vocalists for males, or dancers.”
By any estimate, music remains a male-dominated domain, with many women shying away from the trade to avoid being branded. Makwenda levels the merits of female musicians against this status quo and recycles the pioneering feats of Lina Mattaka, Evelyn Juba, Susan Chenjerai, Dorothy Masuka, Rozalla Miller, Shuvai Wutawunashe and others in the making of the Zimbabwean canon.
There has been a sustained preponderance of men over women in local music. Other genres like sungura are almost exclusively male domains, while urban grooves and gospel have allocated men an equal stake with men. Jazz has also been an open forum, except that it is taken for an elitist preserve and has fewer participants.
The dethroning of urban grooves to make way for dancehall on the pedestal of youth culture portends bleaker prospects for songstresses since the women constitute a wafer-thin minority in the dancehall.
Makwenda looks at the challenge of social expectations and gender constructs saddled on women who dare their male counterparts for a place in the public space. She reminisces of the traditional public space which, while patriarchally established, was user-friendly for female performers.
Jazz gospel sensation Kudzai Sevenzo faults the mean estimation of female musicians in the public space, whereby some men expect them to diminish themselves into sex objects. A number of musicians and dancers have unfortunately yielded to the pressure.
“I find that with a female musician you always need to remind people that I am not here to do a strip tease on stage, I am here to sing music, fine you want to see me as that, that’s your problem,” Sevenzo says.
Women started making musical inroads in the 1930s.
Linna Mattaka was one of the first black women to take to the podium, performing township jazz numbers in a male-dominated trade.
Mattaka had a long-spanning career which came to an end in 1954 when she decided to retire for her family of four. For her last feat, she was the leading act of the Bantu Actors entourage when they performed massive acclaim in Zambia and the border of the Congo.
She did not, however, disappear from the industry completely. In time, many young Zimbabweans were to pass through her and her husband Kenneth’s kindergarten, including the late popular musician-cum-comedian,Safirio Madzikatire.
Another female trailblazer was Evelyn Juba who made her debut showbiz appearance at Bulawayo’s then newly-built Stanley Hall in 1936 and retired after 16 years in the industry.
Both Mattaka and Juba were, however, not the first to fine-tune an African accent into their music. They were not keen on original numbers as they usually sang Negro spirituals, Christian hymns and vernacular translations of popular songs.
The ascendancy of more female musicians in the 1950s concurred with increased opportunities in the then Southern Rhodesia, where more investments translated to more disposable income to spent on art, urbanite beelines in town for jobs and better accommodation of local artists in emerging media outlets.
One of the exceptional acts of the time was Dorothy Masuka. She took advantage of the opportunities presented by the media for women to professionally position themselves as artistes and caused waves with her unconventional lyrics.
One of the first female gospel musicians Shuvai Wutawunashe argues the case for the free, uninhibited worship of with every music device accessible, including the erroneously demonised local instruments.
“I think it’s such a pity that we have left some of our instruments to rot, like mbira. You know this is an instrument which is specifically Africa, and now most of us don’t know how to play it -because some missionaries came and said this was demonic, because it was not European,” Wutawunashe says.
The book is a vastly informative read and cuts across the generations to female contemporaries such as Shingisai Suluma, Prudence Katomeni-Mbofana, Edith WeUtonga, Dudu Manhenga, Selmor Mtukudzi and others.
Book: Women Musicians in Zimbabwe
Author: Joyce Jenje MakwendaPublisher: Joyce Jenje Makwenda (2013)