IN the past 10 years I have frequently been bombarded by people I meet on the streets with questions like “Why have you stopped recording?” Or “When do we get the next album from you?” and “What has happened to those youngsters in your group?”
These questions are a constant reminder of what I should be actively involved in — that is playing music. However, 20 years ago, I looked at the industry very closely and realised that unless certain structures are put in place, we will all be moaning about lack of development in the industry. I was confronted with a dog-eat-dog situation and became less active after being ripped off on several occasions. I chose to take the back seat. As someone who likes a decent living, I decided that I was better off pursuing other interests.
Even the Vice-Chancellor of the University of Zimbabwe knows that my passion is in music and ever since I started working there my input in community service is all about music, with the hope that my contribution will alleviate the challenges faced in the industry.
However, I have since accepted that I am the kind of educator who has never forgotten that music requires just such a fine balance. My name is followed by a host of acronyms that attest to years of devoted scholarship yet nothing among the host of acronyms shows that I am a musician.
As I see it, one of the biggest challenges facing the Zimbabwe music industry is that which I will call “sustained professionalism”. Sometimes it’s difficult to get fully professional musicians who solely depend on music. Our industry does not have the capacity to sustain all musicians’ livelihoods. It’s either the jobs are far apart or they simply pay peanuts. Look at the situation with Alick Macheso’s band now. If all was well Jonas Kasamba, Obert Gomba, Noel Nyazanda and Donald Gogo would still be in his band. If that kind of thing is happening to what Zimbabwe regards as top artistes, what then happens to unknown artiste?
One begins to wonder whether being a musician is a worthwhile activity in Zimbabwe. Sometimes the limelight and exposure is good, but the rewards are usually bad. Our industry, coupled with a “not-so-big-market” is just not at a stage where it can comfortably reward its practitioners. Therefore, you will find that most musicians (like myself) are fully employed elsewhere. That’s not an ideal situation.
I know one musician who was very good at his art and was on top of his game but is now a full-time farmer. Several bands have tried to woo him back into the music industry but he is disheartened as he sees no financial benefits of pursuing his musical talent. Sometimes he agrees to perform for a guaranteed fee but this man is difficult to get as he will be preoccupied with his farming activities.
There is always a sigh of relief when he pitches up for rehearsals. That’s precious time. When he comes one can see that he is doing the job half-heartedly as his heart is at his farm.
He will tell you he had lots of work commitments, but at the same time reassures you that work will be done. The most surprising thing is that he delivers his music skills perfectly well when on stage.
He has always done that over the years. With his burdening work load, he has never disappointed but his farming business has now become his top priority because that has now become his means of survival. Should that be the case though? If Government does not chip in, we are going to lose more and more talent this way.
This is not to discourage anyone who aspires to be a musician. The rate of unemployment in this country is very high. Jamaica faced the same crisis in the 1970s when its bauxite and sugarcane industries collapsed. As more and more people started to look for work and none was available, many of them began to learn to play musical instruments; hence the emergence of the hundreds of Jamaican musicians that we know today. Many of them have made a good living through music. As we know some even reached superstar status.
A good example is none other than Bob Marley who left behind some US$46 million when he died and continues to earn millions to this day. If such a small country can do it, we can do it tenfold. Our own superstar, Oliver Mtukudzi, is on the verge of cracking it. If you have any doubts, visit Pakare Paye Arts Centre in Norton to see for yourself.
For our youngsters to make it in music the industry needs to straighten out. In Jamaica the government, together with corporate institutions built recording studios which allowed the youth to freely exhibit their creative talents and to market themselves throughout the world. How many Jamaican singers have we seen in Zimbabwe as a result?
The impact of cultural policy on the processes of making music in Zimbabwe shows that the way that music is perceived and valued influences the way it functions in any given context.
It is clear that the Government needs to develop coherent policies in relation to music making and indeed in relation to all forms of cultural activities, in order to ensure that a favourable social, cultural and political climate exists for arts and culture to flourish.
Some of the issues involved in developing coherent policies in relation to music and music making are such that if there are not enough purposeful impulses for an active interest in music the passive consumption of the never-ending supply of music inevitably presents itself as compensatory satisfaction.
As we look at straightening out the music industry, it must be noted that more active occupation with music on the part of young people might be achieved by introducing music in the school curriculum.
Fred Zindi is a professor at the University of Zimbabwe. He is also a musician and author of several books on music. He can be contacted via e-mail on firstname.lastname@example.org