Mokoomba, A Rising Tide

This feature originally appeared in Songlines #94 (Aug/Sept 2013) p48. Download a pdf here.Mokoomba(cJames de Ara)2

Mokoomba are taking the world by storm with their eclectic Afro-fusion and introducing the world to Zimbabwe’s minority cultures and traditions. Alexandra Petropoulos finds out more (Photo: James de Ara)

Home to one of the seven natural wonders of the world and a lush landscape, the Victoria Falls region of Zimbabwe is well known for its beauty and diverse wildlife, fed by the generous Zambezi River. Sadly, its vibrant cultural diversity is less recognised. The region is a borderland between a handful of countries – Zimbabwe, Namibia, Zambia and Botswana – and is a true melting pot of cultures, languages and music.

This is the teeming environment that bred Zimbabwe’s new musical stars, Mokoomba. “We grew up listening to a variety of sounds and that really influenced us,” says the appropriately named bassist Abundance Mutori. It helps explain how Mokoomba came to create an extremely danceable pan-African funk, which, when combined with honest and conscious lyrics and a feel-good beat, has made them one of Africa’s most successful young bands.

The members of Mokoomba grew up making music together. They are from the Tonga ethnic group, which has its own distinct musical styles. Much of their music draws on their upbringing; but their influences stretch much further afield. “We play our traditional music, which has its own style of singing and drumming, but we fuse it with the modern grooves. There’s a bit of funk, a bit of reggae, a bit of rumba just to spice it up so that we can reach a wider audience and not be closed in a box,” says Mutori.

The talented group of 20-something musicians who make up the band include frontman and singer Mathias Muzaza, Trustworth Samende on guitar, Abundance Mutori on bass, Donald Moyo on keyboards, Costa Ndaba Moyo on drums and Miti Mugande on percussion. On stage, they are a powerful dish of Afro-fusion served with a side of salsa. Their energetic and engaging performances have won audiences over one by one, with impressive guitar work, dancing and singing.

“Music is something that is in me,” Mutori tells me backstage before their gig at London’s Jazz Café. “It’s something I loved to do… it’s always been a dream.” But instruments for the budding musicians to practice on were hard to come by, and most of the band made their start on makeshift instruments at school or in church. “That’s why we’d go there — for the instruments. I didn’t have my own guitar. At school we had some musical instruments but they were not that high quality, you know, just instruments to practice on.”

That was until a local musician, the late Alfred Mjimba, offered to let the would-be-Mokoomba-ites jam with him. Mjimba had equipment and instruments but no one to play with. “He loved to jam with upcoming musicians. So he would let us go practice and play his music but also practice our own stuff. That’s how we started to get into music.”

Mokoomba’s big break came in the form of the Music Crossroads International competition. Music Crossroads is a nonprofit organisation that supports the development of music education in Southern Africa. The heart of the programme is its competition scheme, aimed at 15- to 25-year-old musicians, with provincial and national festivals in Zimbabwe, Mozambique, Malawi, Tanzania and Zambia that culminate in the annual InterRegional Festival.

In 2007, Mokoomba entered the contest. They went on to win both the regional and national festivals, earning them the opportunity to represent Zimbabwe at the InterRegional Festival in Lilongwe, Malawi along with the Afro-soul band Gwarimba from Harare. The competition was stiff and their fellow countrymen proved to be their fiercest rivals. But Mokoomba’s fresh grooves proved to be irresistible and they played their way to first prize. Consequently, Music Crossroads offered Mokoomba professional band training and an album recording, followed by an international tour in 2009.

The resulting six-track album Kweseka, which is unreleased in the UK, translates as ‘drifting ahead.’ But ‘drifting’ sells the band short. By the time the album was released, the band had rocketed onto the international music scene.

While in Malawi for Music Crossroads, the band met Ivory Coast bassist Manou Gallo, of Zap Mama fame, who was running workshops for the competition. “She was excited and crazy about our music,” Mutori recalls. “She’s very good at playing bass and singing, and she’s my mentor. She prodded me not to be closed in a box, to open my mind and to learn new stuff.” Gallo felt an instant connection to the band. “Mokoomba’s music speaks to me,” she says. “I felt this right from the start, even though they are from Zimbabwe and I’m from the Ivory Coast. I think of them as my children… There is a natural pan-African feel about their compositions. And I wanted, above all else, to expand and develop their inspiration, give maturity to their music.”

Gallo collaborated with the band at the 2010 Harare International Festival of the Arts and went on to produce the band’s international debut, the aptly named Rising Tide, released last year. With Gallo’s slick production and the band’s incredible energy, the album quickly earned spots on countless ‘Best of 2012’ lists in the Guardian, The Washington Post and on US National Public Radio. It also secured Mokoomba the Newcomer award in this year’s Songlines Music Awards.

Gallo says of the recording process, “We mixed the CD with no time limitations, only the quality was important. I’m very proud of this production, and Mokoomba represent the future and a beautiful introduction to African music.”

Rising Tide deftly fuses their Tonga influences with Afro-salsa, Congolese rumba, reggae and other genres to fashion an irresistibly feel-good mix. The opener ‘Njoka’ is a beatboxing and horn-filled romp complete with Congolese guitar riffs, Latin rhythms and raspy singing from Muzaza. The tracks that follow continue to prove that he is the band’s secret weapon – a vocal stick of dynamite who blasts through tunes with passionate belts and deep soul-shaking growls. With his range and presence, he is able to elevate the band from a delightful dance band into something unique and impressive.

The music and rhythms may be upbeat, but the album’s lyrics are often quite heavy, featuring traditional subject matter alongside everything from songs of love and coming-of-age rites to suicide and HIV. “We are singing about our everyday lives, things that we have encountered and giving hope to other youths. And we have our traditional songs there also – celebratory songs that talk about when we have a good harvest – so we are also celebrating our culture,” says Mutori.

The impassioned ‘Masangango’ features Muzaza’s dramatic singing over guitar riffs that would sound at home in any desert blues band and it silences rowdy crowds at Mokoomba’s otherwise lively shows. It is a Tonga and Luvale song, which is sung in the bush during initiation and circumcision ceremonies. “[Boys] go into the bush when they are 10-12 years old for six months with the elderly people in the culture and they’re being taught how to become a man. That song explains that feeling and how you want to go back home but you cannot, because you have to finish. So that’s why it’s more spiritual and more emotional,” Mutori explains.

‘Mangongo’, on the other hand, is about the lure of city life, so full of potential and opportunity, which tempts young hopefuls out of their hometowns and away from their families. Muzaza sings ‘I need to go back home and see my mother and father, something in this city keeps holding me back’ while Mutori gets his time to shine with some funky bass lines. “If you go away from your parents or your friends, you also need to go back and have that time with them. This song talks about not hurting your family and that you should always be in touch with all the loved ones that you have in your life.”

The hip-shaking Afro-salsa of ‘Mwile’ seems at odds with lyrics that tell the story of a boy who took his own life: ‘He said enough was enough, it’s better I die.’ Based on the true story of an old friend, Muzaza wrote the song shortly after he heard the terrible news. “This guy had a problem and he didn’t come out with his problem to his friends.” Mutori hopes they are offering words of advice: that suicide is never the answer. “It doesn’t work in any way. If you have a problem, if you have something that is hurting you, you have to bring it out so that people can help you. Killing yourself is not the solution to anything.”

On ‘Yombe’ the band tackle an even touchier subject – HIV and AIDS. The chorus sings ‘the whistle has blown, there’s nowhere to run’ over sweet Latin rhythms and lyrical strings. “We are alerting young people and everyone that there is the disease out there; you should take care of yourself.”

Zimbabwe has suffered from the disastrous impact of HIV and AIDS, with 1.2 million people living with the disease and roughly 58,000 related deaths a year. “There’s an HIV pandemic out there, so you should protect yourself. We are trying to talk to the younger people out there, and also elderly people, warning them about the disease.”

The combination of spirited music with important, meaningful lyrics that deliver a poignant and timely message is likely to raise Mokoomba into the pantheon of today’s African music greats. Their ever-growing fan-base is a testament to this.

Mutori has been delighted by the reception the band has had when performing in Europe: “The people are so lovely and the way they receive our music is amazing because, even if they don’t understand our lyrics and our language, they are dancing and they love the music. It’s amazing.” Although anyone who has been to any of Mokoomba’s shows shouldn’t be surprised by this. Their slick and engaging performances leave legs wobbly from dancing and faces flushed.

European audiences may, however, find it odd that Mokoomba’s fellow countrymen have been much slower on the uptake. While the band are inventive in their fusion, they are — at the very heart — still a Tonga band. And the Tonga are an ethnic minority in Zimbabwe, where most of the population, including musicians, are Shona or Ndebele. Zimbabwe’s musical giants – Thomas Mapfumo, Oliver Mtukudzi, Chiwoniso Maraire – have all been Shona musicians.

Has this made things harder for Mokoomba? “Of course,” says Mutori. “You know, people love to say ‘why don’t you try to sing in Shona?’ We’d love to do collaborations; but we cannot change and sing in Shona since we have our own culture and tradition to bring forth, so people can also know the diverse cultures we have in Zimbabwe.”

He sees Mokoomba as breaking through that barrier, paving the way for more Tonga musicians and introducing people to their distinct culture. “People are liking our music, which means people are also learning Tonga. They want to know what the songs are talking about. And for that, I can say Zimbabweans are getting to acknowledge that there’s good Tonga music.”

As well as having performed with Baaba Maal this May, closing the main stage of the Harare International Festival of the Arts, Mokoomba were also recently awarded the Zimbabwean National Arts Merit Award for Arts Personality of Year, proving that the band members are finally beginning to receive the attention they deserve back home.

Due to perform at the Cambridge Folk Festival, WOMAD Charlton Park and several European dates this July and August, the band will surely only continue their upwards momentum. Belying their new album’s name, Mokoomba’s success is more than a mere rising tide. It is a rushing current, much like their revered Zambezi River, ready to carry the band to new audiences as well as nurture a worldwide awareness of Zimbabwe’s rich cultural diversity.

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