Zimbabwean musicians face crisis

Abanqobi Bomhlaba's rehearsal space is a crèche. Back home in Zimbabwe, the a cappella group won national competitions and all 11 members were full-time musicians.

Here in South Africa one is a chef, one an electrician, another a gardener, another a security guard.

"We need to specialize (in music) from morning to sunset," says Emmanuel Nkomo, who sings bass, leaning forward in his plastic chair. "We need everybody to be here everyday. Now you see some of us coming late. That thing drops us back."

Before the onset of the current economic and political crisis, Zimbabwe was not only the regional bread basket, but a cultural center that boasted a renowned literary tradition and a vibrant music scene. Many of its national treasures like author Chenjerai Hove and chimurenga musician Thomas Mapfumo are now living abroad.

Singer-songwriter Oliver Mtukudzi still calls Zimbabwe home but his songs have been struck from radio playlists and his production company cannot raise enough foreign currency to release his latest album in the country.

There are fears that if Zimbabwe's decline continues, its culture could disappear like bread from the shelves.

The economy in the southern African country is suffering under the weight of the highest inflation rate in the world, now officially estimated at 4,500 percent, though unofficial estimates put it closer to 9,000 percent. Government ordered price cuts have seen basic staples disappear from stores in the last several weeks. With bans on public gatherings and demonstrations, dissent has been all but outlawed.

Downtown Johannesburg is swollen with refugees fleeing the economic collapse across the border. An estimated 2 million to 3 million Zimbabweans have immigrated to South Africa since the downturn began seven years ago.

Abanqobi Bomhlaba, which sings in the style made internationally famous by the South African group Ladysmith Black Mambazo, came to South Africa with hopes of taking advantage of freedom of speech here and preserving their music.

Abanqobi Bomhlaba means "Conquerors of Whales," referring to the massive hardships its members saw in the early 1990s when the group was first formed.

They have maintained a reputation for performing songs with a political message, including criticism of Zimbabwean President Robert Mugabe's regime. They left Zimbabwe after the secret agents in the country's Central Intelligence Organization started trailing their director, Elijah Mbambo, members say.

One of the tracks on Abanqobi Bomhlaba's just released album, "Isivumelwano - Tiripachirangano," accuses South African President Thabo Mbeki of doing too little to resolve the crisis and the hardships of Zimbabwean immigrants. Mbeki, now heading a regional effort to try to get Zimbabwean politicians to agree on how to bring the country out of crisis, has long advocated quiet diplomacy, while others have called for more forceful action.

"Now here in South Africa it's better because we can say the truth through our performance and no one can justtakeus to jail. But in Zimbabwe, even if you see someone killing a baby, if you say,`The killer, is wrong," you can be arrested for that."

Still the group is careful, avoiding bars and clubs and playing private functions put on by non-governmental organizations and attended by handfuls of Zimbabweans and sympathetic South Africans.

They all pause when a police siren sounds outside the rehearsal space. Four members of the group are illegal immigrants, one has already spent time at Lindela, South Africa's infamous detention center, and they worry that they could be arrested when they go on stage.

Martin Sibanda, the lead vocalist with another Zimbabwean group, Ndolwane Supersounds, said he started to notice the police showing up at their gigs about six or seven years ago.

"Our fans are being arrested. You feel bad. Every time you organize a show you feel that I am putting some people's lives at risk, because when they come trying to support me, (maybe) the police are going to arrest them."

Sibanda says some fans are being scared away by the threat of arrest and deportation, which has made it particularly difficult for young Zimbabwean bands to start up in South Africa.

"The police when they come they don't care if it's a big group or a small group, they just come. People are more hesitant to go, to (risk) to be arrested for a small group than an established group."

Sibanda has watched some upcoming bands collapse because of a lack of audience.

Paul Brickhill, a saxophonist and the creative director of the Book Cafe arts center in Harare, Zimbabwe, said as many as a third of Zimbabwe's musicians have fled, mainly for Europe.

Brickhill is now based in Johannesburg, where he is working to open a second Book Cafe in part to subsidize his Harare operation.

"All the inputs to running any kind of business - that's fuel, that's in our case musical equipment ... food for the restaurant, beer, beverages. You don't know where you're gonna get it," he says, exhaling deeply. "You can't plan anything for a month. A week is planning for us, and sometimes just day to day."

Brickhill's monthly trip back to Harare is in jeopardy because all his usual sources of fuel have dried up.

He says musicians still based in Zimbabwe piece together a living with performances outside the country where they are paid in foreign currency. A US$2,000 or US$3,000 performance fee can mean month of survival in Harare "before the next gig comes up in London, or Zanzibar, or Durban," he says.

Remarkably, Book Cafe is still hosting two or three musical or literary events everyday, which is about on par with the average over its 10-year history.

But while Brickhill remains confident in the resilience of Zimbabwe's musical traditions, Sibanda worries Zimbabwean music could become a casualty of the crisis.

"I think that one day Zimbabwe will be considered a country without musicians."