^ Centre of attraction. Betty Makaya at the 2004 Zimbabwe Music Awards
THE Sports Diner in Harare holds an Urban Grooves night every Thursday. This has been an on and off event since December 2004. Every so often it’s worth being there, but more and more, this weekly show – like the music genre it promotes- is becoming a dull, uncreative and unentertaining affair.
70% Local Content
As Urban Grooves became widely recognised as a genre of music in 2003, it was supported by the introduction of the 70% local content policy on radio and television by the government, spearheaded by the then Minister of Information & Publicity, Jonathan Moyo.
The policy created a big demand for local music as DJs who had hitherto relied heavily on international music, sought to meet their quota. This meant that even poor quality music got airplay.
The policy had the positive effect of encouraging local artists to produce more music. A lot of junk was churned out and quickly forgotten as it faded away to make way for newer music that flooded the market. As will happen when you have lots of creative effort, every so often gems are created.
Groups and artists like 2BG, David Chifunyise, Roy & Royce, M’afriq, Rockford “Rocqui” Josphats (who later changed his stage name name to Roki), The SHAPE Zimbabwe Family, Xtra Large, Maskiri, Sebede, Cammellitta and Double Trouble were among those that came to the fore. Stables like Chamhembe and Sunshine Studios churned out a string of hits using very low budgets.
Young people around the country came alive with inspiration and used what meagre resources they had to produce some of the most beautiful music to come out of that time. Songs like M’afriq’s Ndichakuudza Sei, Roki’s Suzanna, Xtra Large’s Maroja, Tererai’s Waenda and Betty & Jamal’s Kurwizi competed with songs by Zimbabwe’s seasoned musicians for the top spots on the music charts.
In the background though, things were tough for the Urban Groovers. They struggled to get to live shows on time as they relied on public transport. A case in point was Pauline of Mafriq’s late appearance at the opening of the 2006 Zimbabwe International Film Festival in Avondale. “I’m sorry,” she sheepishly told the crowd, “transport.”
Urban Groovers also came under fire for using back tracks during live performances instead of using live bands. Another challenge was that of getting paid reasonable amounts for performances and further to this, selling albums was difficult, as CD-coping services around the country - most openely advertised – saw an unprecedented proliferation of pirated music.
A whole industry of young performers and producers with neither the money nor the industry know-how to sustain themselves was born. I remember visiting talented producer, Tatenda “Take 5” Jenami in 2005 and being shocked that the studio that had produced the chart topping tracks on the first (and later on the second) Chambembe compilation was a small room in his mother’s house that had been modified to do the job. Everything was put together on a struggling computer and a mixing desk that had seen much better days.
A plethora of national galas and concerts held all over the country to commemorate events such as Heroes’ Day, National Unity Day and Independence Day that were nationally televised increased the visibility of these young new artists and their genre.
Then in May 2005 things got even harder for every musician in Zimbabwe. Operation Murambatsvina saw the closure of many flea markets in urban centres around the country. Music sales hit an all time low.
“When the flea markets closed it really affected us,” said Urban Grooves musician ExQ in an interview with the Zimbo Jam website. “We used to sell a lot of our music through there and when the operation came, our main source of sales disappeared.”
As if that was not enough, the economy went into freefall in the years to follow. Inflation shot up to 500 billion percent (Source: Finance Minister Tendai Biti, April 2009). The formal sector shrunk as companies closed and skilled Zimbabweans left the country.
All this translated to fewer sales for Zimbabwean musicians. To make a living, some artists turned to forex dealing and cross boarder trading or “hustling” as ExQ put it.
^ Sports Diner Days. Urban Groover Skhu (centre) performs at the Sports Diner (2005)
However, even as the economy seemed to fall apart, top musicians in other genres like Afro Jazz, Sungura and Mbira seemed to thrive – mainly through live shows and performances outside the country. Alick Macheso, Tongai Moyo, Victor Kunonga, Dudu Manhenga and Afrika Revenge, up to when they separated as a group, are examples.
Even spoken word artists like Comrade Fatso and Outspoken managed to carve out a new niche and garner a respectable following during these same troubled times. Another genre, Apostolic Faith music, also rose during this same time to attract a new national following.
But Urban Grooves, besides one or two artists, languished.
Urban Grooves ‘Will Die’
Arts promoter Cont Mhlanga spoke to the Zimbo Jam and remarked that: “Urban Grooves will definitely die because it is not contributing to World Culture.”
An artist, who declined to be named, commented: “There is nothing like Urban Grooves, that’s why it is dying. What happened is that we took all these young artists and the music they were producing and called it Urban Grooves. Some of them were producing soul, others were producing ragga, others were into Hip Hop and Rap. That’s a lot of different genres all lumped into one group.”
A Zimbabwean music fan based outside the country, when asked by the Zimbo Jam about this issue, commented that another reason for the apparent demise of Urban Grooves was that the artists were mostly “experimental” artists – teenagers who fell into the field “by mistake” or as a last resort after failing in other areas.
He said: “They do not have the same commitment as artists who have decided that this is the career they want to pursue, for better or worse.
“Also, because of their ages, they are in a transitional period of their lives. Some are waiting for exam results to come out so that they can go to college. Sanii Makhalima who left to study in South Africa is an example. Another thing is that some of these young artists are just starting families or new jobs and so may stop to focus on this for some time.
“Examples are Roy & Royce who moved to Namibia for work-related purposes, Plaxedes Wenyika who upon completion of her economics degree at the UZ found a career and family life and temporarily put aside her music and Betty Makaya, who after the birth of her baby, Awami Aldrin, in November 2006, has hardly performed again.”
The Zimbabwean Urban Grooves scene in 2009 is a pale shadow of its 2004 self. It still boasts a few bright stars though – Alexio Kawara, Madiz, Winky D, Xtra Large, Roki and others – most of whom have reservations about being linked to that genre, if it is one, “Urban Grooves.”
The inescapable truth, though, is that Urban Grooves, if not as a genre, but as a name, as a collective grouping of artists, is dying.
- This article originally appeared on www.zimbojam.com