The music of dissent strikes a chord in Zimbabwe

Click to follow

It is 8pm and the trendy Book Café, haunt of Harare's creative set, is buzzing. The beer is flowing and the talk around rickety tables ever more animated as people shrug off the cares of a country in crisis.

Not for long, though. The reality of Zimbabwe, now only two weeks away from presidential elections, returns with a thud when the singer's words turn from the tribulations of love to those of a country speeding ever further along the road to repression, and scared of what that brings. The protest music we are hearing has been banned by the state-owned media that decide what most people hear on radio and see on TV.

Artists who criticise a leader and government that have been in power too long are as skittish as the opposition activists and journalists who are being harassed and arrested under laws designed to quell social discontent ahead of elections that the President, Robert Mugabe, is determined to win at all costs. Thomas Mapfumo's new album Chimurenga Rebel has been banned by the Zimbabwe Broadcasting Corporation, although he says it is "a true reflection of what is happening". One of the country's most popular musicians, he now lives in North America.

Other works of music and drama are also being shunned by public broadcasters which, according to Maxwell Sibanda, the entertainment editor of the independent Daily News, seem to have "shut out protest music and drama altogether". While this clearly reduces their exposure, it is not shutting them up – protest plays still run in theatres and protest albums are still on shelves. In fact, Mr Sibanda says, it is often the case that being banned can make artists more popular. "People actively seek them out, and their music is played live and in bars and beer halls."

At a roadside bar north of Harare, people singing rowdily to the songs of Oliver Mtukudzi drown out sleep into the early hours of the weekends. Mtukudzi, a hugely popular 41-album artist who has his own "Tuku" style of music, takes care to distance himself from politics. But his work, too, is increasingly political. His last album was called Bvuma – Tolerance and his new one, due out this week, is titled Uhunze Moto – Burning Ember and shows his face against a map of a country engulfed in flames.

"What will be the end of all this?" he asks in "Magumo", a song about people who abuse power and riches at the expense of the weak and poor. In "Moto Moto", which in Shona means "fire is fire", Tuku warns people never to turn their backs on flames – even embers can turn into "fire that consume us".

At the Zimbabwe College of Music in Harare, Clayton Ndlovu, a choreographer, also steers clear of straight politics, saying his role is to teach students to play instruments. But he is happy to talk about the growing local music industry.

"After many years of outside music selling far better than local songs, the industry is doing really well," he says. "One reason is legislation passed last year stipulating 75 per cent local content on the airwaves, which means that local music is much more exposed. The other is changing attitudes in the media, which used to wrongly believe that foreign was automatically better."

Aside from "Tuku" music, other top-selling styles are sungura, which originated in the Congo and has a rumba flavour with a Zimbabwean beat, and chimurenga (which means liberation struggle), a mix of traditional music played with electric instruments.

For many years after independence from Britain in 1980, musicians did not have much to moan about, although the Zimbabwean government has long been intolerant of criticism. But growing political discontent, the swelling ranks of opposition and the creation of independent media in the 1990s opened up space for dissent.

This, along with a narrow victory in general elections in June 2000, panicked Mr Mugabe and his ruling Zanu-PF party into ever more desperate clamps on free expression.

Many Zimbabweans want musicians to take a stronger political stand but the debate on how far to go is raging. On one side of the fence are critics like Mr Sibanda, who believe that more artists should speak out.

"There is an element of fear in people's reluctance to do so, although musicians here are used to speaking in riddles, their words carrying hidden meanings that people understand but which aren't explicitly critical," he said. "Some artists take a strong official line – why shouldn't everybody feel free to have a view? If our musicians sing about society, then surely there is no way they can avoid political matters."

Others in the industry see the musician's role as being to unite people and point them in "right" directions. A music industry organiser, who did not want to be named, said: "It is not good for artists to sing songs that divide people. And what is the benefit in being banned? We don't tell artists what to sing about or how, but there are different ways of getting messages across."

A man at my table tells how he was tortured by police after being arrested at a protest. "Now my mother is being harassed by the police. I feel terrible, but really don't see that we have a choice when it comes to fighting for our rights. There are many of us who will always do that, now or under any future government, and we want musicians among us."

Zimbabwe's draconian press reporting restrictions make it a crime for unregistered foreign correspondents to report from there. As a result, our correspondent cannot be named.