David Mungoshi Shelling the Nuts
Lest I be asked for my credentials by the devotees and hangers-on of Zimdancehall, I will start by establishing my credentials. The understanding is that everything about Zimdancehall is in the public domain and that, therefore, nothing about it is classified. It’s not an age thing either, and boils down to interest. And that is something I have in abundance.
In the last two years or so, Zimdancehall has taken the country by storm.
Dancehall music originated in Jamaica, where it seems to be on the wane now due to its sexism and other negatives.
The genre has been accused in Jamaica of consistently disrespecting women. Regrettably, our version has tended to follow that same route.
Many of the chants cannot be listened to in polite company. But that’s a topic for another day. My concern is with artiste knowledge and song longevity.
If we talk about knowledge with regard to music, I am not sure whether that word can correctly be applied to the overwhelming majority of the current practitioners of Zimdancehall.
For a start, how many of these chanters would find meaning in the opening lines of Leonard Cohen’s massive song “Hallelujah”? Let’s, for a moment, look at the lines in question:
Now I’ve heard there was a secret chord
That David played, and it pleased the Lord
But you don’t really care for music, do you?
It goes like this
The fourth, the fifth
The minor fall, the major lift
The baffled king composing Hallelujah
Cohen’s “Hallelujah” has been covered by over 300 artistes and that’s a huge feat for any one song.
“Hallelujah” attained this distinction because of the artistry that went into the writing of its lyrics and the composing of its melody.
When asked about the song, Cohen revealed that it had taken him all of five years to write the song. What is instructive about the opening lines of the song is the knowledge of his craft that Cohen shows despite never having gone to college to study music.
I am not sure how many of our Zimdancehall people can relate to “the fourth, the fifth/The minor fall, the major lift”.
To do that, they would have to know their chords and understand rhythm.
Precisely because that knowledge is lacking, the makeshift music factories they call studios “churn out” pirated “riddims” that any number of chanters can weave their chants into. You cannot expect any of the so-called songs from Zimdancehall to ever get covered by anyone. Nor can we ever expect the kind of appraisal that Bob Dylan recently gave to the now deceased Leonard Cohen. This is what Dylan said:
When people talk about Leonard, they fail to mention his melodies, which to me, along with his lyrics, are his greatest genius.
Even the counterpoint lines, they give a celestial character and melodic lift to every one of his songs. As far as I know, no one else comes close to this in modern music.
What should be obvious by now is the fact that in the main, good music takes time to accomplish. Therefore, the message to Zimdancehall artistes is that they need to be less frenetic and take a bit more time to come up with their music if we can call it that.
It would be interesting to find out just how many singles are “dropped” every day in Zimdancehall.
The work ethic of Zimdancehallers justifies the use by some music critics, of the term “churn out”.
My favourite online dictionary defines “churn out” as an action in which one produces something in an abundant and regular manner. Great rapidity is implied as is the mechanical performance. We can deduce from this that quality is compromised.
Fred Shuster, an online music analyst writing about The Rolling Stones Band, and how they seemed to just go on and on, made the following interesting observation about them:
Like the Grateful Dead during the band’s last 20 years, The Stones churn out lacklustre albums and make their money from touring .
Clearly, “churning out” has no affinity to quality. It’s mass production of low-quality products. Where am I going with this? I am going to risk brickbats by suggesting that Zimdancehall is a passing fad and that it is not music at all. Let us for a moment consider what a song is.
A song is the melody (tune) plus its lyrics. In other words, there basically has to be a melody and that melody should be easy to plot on the modulator.
In this regard, a musician must understand and be able to work with time signatures in song. This means knowing the number of bars in a piece of music as well as knowing what value of musical note receives a beat in each particular song. A waltz, for example, can be in three-four or six-eight time. Such knowledge is what the tools of the trade are made of. I am convinced that all this musical talk is Double Dutch to most Zimdancehallers. Kkkkkkkkk . . .
However, most serious musicians know these things. A guitarist who initially learns to play the guitar by ear eventually gets to know all the chords he must play. Similarly, a self-taught lyricist also gets to know when to be wry, when to be cynical and when to be flippant and so on.
Lyrical eulogies are characterised by elevated language in keeping with adulation for loved ones.
Neil Diamond’s “Play Me” says:
You are the sun/ I am the moon/You are the words/ I am the tune / Play me…and there is a perfect symphony between its melody and the lyrics.
“Furuwa”, that unforgettable song by The Rising Power falls into this category as does quite a number of Alexio Kawara songs.
And now here comes the crunch! With the exception of Shinsoman, Winky D, Killer T and Tocky Vibes, Zimdancehall artistes are chanters, not singers.
Melody and harmony are foreign terrain to them. To make up for this mortal shortfall, they resort to crude and unbecoming lyrics and they flood the market to make sure audiences have no real opportunities to scrutinise.
Zimdancehall artistes are attention-seekers who think that by being raw, rude, salacious and insensitive, they can make up for a telling lack of musical skills and singing voices.
What kind of music is it that you mostly can’t really dance to except by leaping into the air? The monotony of the dance allows no individual creativity. Good songs need no antics and a musician does not have to be outrageous. When a song is good, you want it listened to.
Good music is for the long haul and can straddle the centuries as has Augustine Musarurwa’s “Skokiaan”, the phenomenal classic that no self-respecting jazzman can ignore.
Many who defend Zimdancehall claim that it carries and expresses the experiences of young people in the ghettos.
They claim quite against what life is, that these inebriated boys and girls are the product of unique experiences that nobody else has ever gone through.
That of course is a huge fallacy. There is nothing new under God’s heaven. What’s new about falling in love or about sex and alcohol? What’s new about deprivation and excess or fashion and gourmet meals? Everything is old and familiar.
The experience has always been there and people go through it when it’s their time to do so. In “As Tears Go By”, Mick Jagger reminisces: It is the evening of the day/I sit and watch the children play/Doing things I used to do/They think are new/ I sit and watch as tears go by.
Children may think they are doing something new and wonderful, but we all know that they are replicating the things we did in our time and that we in turn also did things our forebears had done before us.
What we hope can happen in time where this country’s music is concerned is that artistes will come up with songs worth the kind of high praise that pundits and musicians around the world have heaped upon Leonard Cohen.
Singer Frank Turner has likened Cohen’s songs to psalms and called them “perfect creations that felt like he had discovered them rather than wrote (sic) them.”
According to Turner, Cohen set the standard for songwriters everywhere and also “wrote words that will stand the test of time and give the rest of us something to aspire to.”
I find it easy to appraise the music of John Chibadura, Leonard Dembo, James Chimombe, Marshall Munhumumwe and Biggie Tembo, our all-time greats, in superlative terms.
The strains of Dembo’s “Handingazvigoni (zvaunotaura)” are sublime and unforgettable. His lyrics are epigrammatic and intense. We can say the same for them all.
Let us wait and see what time does to Zimdancehall. Tocky Vibes and one or two others may be for the long haul.
David Mungoshi, an applied linguist and retired teacher, is a published poet, short story writer and award-winning novelist.