The Sunday News
Bruce Ndlovu, Sunday Life Reporter
THOSE who grew up in the 1980s and 90s remember the columns of men that used to emerge at dawn, cycling towards the sun rising in the east as they made their way to the city’s famed industries.
More often than not, the cyclists would be riding on three-speed bicycles which, at the height of their use, were a common sight on the roads that led to the industries that gave the city its moniker “koNtuthu Ziyathunqa”.
The story of the life and “death” of jazz music in Bulawayo cannot be fully told without mention of these bicycles and the men that rode them. Umbombela the bicycle was commonly called.
This was when the City of Kings was Zimbabwe’s nerve centre, breathing life into the country’s overall economy from its smoking factories. The city’s most productive workers rode every morning towards the eastern half of the city and spend their days working on the floors of some of the country’s biggest companies.
Whether stitching up elegant garments in textile companies or upholstering furniture, men toiled the hours away in the industries, knowing that their reward was on the near horizon.
However, the turn of the century saw the city’s industries take a turn for the worse. Zimbabwe’s economy sneezed and Bulawayo’s industries caught a particularly strong cold. The evidence of their sickness is there for all to see. Buildings that once stood imposingly are now look crippled, derelict or abandoned, serving purposes that they were not meant for. The screams that used to come from machines have been replaced by the sweeter voices of praise and worship as churches move into industrial spaces. There’s little evidence that prayer will bring the same rewards as the factories that used to hide the sun as it rose in the east.
According to findings by Dr Showers Mawowa, 838 Bulawayo-based companies closed their doors between the turn of the century and 2004. Gradually the flow of men riding to the city’s industries was reduced to a trickle, and the three-speed bicycle, for years a trusted mode of transport for working men, was replaced on the city’s roads by the Honda Fit.
What does all of this have to do with the decline of jazz in the city? The answer is everything.
When those men who used to ride their three-speed bicycles to work, clipping their trousers with clothes pegs so as not to get them caught on the wheel spokes, they would at the end of the day come back to places of leisure in the townships and spend their hard-earned money in beer halls, taverns and other places of leisure.
The money they made therefore trickled down to the men who serenaded them with seductive live instruments as they washed down the sweat of hard days with beer.
“I think it goes without saying that the decline of the industries affected the livelihood of the artistes that depended on live shows and in the long run the overall health of jazz music itself,” said George Salimu of the Cool Crooners, once one of the most in demand bands.
With men working in the industry paid weekly, jazz maestros like the Cool Crooners were never starved of gigs.
“What happened was that during those times was that people would get paid at the end of the week and with that money in their envelopes most would be tempted to attend a live show after a long work at work. This meant that at the beer halls and bars there was always demand for jazz musicians. A lot has changed since the industries went into decline,” said Salimu.
With the cost of living low, workers could easily afford to watch their favourite bands play every night.
“During those days things were a bit affordable I would say,” said the Crooners’ Lucky Thodhlana. “If someone had earned one pound we would say that they’ve made a killing. So shows would cost maybe six pence and many would afford to get into the show.”
Some of the venues that jazz bands played in included Stanley Hall, McDonalds Hall, Mabutweni and Luveve Hall. In addition, beer halls were also a hive of activity almost daily, giving bands a guaranteed payday at least once a week. However, economic hardships and changing tastes have seen even those places fall on hard times.
In 2010, Ingwebu Breweries had closed down 16 beer gardens located in the high density suburbs after the Bulawayo City Council failed to lend Ingwebu funds for recapitalisation.
Salimu however, points to the lack of consistent ownership as one of the reasons why jazz bands were eventually swept off the stages of township beer halls.
“One thing that I would say that killed jazz was that the places we played at were always changing ownership. This meant that the relationship with the artistes themselves was always changing because different people relate to each other differently,” he said.
Mabuthweni, Stanley Hall, McDonalds Hall and Luveve Hall are names that will roll off the tongue of any old Bulawayo native. However, in recent times, these are not places that one would associate with quality live entertainment. The few jazz shows held in the city are now mostly hosted in the eastern half of the city.
“I think we have to go back to our roots,” said guitarist Hudson Simbarashe, himself a former worker of the National Railways of Zimbabwe. “When I say roots I’m not talking about roots on the tree but roots in the man. You see, these venues in the western suburbs are where jazz music used to be played.
“This is where everyone grew up, this is where the groups that were playing were performing and everybody knew everybody. So the music was easily marketable because people would know that today Wells Fargo is playing, today Eye of Liberty is playing in such and such a place. There were many groups, there was Magna Carta, there was Hosanna and they were all from the western areas. People would go and support because these were musicians from their area,” he said.
When the Cool Crooners emerged, they could only play in the western suburbs in a still segregated Zimbabwe. When finally they could play in the eastern areas of the city, they could only do so when accompanied by a white band. Things have changed now, with people moving to low density areas where they were previously not allowed by the colonial regime.
“What made the jazz scene change was the movement of people to the eastern suburbs. When we moved this side and started frequenting venues this side and not in the western suburbs it became a problem because most of the people that listen to jazz reside in the townships. Unfortunately whenever a jazz artiste decides to do a show these days it is more than likely that it will be held in the eastern areas of the city and not for the high density areas where I would say most jazz lovers are. That’s what contributed to the retardation of Bulawayo jazz music,” said Simbarashe. Technology has also affected the overall health of jazz in the city. Nowadays, the Cool Crooners get most of their bookings in Harare Bulawayo while most city pubs and bars are entertained by a solitary DJ and his decks. Paying one man on the wheels of steel is cheaper than hiring a troop of jazz experts. Besides that, the easy availability of music has also affected how people relate to jazz acts.
“Most of the music that we listened to was South African jazz music. Letha Mbuli, Miriam Makeba, Margaret Msingana and others were what we used to listen to. There was no local music that was played on radio and it was mostly live music in the beerhalls and night spots. So you knew that if you wanted to catch any local music you would have to catch it live.
Now things are different. People can access music without seeing it live. You can listen to the music without knowing the artistes intimately. I, for example, find it hard to listen to new music without grabbing the physical copy and reading what is written on the album sleeve. I want to see who played drums and who did what. This new generation does not care about that and they’re comfortable just listening to the music regardless of who played instruments,” said Simbarashe.