Victoria Falls, Zimbabwe, 23rd June 2010
I asked the barman if he knew any local instrument makers. I had been to a market earlier in day and had seen some locally made instruments. Mainly they were trying to sell giraffe pendants carved out of giraffe bone, stone statues, wooden hippopotamuses, various dilapidated world flags hanging from the rafters, 100 Zimbabwean marketers all with the same products, competing for the same American Dollar. Desperate for anything – to sell or to trade,
“Pens? You got pens? I’ll take pens. Shoes? Your shoes? How about your shoes?”
“I’ve only got one pair,” I said.
The instruments were like toys – more ornamental than instruments.
“King George,” the barman said to me. “He is a local mbira player and maker. He plays down at the Boma each night to the tourist crowd. He’s normally down there an hour before the show.”
“Thanks,” I said.
I head down to the Boma the next night and am greeted by the doorman. I explain that I am here to see King George. He sends someone for him. I stand around in the dark, waiting for King George. A man emerges out of the dark. A 6 foot Zimbabwean, long dreads, a yellow jacket, cap pulled down, low over his eyes, an mbira in his hand.
“I’m Sly. Sylvester. King George is not here.”
“Oh,” I say.
“You’re interested in mbira?”
“Okay,” he said and gave a short nervous laugh at the end of saying that word, ‘Okay’.
We sat down together outside the entrance of the Boma. Sly placed his mbira inside a fiberglass calabash and played me a song. We spoke afterward. He explained to me that the management at the restaurant didn’t like the musicians socializing with the guests. We made plans to meet up the following day. He would show me more mbira and perhaps I could buy one.
In the morning I went and checked Victoria Falls out.
They were amazing.
You should go see them.
I went to town the following morning to meet Sly. I was a bit late. We had arranged to meet at the Chicken Shack, but I was late and I ended up finding him outside the Wild Breeze. He was wearing a tie-dyed t-shirt with a ☮ on the front and something about Sammy’s Prawns on the back. We greeted each other and began walking down a street. He held up a broken-looking mobile phone and said that he had to return it to his friend who was working at a local hostel. The place was deserted, except for some dogs and someone taking a siesta. A drum in mid-repair besides an empty chair. On the television is Kevin Rudd’s face. I later find out from a white Zimbabwean who fled Zimbabwe for Botswana after Mugabe came to power, that Kevin had been ousted by Julia Gilliard.
We waited around for a moment and his friend showed up. Sly gave him his phone back, they spoke some Shona, and we headed off. We made our way towards Sly’s house, toward the Chinotimba township. We walked through a short bush track. Giant trees leveled out over the path. We continued on. Sly stopped, and pointed,
There were 3 elephants – a giant female and two smaller babies. They were content chewing the cud and we walked on.
“What should you do if an elephant is chasing you?” I asked,
“Oh-no, elephants are no problem – they are a friend. They give plenty of signs.” He stopped on the track, “Excuse me I’m going to go,” and started pissing in to the bush. “What you have to worry about is the buffalo. They are very angry, with big horns.”
Before long we were in Chinotimba Township. Hundreds of people out in the streets, music coming from various houses as we walked past, a battalion of Zimbabwean police, lined up outside, highlife music blasting over a cheap sound system. We walked for about 20 minutes until we reached Sly’s house. His neighbour’s fence had been flattened by an elephant. He put his hand through his gate and undid a padlock. The rest of the gate was 2½ metres high, with barbed wire encircling the top.
We entered the house and Sly showed me two mbiras. They were $120 each. He quickly set a quiet room up and he played and I recorded 5 solo mbira songs.
5. The Lion Sleeps Tonight
After the recordings he asked me if I’d like to smoke some weed.
“Yes,” I said.
He pulled out a big bag of homegrown skank. He poured some out on to a piece of absorbent paper and picked the seeds out, placing them in a glass, full of other seeds. He rolled the absorbent paper over in to a big pure joint, which we smoked.
It was about 5 o’clock by this stage and Sly had to be at the Boma to perform at 8pm, so we started to pack up. His sister (who had arrived home at some stage) and he got ready to head out, and I stood around practicing mbira. The weed was rushing in my head and I started having hot flushes. I walked outside for some fresh air, still practicing mbira. A lone vuvezela sounded out in the distance. I looked out over the barbed wire, listened to the vuvuzela, stared down at the mbira and realised I was in Zimbabwe.
I had only been in Africa for 3 days and didn’t even realise I was coming to Zimbabwe. I had thought one accessed Victoria Falls from Botswana. No. The weed made me paranoid. It quickly dawned on me how little control I had over my situation. The hot flush moved from the head to my bowels. I needed to shit.
I walked back inside the house, and ran in to the sister. In a stoned daze I asked where the bathroom was. She said some stuff I didn’t understand, and pointed towards the back of the house. My stoned brain couldn’t quite comprehend though. I pointed to the back of the house and mumbled something I didn’t understand, and then started toward the back of the house, where I found the toilet.
I shat and then headed out the front of the house with a new perspective on things. We began making our way down various streets, me completely lost.
We emerged at a kind of indoor market car park, a hundred people standing around dozens of cars, chatting. Sly pointed to a beaten up old 80’s Japanese sedan and said,
“We can get in that car,”
The sister then quickly walked away and said,
“Oh – you’re going someplace else?”
“Yes – I’m going someplace else.”
The weed swirled in my head again, Sly & I jumped in to the back seat of the car.
“Oome na wona yoso mobar” Sly said to the driver, or something like that, and we started moving. The car moved like a coffin on wheels. The brakes barely worked, so the driver would take corners at high speed, narrowly missing young kids coming home from school in their uniforms, young mothers carrying babies tied to their backs, who would shout at the driver for nearly killing them and their baby – but we are off in a wind of dust with no brakes.
I was so lost – so lost – I had lost all sense of direction. And I remembered that traveling is being lost. I felt like an astronaut. Though not quite like an astronaut, because astronauts know they are heading in to outer space. Zimbabwe? How the fuck did I get here? So lost.
The speeding car slowed to a stop, outside a shack.
“Where are we?” I asked. Sly spoke more language to the driver. Then he said to me,
“We’re here to see if King George is here.”
And I remembered – King George. There I was, outside King George’s house, or somewhere he was purported to be. The weed was strong. Sly got out of the car, and so did the driver. I waited in the back. Sly returned a short moment later,
“King George is not here,” he looked over to the driver and said “Ma lopo fo ma to do na gagewa” or something like that, and we were off again, weaving down the streets of Chinotimba, narrowly avoiding killing more pedestrians, nearly having a head on collision as the driver stalled trying to pass a car. Then again, on the side of the road, Sly pointed out the window, his long legs sticking up high in to the air;
“Elephants!” and a nervous laugh.
Shortly after we were back in town, heading to the bank to get the US$120 for the mbira. The cab ride was $3 but I only had a $10, for which the driver didn’t have change. We went to a local store and I bought 3 cokes – one for me, one for Sly and one for the driver who had delivered us alive – because what if he hadn’t?
Sly & I then head back in to Victoria Falls town. As we stood in town waiting for the bus, a guy about my age came up trying to sell Zimbabwean dollars. $500 Billion Zimbabwean dollar notes and the like. He was trying to sell me a wad of them for US$5. A younger tout had found me on the street earlier in the day. I was interested in buying the notes but I hadn’t had money on me at the time. He told me he would find me later. And lo and behold, there he was, running down the street, trillions of dollars worth of Zimbabwean dollars to be sold for US$5 (more than they would have been worth at the time they were in circulation), shouting,
“Hey, mister! Hey, mister! Hey, mister!”
Sly, me, and the two touts, standing on the street corner, each holding out their notes. The older tout had a better collection. They both wanted $5 for them.
“$4,” the older tout said,
“$4,” the kid said.
“He’s got a better collection though,” I told the kid.
“$4” the kid said again, exactly the same.
“How about this?” I asked, “I’ll give this guy $4 for his collection and I’ll give you a coke for your trouble?” I thought it was a kind arrangement. The kid looked at me, seemingly hurt. I was confused.
“Take it,” I said offering him the coke.
“Please?” I said
He started stepping backwards, staring in to my eyes, with this confused look on his face like he couldn’t understand me, or the situation, and I felt like a total bastard.
“No…no…it’s no trouble. No trouble. It’s no trouble.” And then he turned around and walked away, slinging a bag over his shoulder. I don’t know why he didn’t take it.
The bus arrived and Sly and I got on, him heading to the Boma, and me back to the hotel, to get ready to go to the Boma to hear King George play.
Arriving at the Boma I asked for King George. He emerged moment later, from out the back of the restaurant. A short statured man with a small belly, wearing a black track and field tracksuit, a spray jacket, and a black cap pulled over his eyes.
We introduced ourselves. I explained what I was doing there and that I’d like to record his group’s performance that evening. He seemed a bit concerned and wanted me to talk with his ‘crew’ so that they would know exactly what was going on, and then they could vote on it. As we headed out the back of the restaurant he explained to me that his crew was very big, and how hard it is to keep a crew together.
“Everyone has their own ideas, and unless there is clear communication then the crew falls apart,” he said.
Out the back of the restaurant I found a dozen or so performers, men and women, sitting around a small fire, their faces illuminated in the darkness by a faint orange glow. King George said something in language, they all stood up and we headed out to an open area with an electric light. The crew stood in a line and King George introduced me and asked me to speak.
I explained to them who I was, where I was from, what I was doing, and about Ah!Puch! They asked a few questions, spoke language amongst themselves, and then suggested that I could give them something to ‘show my appreciation’. They suggested I get up in the middle of the show and ‘show my appreciation’. I didn’t understand. They wanted me to get up and say something about my appreciation in the middle of their show? I told them that I would find that a strange and awkward thing to do. One of them cleared up my confusion – I could get up and show my appreciation by giving them some money during their performance.
Musicians in Victoria Falls have a hard time. With thousands of people going to see the Falls every week, there is a small and booming tourism economy there. Money is being paid hand over fist to tour operators, travel agents, safari lodges and camps. Life is expensive – Sly was selling one of his mbira to pay for his water bill. Musicians receive almost nothing from their employers, relying instead on tips. In this particular establishment though (the Boma), the musicians had been stopped from walking around with a collection basket at the end of their performances, for fear they would scare the patronage away. Instead they play for a meal at the restaurant every night, and any tips they might be lucky enough to receive. Mainly they continue playing every night to keep the culture alive, and to share it with the people.
I told them that I would find it very awkward to get up during their performance to give them money. They sympathized with this, agreeing it was awkward. They suggested I could ‘show my appreciation’ after the show. I told them I was more comfortable with this.
The crew disbanded and King George walked me back to the restaurant, then returned out the back to prepare for the show.
The performance was amazing – so much energy, singing, dancing, shaking, shouting, drumming, animal calls, and clapping. I interviewed King George after the show, sitting out the back around the fire with him. Unfortunately my recorder didn’t record the conversation.
We talked about music and politics in Zimbabwe, hyper-inflation and the effect it had on musicians and music. I learned that King George is an Ethnomusicologist, having studied at the University of Harare. We both expressed regret that I was leaving the following morning, as what I had just seen was only a slice of what his crew could do. They knew rhythms & dances from all over Africa. Their full set ran close to 2 hours, he said.
I didn’t have the time though. Next stop Botswana – to Primary Schools and Blind Men.