Interviews May 16, 2023
Bantu Spaceship Remakes Zimbabwean Roots Pop

Bantu Spaceship is a new act out of Harare, Zimbabwe, an Afro-futuristic project with deep ties in the past of the country’s popular music. Producer Joshua Madalitso Chiundiza cut his teeth with the alternative hip-hop band The Monkey Nuts. He created Bantu Spaceship with Ndebele vocalist Ulenni Okandlovu. Within the duo’s synth-driven flow, we get elements of mid-80s sungura and Chimurenga music, including an inspired remix of Robson Banda’s darkly majestic song “Mhondoro,” and some sweet riffs from sungura guitarist Sam Mabukwa. Sungura, by the way, is guitar-driven folk-pop, a distant cousin of Central African rumba, and a closer cousin of benga music from Kenya. In Zim today, it’s a bit like country music, followed in cities, but huge in rural areas. Bantu Spaceship’s self-titled debut is out on Nyami Nyami Records, a small label run by Charles Houdart in Paris. Charles set up a Zoom call with Afropop’s Banning Eyre and Joshua Chiundiza in Harare. Here’s their conversation, starting with Banning and Charles, then joined by Joshua.

Banner and thumbnail images by Tusichile Kasito.

Banning Eyre: Charles, how did you get involved in this project?

Charles Houdart: I've been involved with music from Zimbabwe and from Southern Africa for the last 10 years now. We started the record label in 2014, Nyami Nyami Records. Our first release with this song by Chiwoniso, “Zvichapera.” And that was the last song by Chiwaniso. So since then we just produce and release one or two records per year. It's a very tiny and slow record label.

I understand that. I am nurturing a tiny, slow label myself. Quality not quantity, right?

Right. So my involvement with Bantu Spaceship... I think for the last four or five releases, we've done reissues. And I love reissues. I love digging and exploring old and good music, the but I also had the feeling that there is so much to discover that's new and fresh and that's bubbling up the new music scene, especially in this part of the world.

I think that South Africa is crazy in terms of creativity, and Zimbabwe, funnily enough, is a bit behind in terms of innovation, experimentation, all of that. But there was this band that I knew because I knew Josh was involved a hip-hop band called The Monkey Nuts.
So we were talking with Josh, and sometimes he was sending me demos, and I was really impressed by the first tracks he sent me. That was in 2019.

And I told them, “Guys, I love the music, and if you push in the same direction, I'd be happy to see if we can release an album on Nyami Nyami.” And they said O.K. Then they were working quite slowly on it. I mean, they were not in a hurry to produce the music, which is fine. I appreciate that. So we've been in discussion for the last three years, them sending tracks, me giving them some direction, asking them for more music, because we only had, like, two or three songs at the beginning. I gave some artistic direction, but not that much. Josh is very independent in his music. He knows what he wants. Finally, at the end of last year, it came together.

Here he is. Josh, you hearing us?

Joshua and Ulleni (photo by Wonai Haruperi)
Joshua and Ulleni (photo by Wonai Haruperi)

Joshua Madalitso Chiundiza: Yes. How are you?

Banning: Great. Thanks for doing this, Josh. Charles was just giving me a little background on the project, but I'm glad you're here. I work with a national radio program, Afropop Worldwide. We've been presenting African music on U.S. radio since 1988. Zimbabwe was one of the first places that I visited in Africa long back, and that led to me writing this book, Lion Songs, about Thomas Mapfumo. You may have seen it. So I've been to Zimbabwe many times and really love the music. I'm psyched about what you're doing because I like the way you're channeling some of the great old stuff into a modern, Afro-futuristic flow. I've been waiting for someone to go this way, and you are doing it, so that's cool, man. It's nice to meet you.

Thank you so much. Thank you for listening to the album.

My pleasure. So why don’t you tell me a little bit about your background and how you came to this project.

Yeah. I've I've been sort of experimenting and making music for about 12 years now. I started out in a hip-hop band called the Monkey Nuts. When we began, we were really deep into hip-hop. But then as as we progressed, we we sort of figured that we wanted to create maybe something that was a little bit more authentic, something that really tapped into Zimbabwe music. I think the whole concept of hip-hop itself sort of pushed us in that direction with a lot of the sampling production. A lot of producers were tapping into American culture. So we were just like, “Hey, maybe we can tap into our own musical heritage and see what we can do with that.” So that's really where it all started.

I'm interested in the way you bring sungura music into the mix. I've always really liked sungura, but I have a sense that on the urban scene, it's considered kind of un-hip. And even the Mapfumo gang were often dismissive of it. They saw it as borrowed music. Anyway, it’s an interesting choice to bring in. Talk to me about what sungura means to you and why you decided to sort of highlight it in the way you have on this album.

I think it's because of that factor, that it's not necessarily cool for the urban crowd. The urban crowd, they're listening to a lot of the stuff that comes out of the U.K. and the United States and other parts of the world. So there was just the fact that this is something that's popular, but it's not necessarily considered cool. The hip crowd won’t necessarily go for it. But we thought, maybe we can we can play around with this sound and see what we can come up with.

Do you have any sense on how that's going over? Are you getting radio play? Are you getting response from a local audience?

We have been getting good response. I would say so. There's an alternative young crowd that's really cropped up over the past five years. They've really come to the fore. They're tapping into African music a lot like, especially the Afrobeats coming out of Nigeria and stuff that's coming out of South Africa. So I guess they're sort of hungry to listen to new stuff coming out of Zim.

So we've been getting a lot of support there. There’s not too much radio play, to be honest. But we expected that because the big stations pay more attention to the urban sounds. But I think we’ve had a good response from the people who are keen to tap into alternative sounds.

The last time I was in Zimbabwe was 2018 when Mapfumo came back for his return concert. At that time, it seemed like the most popular music was zim-dancehall. Winky D was the top star.

And all that has maintained. That music has held its own.

Is it growing? Is it fading? What's its status in comparison with these imported sounds like amapiano and Afrobeats?

That's the thing, I think, is has actually morphed and taken on a lot of amapiano influences and Afrobeat influences, so it's not as pure, I guess.

Not that it was all that “pure” to begin with.

Yeah, exactly. But now it's really taken on the sounds of the continent at the moment.

It seems to me that you are not exactly resisting that trend, but insisting that if you do anything like that, it really has to have a strong Zimbabwean imprint. I mean, sampling Robson Banda and having sungura guitar, singing and shona and ndebele; this is really Zimbabwean music, which is what I've been missing in a lot of the new stuff. I think it's a big challenge now for artists all over the continent to assert local identity in the face of these massive waves of influence. Of course there have been other waves: Congo music, reggae, hip-hop, dancehall. These things can really take over. But talk about that challenge and how you feel about it as you roll this album out.

Yeah. It's a little frustrating because we have so much musical heritage to tap into, man. I'm not really sure why a lot of young artists aren't tapping into that musical heritage, but like you say, these Zimbabwean sounds are distinctly Zimbabwean, and I just feel like these are things that help to make us stand out from anywhere else on the continent. Of course, there's the influences from rumba and soukous and a lot of the East African guitar styles, but over the years, sungura and jit have sort of formed their own identities. And I think it's something that that we want to innovate on, really, at the end of the day, just to have that distinction, like, O.K., where is this from? This is from Zimbabwe.

When sungura started, it was kind of in parallel with styles like benga music in Kenya, but as best I know, that music in Kenya is not doing as well as sungura music is in Zimbabwe in terms of having maintaining an audience and maintaining artists and sales and all that. But as I say, I've always been really attracted to Zimbabwean music, and I think that's the strong foot to put forward in terms of having identity. We were just in Zanzibar for the Sauti Za Busara Festival, and we met this young artist from Harare, Nasibo. Do you know her?

Yeah, I do.

I thought her band was interesting in the similar kind of way in that they were young musicians, mixing a lot of genres and styles, but using distinctly Zimbabwean sounds. Would you agree?

Yeah, definitely. It's happening in a sort of small circle. I mean, I think there are artists that are very proud of that. Nasibo has an mbira element in her sound. So there are a lot of artists who are really determined to carry the sound of Zimbabwe. This has to be there, and they're sort of trying to figure out how best to create a cohesive sound with all the mixing of genres.

I think it's great that that's happening, because we need that to really have a progressive sort of music… I won't say industry, but a progressive music scene that incorporates our own local elements and trying to innovate on those elements.

I guess there's always been kind of an alternative scene, the acts you would see at the Book Cafe who are trying different things. So that has been there. But, boy, when I spent time in Zimbabwe in the late ‘90s, hanging out with Thomas Mapfumo, he was always complaining about the radio, how they were just addicted to foreign sounds. When there was a rule that they had to play 75 percent, local music, they'd play it at three in the morning when no one was listening. So I guess I'm wondering now, all these years later, has that changed at all? Is there any alternative radio that carries the flag for local music?

Not really. Yeah. I remember having a conversation with a group of friends about how, man, I wish we had an alternative radio station where we could just listen to because on the big radio stations, you're constantly bombarded by the same music over and over again. And even if you go out to the big clubs and bars and it's the same music over and over again. It's very frustrating when you think about it.

Another unfortunate thing is the venues, the live venue spaces. In some instances, they opt for DJs because they know that if they play a certain sound, they're going to attract a certain crowd and that's going to bring the money. It's kind of frustrating, and hard to find spaces for artists to fully express or to just experiment and bring something fresh or different. It's a very small number of venues that you can actually go and say, “I'm going to listen to a local band.” Especially since the Book Cafe shut down.

When did that happen?

I think that was 2012 or 2013. Not so long ago, but no one has really stepped up create a similar sort of thing.

Wow. It’s sad to hear that. The first time I went to Zimbabwe was 1988, and I have never seen a city with so much great live music. It was unbelievable. There'd be like five or six excellent bands playing till three in the morning, and we would be taxi-ing all over the city, seeing all these great groups. Man, it was just happening.

Photo by  Tusichile Kasito.
Photo by Tusichile Kasito.

But you say that in the last five years or so, you're sensing a change. It seems like there’s an opening for someone to start a venue that would really be focused locally, or to start a private radio station that would be specifically alternative? Why do you think that’s not happening?

I think it's two things. Funding is one, but I think funding is probably not the big barrier. I would say censorship is in a sense, because the government is always suspicious of anything that's driven by artists. There's a sense that there's more freedom of expression with the alternative styles. The stuff that you hear on radio… you rarely hear anything that really talks about politics or the economy or that really challenges the status quo in terms of the government and just how things are in Zimbabwe. And you'll find that a lot of the artists that play live and play in the alternative circles tend to be very politically charged. A lot of the music is not radio friendly.

Broadcasting that would definitely attract a lot of attention. “O.K., so you want to create an alternative radio station. What sort of music are you going to be playing?” Because a lot of the times when you record an album and you want to have it played on radio, you have to take it to the censorship board, and they have to allow it.

The censorship board. Now, I don’t think that existed before, did it? I was there in 2001 doing a I was researching a report about censorship. It was during the time when there was a big dustup over Oliver Mtukudzi’s song “Wasakara.” People thought it was criticizing Mugabe’s old age. The story I got was that there was there's no official censorship. But the word just kind of got around, like a whisper. Maybe we don't want to play that song. But now there's actually a censorship board that you have to get songs approved by? When did that start?

I think it's probably in the past 10 years that it's become really prominent. I know, for example, during the HIFA years, the Harare International Festival of the Arts, most artists would have to get clearance from the censorship board in order to perform.

I don't think the censorship board was really hard. But the fee they were asking for to feed the clearance was absolutely crazy. So many artists just decided to not to perform live because you had to pay and lose any potential benefits prior to the event. The problem in Zimbabwe, and this also relates to why no one is opening a live venue, is that the economic life in Zimbabwe doesn't make sense anymore. The cost of things is so high that you cannot maintain an activity that is at all fragile, like running a live music venue, if you're not a millionaire yourself.

So that's what happened to Book Cafe. They were functioning because of international funding, but when the funding got a bit dry, they were not in a position to maintain the venue. And because you had someone like Paul Brickhill, who had this international network and this charisma and history, so he was able to raise funds. But if you're not Brickhill, it's complicated.

Let’s come back to the album and talk about some of the songs. I certainly understand about the difficulty about having social and political messages in songs, having gone around a few bends with Mapfumo over the years. There were often arguments about what songs really mean and how honest and frank you can be in your lyrics. On your album, are you trying to pass any message that way? Maybe the opener, “Journey to Misava.”

Charles: I think we just lost Josh. But he’s coming back now.

Josh: Sorry, man. We've got no electricity in Zim. Lights out. So you can imagine how that affects the production of an album. That's why it took three years.

Charles: Yeah. Because Josh was recording everything at home, so you had to deal with this every time.

Josh: So “Journey to Misava.” I think the whole theme of the album really revolves around the concept of trying to shift the narrative from what people expect of Zimbabwe, what people think when they hear Zimbabwe. It's like, oh, Mugabe, or the economy or politics. There's more to the country than that.

You know, in the songs “Journey to Misava” and “Misava the Arrival,” we're trying to shift from one point to the next so that people have a fuller understanding, or a better understanding of what Zimbabwe is about and where we come from. So “Journey to Misava” is the beginning. It's sort of encouraging people to retrace their steps, tap into their heritage, tap into their roots, and use that as a blueprint to start this process of shifting from one point to the next. It's more of a cultural message.

I get that. Is Misava an actual place?

Misava means “earth” in Tonga. It’s a Tonga word. So it's like a journey back to earth, a journey back to life. That's pretty much what it means.

I like that you use different languages here. I think the Tonga up north get overlooked a lot. We talked a bit about sungura, which you evoke beautifully on the song “Bantu Electro Sungura.” What about the song “Bantu Cakes?

To be honest, I was inspired by two things. I've always been into electronic music. I love, love electronic music. It's one of my favorite old school sounds, The Pet Boys, Human League. But then also just the work of [singer] Comrade Chinks and [producer] Keith Farquharson that has that electronic sort of vibe. There's an early hits EP by Comrade Chinks that he worked on with Keith Farquharson. It's not necessarily the song. It's more the production. I remember we used to watch this Zimbabwean music show called Ezomgido, which played music from Zimbabwe, but also music from across the continent. And Comrade did a song called “Zvikomborero,” which was a really electronically driven track. This was in the mid-‘80s, just after independence, I think.

That EP of early hits was very electronically driven and had some really cool sounds and production.

I will check it out. Coming back to the album, “Don't Break” is a love song, and “Mqibelo (A Prayer for the Weekend)” is somewhat self-explanatory. Let's talk about “Mhondoro,” which is essentially a remix of a great Robson Banda song. I like what you did with it.

Yeah, that's one of my favorite Robson Banda songs. Interestingly enough, I read an article where the writer was asking where the spirit of [the revered ancestor spirit, or mhondoro] Nehanda is, because of the situation in the country. It was like, where is she? Is she watching? Is she seeing what's happening? If she's there, how come she's not talking to us? Are we listening? Has our culture changed so much that we're not interested in listening to our ancestors? That's sort of where I was when I was thinking about that song.

I produced that probably like, six, seven years ago, actually. But yeah. I remember distinctly reading an article about just questioning where Nehanda’s spirit is. Where's everything going?

This is a really cool album and we'll make some noise about it with this interview and stay in touch, man. I like what you're doing a lot and look forward to more.

Thank you for the opportunity. I've read a couple of your articles and I'm looking forward to buying that book and really reading it.

I wish it was available there. I know it’s tough to find.

I actually asked my brother to get me a copy. He's based in the U.S. He's coming soon, in June, so I'm going to be bugging him to sort of give me a copy of you.

Send him to me. I'll make sure he gets one. Thanks for the chat, and send my best to your collaborator Ulenni too. He's got a great voice.

Yeah, sure. I'll do that, cool. All right, man. Cheers. Bye bye. [Josh leaves the call.]

Thanks, Charles. I clearly need to hear more releases from your label, Nyami Nyami Records. I'm looking at your lineup here. Some interesting stuff.

Charles: We did some nice reissues, We're not really directed by any aesthetic or style. We're just happy with projects that, for us, sound different. They can be very popular in Zimbabwe, like this Robson Banda album, of course, and the Dumisani Maraire album, but outside of Zim, they're quite unknown. And we feel like maybe they could find an audience because, as Josh said very rightfully, the music has a very specific Zimbabwean sound. We were happy with this Dumisani album because there's one song where Chiwoniso [Dumi’s daughter] is singing when she's seven or eight years old.

Oh, that's beautiful. I want to hear that.

And Chiwoniso was the reason why we started the label, because we did record these late songs, including “Zvichapera.” She came in the studio for a day. I guess you used to know her, right?

Yes. I knew her quite well. She was fantastic.

Well, she came to the studio, but she was not in a good place emotionally, or physically. Anyway, she did record this song, and when we listened to the tracks, it was like, whoa! So amazing. And we just decided to create the record label so we can release these sounds.

Some of the late things she recorded with Keith Farquharson were really strong.

And she passed away, just months after that recording.

So sad. You know, Charles, we're planning to launch a new online format with more room to play more music. You’d be a great guest to talk about the music you’ve released.

Excellent. We're ready for everything.

We will stay in touch. Thanks again.

Afropop Weigh in on Afropop's digital future and download an exclusive concert from the archives—free!