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In the groove: Sungura music: The past, present and future

A lot of controversy has been going on in the last three decades regarding what Zimbabwean music should be called because there are traces of different forms of music in the genres.

Many Zimbabwean musicians fuse their music with versions of rumba, western pop music, jazz, reggae, dancehall and at times with South African mbaqanga beats.

However, from the few people I asked on the streets, many of them tell me that Zimbabwean music is called Sungura.

Sungura music (sometimes referred to as Museve) at some point used to be Zimbabwe’s most popular music genre. There were several artistes associated with this genre especially in the 1980’s and early 1990’s. These included the likes of Ephraim Joe and the Sungura Boys, John Chibadura, Simon and Naison Chimbetu (who later branded their Sungura to Dendera), Leonard Dembo, Khiama Boys, Mitchell Jambo, Ronnie Chataika, System Tazvida, Nicholas Zakaria (aka Senior Lecturer), Leonard Dembo, Pengaudzoke, Cephas Mashakada, Somandla Ndebele, Tongai   Moyo, Leonard Zhakata, Alick Macheso and many others.

Other genres outside Sungura came from the likes of Thomas Mapfumo who called his genre Chimurenga, Oliver Mtukudzi who called his genre Tuku Music or Katekwe and the Bhundu Boys who called theirs Jit.jive.

Many of the above Sungura musicians have died and apart from Alick Macheso and one or two others, there seems to be no-one carrying the sungura beat forward. Macheso recently released a rather luke-warm album titled: this year. No other Sungura artiste has released an album that I am aware of this year. If something was to happen to Macheso would this mean the end of Sungura?

Does this mean that the Sungura beat is slowly drifting away?

If so, what is the future of Sungura music?

This is certainly not the easiest question – but one that deserves speculation nonetheless.

Since music is such an integral part of our daily lives, to ask “what is the future of  Sungura music?” is really to ask a question about ourselves, and how music will continue to shape how we live.

The future of music will most likely follow the same trends we are seeing in modern technology.  It will be incredibly social similar to social media. It will become increasingly computer-based and driven, and lastly, it will serve as a window to the past, held open by any musicians continuing to create music in more traditional ways.

Social media allows for the nearly instant sharing of new music.

Let’s examine three different possibilities for the future of  Sungura music.  Keep in mind that these are of course speculative and in no way absolute.

What might be helpful first, is to briefly take a look at what music is, the intention behind music, and how it relates to technology.

How does this relate to music?

Music, being an art form, and sharing that same intention, follows this pattern.  Although its purpose or intention remains the same, how it presents itself changes.

For example, imagine trying to create Devera Ngwena’s masterpiece Solo on a phonograph.  Would it have been possible? Definitely not.  The technology could not have supported what was needed to create it.  But with today’s technology, a simple tool like the smartphone, if properly handled, will bring that sound again. I will explain how we can use our cellphones to record music in detail below.

With that said, how we express ourselves through art, and the art we create is entirely and irrevocably tangled in both the current state of available technology and past art.

All this to say, that music will almost certainly follow the path of emerging technology and build upon the cultural identities it and other art forms have previously created.

This leads us to the question, what current technology is shaping how we create music?

Over the past two decades, there has been a shift in how we communicate.  Messages that once took personal interaction to convey, can now be made almost instantly, and across almost any distance..

Contrast that with the distribution process of today.  For a fraction of the cost (a very small fraction) an album or song can be almost instantly distributed world-wide.

And this expense is only incurred if you’re not considering the free distribution that comes with services like YouTube, or SoundCloud.

With this increased ease of releasing music, and the barrier-to-entry no longer present, more people will decide to create and release their music.

(In fact, this has already happened. The complete saturation of the musical landscape can be observed simply by scrolling through the new releases section on any music-based website.)

As our communication becomes increasingly influenced and dependent on technology, and releasing music becomes easier, many people will use music as a means not to create a career – but as a social endeavour, or form of communication.

Furthermore, music as a social endeavour will increase as the means of making music becomes easier.

Perhaps this sounds far-fetched but as I mentioned above, consider the music-making process today.

With an hour of your time, you could download a sample, loop it, sing or rap over it, add effects using pre-sets, export it as an MP3, and send it either directly to your friends, or indirectly using social media.  

The end result may not be perfect, but it’s still an option for anyone with a computer.

Now imagine the capabilities of a cell phone 20 years from now.  It has a better designed; better sounding microphone and an ability to process data faster and in larger quantities..

On this phone is an application that can create customisable or algorithmically generated loops.   It can process effects and offers surprisingly good sounding pre-sets that use pre-defined measurements to balance the sound.

With this application, the user is able to record their voice, quickly produce a song, and export it to a social media platform or to a larger online distributor like Spotify.

 I have in the past received such music made from a cellphone from some youngsters with musical aspirations but who cannot afford to pay for a recording session in a professional recording studio.

If this sounds strange or unlikely, think again.  Today, this technology is already available to every smartphone user.  Does it sound perfect? No, but it offers the possibility to easily create music.

As this technology improves, and engineering music becomes easier and more immediate, the barriers-to-entry will become virtually non-existent. 

When this happens, making music will become a social endeavour available to almost everyone.

There’s no way to tell what this means for artistry – if music will become better or worse overall.  But we can say with almost certainty, music creation will become possible for more people. If this happens, we might be lucky to have a resuscitation of Sungura in Zimbabwe.

As a result, we can expect music to continue on its current decentralised path.  It is no longer a select few that hold the means of creating and releasing music – it will soon become an option for anyone.

Music companies such as Zimbabwe Music Corporation, Gramma Records and Record and Tape Productions that have existed in the past will remain in the past, but the extent to which Sungura will also remain in the past is still unknown.

We do hope that the Machesos, the Ndebeles, the Sulumani Chimbetus and other sungura artistes would mentor up-and-coming Sungura musicians to keep this genre alive. Hopefully, Radio DJs such as Themba Mkanda would continue to play this genre at their stations.

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